"Smuggling on Llyn"


Mr O J Cowell

The exciting saga of smuggling that existed for generations around the coast of Wales has been long forgotten. It is interesting to note that such activity was not considered a crime until 1536 when it was made a capital offence. Highway robbery on the other hand, had always treated differently, with the caught culprits being rewarded with a visit to the gallows!?
The most active period for smuggling was during and after the Elizabethan period (1558-1603). Wordsworth described this interesting age with its discoveries and its social and religious upheavals as " great Elizabethan golden times". The growing population and developing industrialisation led to an increasing demand for food, which brought a new degree of prosperity to Wales because English traders looked upon Wales as a ready source to satisfy these new demands making the roast beef of England, largely Welsh. In turn, this situation led to acceleration of new and more profitable agricultural systems, creating a new and more affluent " middle class " in Welsh society. These sea-borne criminals were allowed complete freedom on the High seas following the decline in the power of the Royal Navy since 1434 coupled with the low morality and corruption in the Admiralty and Offices of State. Smuggling around the Welsh coast was considerably less than that along the South coast with its close proximity to the Continent, which led the authorities to concentrate their personnel and cutters there.
The difficult economic conditions of the time because of oppressive taxes on basic necessities of life by an avaricious government encouraged smuggling. The increasing available ready money by merging middle class who exhibiting the universal human desire of a bargain with these smugglers who desired a quick sale so they could quickly return to the safety of the sea were also important factors. The public considered these criminals to be public benefactors and they were completely indifferent as to the source of these goods and completed their deals without any qualms of guilt These acts were always surrounded with a conspiracy of silence, comparable to today's Mafia's "Omerta ".

These smugglers were confident men who they ignored the very severe penalties that faced them if they were caught. Should such an occurrence happen they knew that they could rely on the help of local important court officials who were their customers. The authorities were continually frustrated in their efforts to prosecute successfully biased juries discharged the offenders even if they were blatantly caught in possession of and were openly selling their goods Apprehended smugglers could be sometimes be sentenced to transportation or released if they agreed to joined the RN and sign a bond that they would never again transgress. In these very early days sailors who were always superstitious sailed within sight of the land because they were fearful that they might be driven by the wind beyond the horizon to fall into some deep pit, never to be seen again Lleyn at this time was thinly populated by many small hamlets of improvised people living in dark unhealthy thatched houses made of earth on land, which belonged to the various estates such as Nanhoron, Madryn etc. The economy of the area was agriculturally based, chiefly concerned due to its mild weather, with the growing of crops and the rearing of cattle an activity quaintly described by John Williams as " The Spanish fleet which brought the little gold and silver that we had ". Bardsey Island with its many caves was discovered and used by smugglers as a storehouse for their goods following their visits where they often called to replenishing food and water much to the delight of the islanders. The great fear of the local sailors to these pirates and smugglers was another reason why honest sailors sailed close to the comparative safety of the land. Pwllheli's only shopkeeper in 1580 I am sure would be an active participant in such activities with offers of cheaper cargoes of wine, salt, tobacco and iron to tempt his customers. Local trade suffered grave repercussions during a serious decline because of the importation of grain during the series of regular crop failure that plagued the country at that time. These conditions made food very expensive and beyond the means of most of the population, with the poor resorting to eating raw turnips and forced to sell what little furniture they had even their beds, to feed their children.

The situation was further aggravated because wages had not risen with the cost of living, making cash very scarce e.g. the wages on the Buckley estate in Anglesey were as follows...

William Bevan, miller, half year 1.7.6


Robert Evans, postilion 1.0.0


Jane Michael, maid 0.15.0

These smugglers invariably arrived after darkness had fallen, after been assured by signals from their local agents that no Custom cutters were in the area. Once the ship had grounded signalled a highly organised and efficient action of unloading on to the backs of horses and farm carts, to be quickly transported to the depths of the country, a process that took less than an hour.
The first record of a ship calling at Pwllheli was one from Fowley and Bristol in 1373 selling wine, followed by another in 1380. A further visitation by a French ship in 1405 selling wine had been noted, followed in 1533 by a Portuguese ship selling salt, wine and spices. These spices were very expensive, bought only by the rich adding new taste to their jaded palates and possibly hiding the flavour of " high " meats in pre-refrigeration days The absence of roads made Lleyn like many other parts of Great Britain an isolated area. Aberdaron a pretty village at the tip of the peninsula was well known throughout England because it was the embarkation point for the multitude of pilgrims going to the Holy Abbey on Bardsey Island. This abbey had been established in the sixth century by St Cadfan, and had become an important spiritual retreat and educational centre, comparable to lona and Lindisfarne.
The muddy potholed tracks which served as roads, and flimsy bridges which were easily swept away, made travelling dangerous, difficult and uncomfortable. Consequently, people were loathed to travel and spent their whole lives within their own parishes. These conditions were often useful to cunning local dignitaries like Henry Bodfael a J.P, pleaded that it was impossible for him to travel to the Court at Caernarfon in 1635 because the roads were impassable, in order to avoid appearing in a "sensitive " case which could possibly prove to be embarrassing to him.

