The Salt Smugglers of Mawddach
"The only thing worse than a smuggler is the excise man who tries to catch him!"
Dr. Samuel Johnson 1709 - 1784
In 1693, King William III was short of cash. “I need more money,” he told his tax collectors.
“Tea, bibles, brandy, wine, lace, candles, linen; we are taxing everything we can think of,” they replied.
“That’s not good enough,” shouted the King.
“What about a tax on windows?” said one of the tax collectors.
“That’s a silly idea,” answered the King.
“I know, a tax on salt,” suggested another.
“Salt!” sneered the King.
“Your majesty, everyone in the kingdom uses salt for cooking. They must have salt to preserve fish and meat. Bakers use salt to make bread and dairies need salt to make butter,” they explained.
“A salt tax will make your Majesty lots of money,” added the tax collectors.
“It’s a capital idea. I like it,” replied the King.
Salt offices were set up throughout the land and the tax collectors began their unpopular work.
King William was pleased but he was an extravagant monarch.
“I need more money,” he cried.
“There are still the windows. We haven’t taxed them yet,” said his tax collectors.
“I agree. We will have a tax on windows,” ordered the King.
The revenue men built Custom Houses across the land to collect the tax. One was built at Barmouth, at the mouth of the Afon Mawddach.
Sir William Jones lived in a grand house near the town. Each day the people saw him out riding a beautiful horse or being driven in his carriage.
“What a refined gentleman. He must come from a noble family,” they said as he rode past.
But Sir William had a dark secret; he was the leader of a ruthless gang of smugglers.
When the nights were dark, his men would quietly row down the Afon Mawddach, past the harbour entrance and out to sea where ships would anchor, waiting for the smugglers and the morning tide.
“What’s the cargo,” whispered Sir William to a ships captain on such a night.
“1000 bushels of salt from Ireland,” replied the captain.
“It will be a good pay day for the revenue men when you land at Barmouth,” smirked Sir William.
“Aye, it’s a crime. The tax is more than the salt is worth,” replied the Captain.
“I can take 500 bushels and pay you gold,” said Sir William and shook his purse to show he had the coins.
The crew unloaded the sacks of salt into the little boats while Sir William went with the Captain to his cabin and paid his debt.
“Let us toast our good fortune,” said the Captain and poured two glasses of Brandy.
“To the King. Thanks for his greed, the people’s hatred and our good luck,” said Sir William and took a gulp.
He drained the glass.
“It’s a fine brandy. Do you have any more?” he asked.
“Aye, twenty barrels hidden in the hold,” replied the Captain.
“I’ll buy them all,” cried Sir William.
They agreed a price and the barrels of brandy were loaded into the boats.
“Look out for the revenue cutter,” called the Captain as the smugglers began to row away.
Sir William smiled to himself. He knew exactly where the revenue men were. He had paid them well to stay in their beds. The smugglers were safely ashore before the sun came up.
“Where shall we hide the contraband?” asked one-eyed Jack.
“Use the cave at Trwyn Glanmor,” answered Sir William.
One eyed Jack was a surly fellow and as greedy as his master. He took four barrels of brandy for himself and hid them in Llanaber churchyard. The hollow, table tomb in the graveyard was his own secret hiding place.
Sir William soon discovered the theft but he said nothing about it.
“We have heavy work to do tonight,” said Sir William a few nights later.
The tide carried the little boats quickly out to sea where a ship was waiting.
“We must be quick about our work tonight. There is a new revenue officer in Barmouth who can’t be bribed,” whispered Sir William.
The men worked quietly while their leader paid the ships master.
“Where are you bound?” asked Sir William.
“We sail for America,” replied the captain.
“Here is an extra 100 guineas,” said Sir William.
“What’s it for?” asked the skipper.
“I want you to take one-eyed Jack with you and throw him overboard when you are far out to sea,” replied Sir William.
“That’s easy money,” said the captain and took the hundred guineas.
The smugglers left one-eyed Jack bound and gagged in the hold of the ship.
Years passed and Sir William forgot about one-eyed Jack. The revenue men were offering rewards for information and went armed, intent on shooting smugglers on sight. Smuggling was getting dangerous and Sir William wanted to retire.
“One last trip and that’s it,” he promised himself.
The moon was in its first quarter and there was a light offshore breeze as the smugglers rowed downstream. They passed Barmouth harbour and were soon out to sea. The sea was choppy and the smugglers had to row hard.
“There she is, on the port side,” called Sir William pointing to a ship.
As they approached the ship another vessel came into view.
The smugglers heard a cry, “Heave to or we open fire”.
“It’s the customs men. Row for your lives,” yelled Sir William.
A cannon roared and one of the smugglers boats disintegrated. Sir William’s boat made it to the ship. He clambered aboard leaving his men floundering below. On the deck a row of muskets were levelled at his chest.
“Move and my men will shoot you down,” said the Revenue Officer.
“Is this the man?” asked the Revenue Officer.
A man stepped out of the shadows. “That’s him. Sir William Jones, Gentleman, Murderer and Smuggler. Remember my reward and that you promised him to me,” said the man, pointing to Sir William. It was one-eyed Jack, returned from the dead.
“You’ll get your reward money. As for him; I’m as good as my word,” said the Revenue Officer and ordered his men ashore.
“What about me,” cried Sir William.
“We are going on a little sea voyage together,” sneered one-eyed Jack and laughed.
Sir William Jones, Gentleman from Barmouth, was never seen again.