January 25th, 2019
The craggy coves and caves of the Welsh coast were once the perfect hiding place for smugglers and their wares as they travelled the length of the coast looking for trade. Join us as we delve into this fascinating coastal history.
The distinctive shape of the Welsh coastline has been formed over thousands of years as even the toughest rocks are eventually shaped by the unrelenting and wearing force of the sea. And it is this distinctive shape, with its thousands of craggy coves and secret caves, which harbours a dark and sinister past. The Welsh coast was once home to a thriving smuggling industry, with smugglers finding hind-outs and dens all along the coastline in an attempt to stay hidden from the law – the isolated coves and hidden inlets of the Welsh coast provided the sanctuary and secrecy they needed.
Smuggling is an age old crime that boomed in Britain during the 18th and early 19th century because of very high taxes. This led to a huge increase in illegal imports that were usually cheaper and more freely available than the legal equivalents, and smuggling changed from a small-scale pastime into a violent and valuable industry. Smuggled goods were usually luxury items like alcohol, tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco, all of which were highly taxed.
These illegal imports were shipped to Britain from all over the world and the coast of Wales provided the ideal landing areas for smugglers and their wares. Most parts of coastal Wales were still fairly rural and isolated, which meant that the smugglers could go about their business with much less risk of being caught. The caves and secret coves of the coast were used to store contraband until they had been sold or distributed to customers.
The northern-most coast of Wales between England and Anglesey was rife with smugglers and their wares during the mid 18th century because of its proximity to the Isle of Man. The island at the time wasn’t part of Britain so it was an ideal place to produce and store smuggled goods before shipping them over to Britain, the first shore they reached being the coast of North Wales.
One of the most famous smugglers in Wales was William Owen. Born in 1717, he was the son of a wealthy farmer from Pembrokeshire. Owen shunned the farming life and joined the crew of a trading ship when he was just 15 years old. His father soon gave him some money to buy his own ship and he began his trading business at just 16, although he quickly realised that there was much more money to be made in illegal trade. He smuggled goods from the Isle of Man but got caught on his first trip! He lost his ship and everything he owned.
Undeterred, he fled to the West Indies and joined a smuggling ship there. He became a notorious and ruthless smuggler and his exploits took him all over the world. Sadly, the end of his life was a little less gallant – he was involved in a burglary and shot the policeman who was chasing him. He was tried, and convicted of murder in Carmarthen in 1747. He was hanged soon after, aged just 30. Unlike other smugglers, his catalogue of adventures is so well documented because he wrote them all down. The manuscript is kept at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
The smuggling industry subsided during the mid nineteenth century as the government lowered taxes and increased patrols along the coastline to catch smugglers in the act. The punishments were severe – with lengthy gaol sentences and even hanging for the worst offenders.
Today, the Welsh coastline is a much more peaceful place, but it’s easy to feel the intriguing history in the salty sea air and the dark, hidden coastal coves.