"Smuggling in Llyn"

O.K. put your hands up, how many of you can say that you’ve never smuggled? Or bought goods that had been smuggled? If I had asked that question thirty or more year ago, most hands would be up in the air. Then, foreign travel was preserved for the well heeled, and / or those who either made their living working abroad, the armed forces or the merchant navy. Holidays back then were in the most part spent at home, a day trip to Rhyl, or by the sea in a cottage, tent or caravan, I can’t ever remember anyone from Rhiw going on their holidays abroad, and the only smuggled item I saw was a cigarette lighter, that had been brought through customs at Holyhead, by a farmer that had been over to Ireland buying store cattle.

Today things are very much different, a lot of people regularly go abroad, and two weeks in Spain or Greece will set you back no more than a fortnights pay, consequently nearly half the population go to the sun once or even twice a year, and so smuggling is very much a growth industry. I am not going to condone this pastime, as some of it as you well know is very sinister and evil, drugs and guns are just two examples that spring to mind, there are others like “people smuggling” that has been exposed recently. But in the most part we only indulge in the smuggling of some tobacco, alcohol, perfume, and lace for the old mother in law!!! The reason we do this is twofold, goodies like the above mentioned are much cheaper on the continent, or even unobtainable in this country, plus of course there is the added thrill of just getting away with it. 


Smuggling has a very old and colorful history, largely connected with the sea, as one of the main highways of trade between countries. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars 1793~1801 and 1803~1805, when Britain was largely cut off from trade with much of Europe, smuggling, particularly in French brandies and lace, became almost an industry, and the British government was forced to maintain a large fleet of fast sailing cutters known as the “Preventive Service”, to attempt to cut off the smugglers before they could land their valuable cargos.

Smuggling around Llyn

According to the historian David Thomas in his book “Hen Longau Sir Gaernarvon” (Old Caernarvonshire ships), the Llyn Peninsula was very popular with smugglers, this is understandable when you consider that much of the coastline is remote and has many dozens of coves and creeks, that were perfect for entering in the dead of night, dropping off the booty, and be away, and over the horizon, well before first light.

The list of goods that was smuggled into Llyn is quite staggering, apart from the obvious, brandy, rum, porter and tobacco. Tea, wine, snuff, candles, linen, salt and even welsh language bibles (which were printed in Dublin) were all at one time or another firm favorites. The stories about the smuggling of salt to Llyn from Ireland in its self could fill a book, and a lot of this was done by local men, salt was a quarter of the price in Ireland in 1808 compared to what it was on Llyn, plus there was 16% duty to be added, which put the price of this vital commodity out of reach for the majority of users, such as the herring processors for example.


In the 17th century tea was expensive, partly because it was still a relatively rare commodity, but mainly because of the imposition of duties and taxes on tea and other beverages. For most of the 18th century the high cost of tea in Britain led to smuggling, and a thriving black market. By 1834 the reduction in the tax on tea opened the way to free trade, and now much more accessibly priced, replaced ale and gin as the drink of the masses.

"A cave at Porthor (Whistling Sands) that was used by Smugglers"

The Ships

The ships that they used differed considerably from the coastal vessels of the day, they were light with tall masts, sloop or ketch (for and aft) rigged but carried much more sail, consequently very fast, so that they could out run the navy cutters, which often prowled the coast. They could also sail very close to the wind, this came in handy when taking in and out of narrow bays and estuaries. Their crew was larger as well, instead of the normal two or three; they would have ten or more, which were needed to sail these lively little ships, unload their cargo quickly, and even fight their corner, if they were intercepted by the law.

Accounts of smuggling around Llyn

1587. French privateer in distress at Porthdinllaen Bay.

1647. Bardsey Island attacked by pirates.

1650. Bardsey Island again attacked.

1716. Customs built a storehouse at Porthdinllaen.

1725. Smuggling riots at Nevin.

1729. First Customs Office appointed to Nevin.

1735. Thomas Williams, a native of Wales, found guilty of piracy at the Old Bailey and hanged.

In February 1763, a smuggler was unloading rum at Porthdinllaen, when she was approached by a “Preventive Service” cutter, the smugglers threatened to sink the cutter with one of her fifteen guns.

On the evening of May 5th 1767 a French ship anchored in Aberdaron bay, and soon after ten well armed members of her crew came ashore in a boat, they had ten barrels of brandy, and a chest full of tea to sell, with an asking price of £10, but the locals found this to expensive. The ship fired one of her canons, to call the men back on board, and they left the next day. They later sold the booty in Aberteifi.

1780. Capt. Timothy Edwards of Nanhoron, who was in command of the 76-gun ship “Cornwall” died.

1785. A large smuggling cutter was temporarily disabled on the rocks at Porthdinllaen and was seized by the Customs Officer.

1786. Boat seized at Porthdinllaen after being in communication with a smuggling lugger. Another lugger sailed from there for Bardsey.

1791. In February a smuggling lugger and French Privateer seen off Porthdinllaen.

1791. Customs boat seized at Porthdinllaen by a smuggling lugger.

In 1809 a Preventive Service cutter, spotted a small 25 ton smack at anchor at Porth Cadlan, Rhiw, and men could be seen unloading bags off her onto the beach. When they gave chase, none of them were caught, but two bags of salt were found hidden in a potato field on top of the cliffs. The smack had neither name nor registration.

In 1814 there was a heavy tax on salt. Restrictions were stringent and salt became difficult to procure, two natives of Llangwnadle who possessed a boat took a trip to Ireland to buy the untaxed salt there. They brought it back to Lleyn, evading the Customs when selling. In spite of the success of the venture, the story got round, and Government officials swooped down, and the two men were imprisoned at Caernarvon. One of them, William Williams, decided to escape and tearing his bedclothes into strips, made a temporary rope with which he descended safely to the ground and ran  home to Lleyn. When the officials tracked him down, his mother hid him in a churn. When they left, he dressed up as a woman, boarded a ship in Liverpool and finally reached the U.S.A. where he lived for many years.

In June 1824 a schooner on her way from Guernsey to the river Clyde called at Hells Mouth Rhiw, and offloaded lace, tea, brandy and gin, she is said to have been there for a few days. Richard Edwards the squire at Nanhoron, wrote to the customs complaining, that if their cutter was at St Tudwals roads instead of Pwllheli, the smugglers would have been caught. “Having the cutter at Pwllheli is a waste of time” he said, “She might as well be stationed at Charing Cross!!!”

In 1834 the Tax on almanacs was repealed. It used to be the custom for sailors that call at Dublin on their voyages to Ireland to buy almanacs. Some of these were printed in Welsh at a penny each. These were smuggled into Wales and sold at a profit.

"Boaz Brandy"


Sometimes the inevitable would happen, and if caught the penalties for smuggling were severe, and one could look forward to life imprisonment, or even a hanging, The ships would be impounded and sold at auction, but other smugglers would usually buy the boats, and there is one account of a ship being sold three times to her original owner in this manner, so to stop this, any ship that had a smuggler rig would be destroyed.

A Smugglers Letter from jail

Smuggling on Llyn (II)       Custom Officers


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