The Smugglers of Culver hole.
In 1702, a new crown treasury department was established, the Salt Office. A tax on salt had existed since 1644 but an expensive war with France left William III’s treasury empty and the new Salt Office’s role was to collect the tax the rate of which William had just increased. The tax was now being levied at several times the cost of the salt. Salt was an ideal commodity to tax. Everyone needed salt. It was used to preserve meat and fish, make butter, bake bread, season food, cure leather and make soap. Salt has been a valuable commodity from earliest times. Roman soldiers, it was said, were sometimes paid with salt from which we get the word salary. William’s tax on salt hit the poor particularly hard. Suddenly there was a new business opportunity for enterprising individuals willing to take a risk; smuggling salt.
Salt wasn’t the only commodity being taxed by the king. There were similar taxes on other products including beer, candles, soap and leather all of which hurt the people with little money to begin with. The wealthy fared little better with taxes on wine, gold and silver thread, silver plate, horses, coaches and even hats were taxed. Everyone resented paying the taxes and looked for ways to avoid them. Buying smuggled goods to avoid tax became socially acceptable. Smugglers were admired and the excise men whose job it was to collect the hated taxes, reviled.
Wales, with its long coastline, remote coves and beaches, was perfect for smuggling and the Welsh with their traditions of seamanship and distaste for authority, made ideal smugglers. In South Wales, the Gower gained a particular reputation as a haven for smugglers. The gangs who smuggled may have been popular with their customers but smuggling was dangerous work and the men who did it risked stiff penalties including execution if caught. To be hanged for smuggling was no worse than being hanged for a killing and these men were prepared to kill if needed to avoid capture. One gang, led by John Lucas, was exceptionally notorious. Lucas had spent several years in France during which he established contacts happy to help his smuggling enterprise.
The gang’s hideout was in the old salt house at Port Eynon. Evaporating seawater to collect salt was no longer profitable, the new taxes having seen to that, and the derelict salt house on the water’s edge was an ideal base for the smugglers. Port Eynon, with its single track for access and being miles from anywhere served the smugglers well. The local people knew what was going on but they were all involved and happy to avoid putting money in the king’s pocket.
In 1696, William III introduced a tax on the number of windows in a house causing more resentment. The tax resulted in windows being removed and the voids being bricked up to evade paying. From William III’s window tax we get the expression, ‘Daylight robbery.’
It was late one night as the smugglers left the Salt House. There was no moon and a damp mist was drifting in from the sea. They waited for their eyes to become accustomed to the gloom and then, without a word, followed the track down to the cove. A string of mules plodded silently along behind the men. The boat landed just after midnight. The gang ran along the shore and began to unload the cargo. Casks of brandy and rum, crates of tobacco and parcels of fine French lace were loaded onto the mules and driven away. It was slow, heavy work and took several trips to get the cargo to the safety of the cave.
There was just one last load when the smugglers saw lights moving along the beach towards them. Several shots rang out but the range was too great. The smugglers drove the mules around the point, away from the pursuing customs men. There were more shots and a smuggler, who had been trying to push away the boat, fell dead in the water, shot through the head.
By the 1720’s the smugglers were so powerful that they were able to have all the customs officers in Swansea summoned for jury service on a day when a large cargo of contraband was unloaded in the harbour.
The smugglers reached the headland, stopped and fired a volley at the advancing revenue men. The king’s men, happy that they had captured the boat but unwilling to risk their lives further, stopped the pursuit. Lucas and his men hid the last of their booty in Culver Hole, the cave they always used. Then, to avoid the revenue men, they returned from the cave to the Salt House along a secret passageway, inside the cliff. From there the smugglers quietly dispersed to their homes. It had been a busy night’s work and Lucas knew the revenue men would be back.
The following day, a squad of customs officers arrived in Port Eynon and visited the Inn where they asked for directions to the Salt House. The landlord, realising their intent, delayed them with an offer of grog and sent a message to Lucas warning him of the danger. By the time they arrived Lucas was ready and, despite a thorough search, they found nothing to incriminate their suspect. There was no contraband and the revenue men knew nothing of the secret passage or the cave it led to.
During the next few days Port Eynon was searched several times and eventually their efforts produced a find. A cask of fine brandy was discovered in the loft of a barn. A trap was set. Two customs men waited, guarding the brandy, ready to arrest the unsuspecting owner when he returned.
Hearing the news, Lucas collected a party of locals together and, giving the impression that they were unaware of the King’s men hiding above them, had a loud gathering in the barn with dancing and revelry. In the morning, one of the customs men went to move the cask and, to his surprise, found that it was empty. During the night someone had drilled a hole up through the floor and into the barrel, collecting the brandy into flasks as it drained away.
The Revenue had a breakthrough when, in 1804, a cache of loot was discovered on Oxwich Beach and 420 kegs of brandy seized. Orders were given for the contraband to be taken to Swansea, but not all of it arrived. A horde of several hundred people surrounded the troop and mobbed them. They were only persuaded to leave when offered some of the drink. The fifty soldiers guarding the brandy then began to complain that they were being unfairly treated and they too were allowed to help themselves. Seventeen of the kegs then vanished.
John Lucas could be a violent man but he was also a realist. He knew that to keep his secrets, he needed the support of the local community and they were well rewarded for their silence. At different times there was so much contraband arriving that more hiding places were needed. Kegs were hidden in the church altar. The Beaufort Inn was used with more barrels arriving in the cellar than leaving. Contraband was even buried in holes dug on the beach.
Aware of the increased smuggling activity, the revenue men tried harder to catch the culprits. Eight armed vessels, known as ‘Sea Fencibles’, were stationed along the coast, near Port Eynon, to apprehend the incoming boats and shore patrols were stepped up.
Despite some successes by the revenue, John Lucas continued smuggling and his secret contraband hidden deep in the cliffs at Culver Hole, was never discovered. Lucas’ escapades, narrow escapes and support by the local community became the stuff of legend.
Another smuggling gang, led by William Arthur, was based at Barry Island. Arthur, described as the most daring smuggler in Glamorgan, was a major employer in the area and was said to have lived like a king. In 1786, a squad of revenue men attempted to arrest Arthur but were driven off by more than 100 of his followers. Two more attempts by the king’s men also failed.
A 2012 estimate by HM Revenue and Customs reported an annual shortfall of £2.3bn in tax revenue caused by smuggling of tobacco and alcohol.
Although it was seen as romantic, smuggling in the 18th Century was a brutal, nasty and dangerous business, where large profits were made by ruthless men. Smugglers may not be bringing barrels of brandy ashore in hidden coves late at night, but the tradition of evading taxes, illegal as it is, has continued to this day.