Thursday, June 01, 2006
The background to my current work-in-progress, Devil's Prize, is smuggling in Cornwall in the late 1790s. The Cornish believed the government in London knew little and cared less about the grinding poverty in which they lived. In their opinion it was the natural right of every Cornishman to buy goods as cheaply as possible, and they had no intention of obeying laws against smuggling that were enforced by people given a share of the goods that were seized.
The strange object in the picture beside the pistol is a spout lantern. These were specially made for smugglers by local craftsmen. The long spout showed a pinpoint of light in only one direction. This made it ideal for signalling boats loaded with contraband.
It's been fascinating to discover that words and phrases we use now, often in a different context, were actually coined by smugglers and those determined to catch them.
The coast is clear is a term that originated with smugglers. So too is a flash in the pan which was the signal made by a special pistol to inform the captain of a smuggling boat that it was safe to land his cargo.
In the late 18th century smugglers used to wear leather seaboots that were thigh-high and wide at the top, ideal for hiding and bringing ashore contraband tobacco. Hence the term bootlegger.
Rummage originated with revenue men to describe their searches for hidden contraband.
Brandy was transported in tubs called half-ankers weighing roughly 50 lbs each. These were carried from beach to hiding place (or waiting pack-horses) by men strong enough to manage two at a time suspended from a short pole. But with such a burden they were vulnerable to attack. Protecting them was the job of batmen armed with staves and cudgels. Some occasionally carried a pistol, though being caught with a firearm while smuggling meant an automatic death sentence.
More next time.
Dangerous Waters Pub. Robert Hale 2006. Available from www.Amazon.co.uk