Those few intrepid travellers usually went to their destination by sailing in the small coastal ships to the nearest port and walking the rest of the way. A good illustration of this uncomfortable travelling was described by Thomas Pennant who complained that it took six miserable days for him to travel from Chester to London in 1739 along pitted rough roads, which were always susceptible to landslides and flooding. These isolated small towns and hamlets were to a very large extent a self-sufficient society, inhabited by workers of the soil and craftsmen whose skills have long disappeared. Commodities that they could not grow were brought by small ships that hugged the coast from me larger industrial towns such as salt and iron. There were few occasional visits by enterprising peddlers, licensed by magistrates, who ventured in groups through the lonely mountain passes bringing with them interesting news from the outside world and of course, attractive new and novel goods which ladies as always, find irresistible. The people were exuberant, joyful and within the confines of their hard existence lived their lives to the full. Their life like their diet was simple, meat as early records show was always boiled, roast meat was an exception on special occasions. During the slowly progressive prosperity of Elisabeth's reign the consumption of meat by the working class increased. The water in the wells were prone to be infected and in the absence of tea and coffee home brewed beer or brag a beer sweetened and spiced with herbs was their drink, Mead was also a popular drink, their bread made up of a mixture of rye and wheat called maslin or monk corn. Pennant in his books writes that the Welsh people ate more meat than bread and he maintained that oats was their main diet. He also compared the lot of the working people with the rich living in the monasteries, which he witnessed after staying at such an establishment at Cambridge where he enjoyed a six-course dinner with nothing but the best wine to drink. The people despite their healthy outdoors life style was bereft of any sense of hygiene and a balanced diet making them prone to disease and early death. The few doctors that were lived in distant cities. Plaque, dysentery and typhus were the most dreaded prevalent diseases of the time with people sought relief, by visiting holy wells and praying before Holy relics. They were very independent people strong in body and character which was forged by the many adversities they had to contend with, to survive.

An example of their independence could be seen in the Wigfair M.S. at the National Library at Aberystwyth. The Privy Council on 7 March 1589, (the year after the Armada) ordered all Nefyn sailors between the ages of between 16 and 65 yrs of age, to report to the local representative of the Vice Admiral of North Wales and were further charged not to leave home and be available at three hours notice to leave for duty! Absent sailors were to have their names recorded and charged not to sail again. These orders from unknown authorities were treated with great disdain, despite futile effort of the local J.P. to enforce the law only to be subjected to much abuse forcing him to retire in despair from the scene. These blatant refusal to these governmental orders in a period of great stress following the Armada, were considered so serious by the authorities, that the Vice Admiral of North Wales, no less an important person than Sir John Wynn of Gwydir himself, came to the township to enforce the law. These Vice- admiral offices were appointed to each county and they were empowered to hold their own court but the arrival of this worthy gentleman on the Sabbath did nothing to help his cause, never the less, one is rather perplexed by the usefulness of these fifty-two local untrained fishermen on a man-of- war. Following the Act of Union 1636, landowners and squires were appointed to the influential local Crown offices, such as Justices of the Peace. Sir Thomas Smith in 1665 described such appointments, as "The Japes be those in whom at this time for the repression of robbers, thief's and vagabonds, of persons corrupt and violence and all misdemeanors in the Commonwealth, the price to be put in his special trust" The isolation of Lleyn allowed these newly appointed local officials the luxury of exercising a monopoly of applying the law without any challenge, and more often than not, to their own advantage but not all these exalted judicial officials were dishonest. During the turmoil of the Civil War in 1640 Richard Edwards, Nanhoron, and Geoffrey Parry, Rhydolion, both distinguished and resolute Puritans were determined that all earthly pleasures should be paid for, attempted to curtail smuggling in Lleyn by strict policing of the coastal waters. The principle goods involved in this activity were gin, brandy, tea, salt and iron, this naturally, made them very unpopular in the area, who in the main professed allegiance to the House of the Stuarts.

The scale of smuggling in the United Kingdom had become so serious that it caused much concern in the Exchequer London, e.g. authorities At the treasury estimated that out of an importation of 600,000 Ibs of tea into the country 500,000 Ibs was smuggled. The coves of the southern coast of Lleyn such as St Tudwal's Roads provided a convenient haven for ships during stormy weather, despite the always-present danger that a sudden westerly gale could drive a ship ashore. In this contest an amusing tale which occurred many years afterwards is worthy of note. A ship called the " Twelve Apostles " was driven by a westerly gale and was wrecked at a cove named "Hell's Mouth". The event was graphically announced at Lloyds of London as " Twelve Apostles making water at Hell's Mouth ", but the official entry in the logbook was equally hilarious " 23 Nov 1898 Twelve Apostles vanishes in Hell's Mouth ".
Thomas Pennant in his informative journal of his journey around Wales considered that the many sandy coves around the coast of Lleyn were perfect sites for smuggling and for pirates to hide. He little realised the nocturnal activities that occurred in them under cover of the night. The cold weather in 1563 had made Lleyn a most miserable place with persistent rain had led to a serious crop failure which resulted in great shortage of grain. This caused untold suffering among the people who had to sell as previously mentioned to sell their furniture and even their beds if they were fortunately to possess one, to feed their families. The fishermen of Nefyn were particularly in a pitiless state and were only sustained by the charitable action of John Owen, Plas ym Mhenllech.

Into this distressed area two ships towing two others sailed into Aberdaron Bay captained by two well-known Lancashire pirates Thomas Wolfe and John Sargent. The towed ships had been captured by them in the English Channel, and they carried a cargo of wheat and rye. The arrival of these ship with their cargoes quickly spread through the peninsula making the starving people thinking that their prayers had been answered. These two captains were well acquainted with the area, having visited Bardsey Island before, and were aware of the danger that their ships could be driven ashore by the South - Westerly gales decided that it would be wiser to move to the shelter of St Tudwall's roads. On learning of the arrival of these strange ships anchored in the Roads, two prominent J.P's, John, Bodfael and John, Castellmarch decide to investigate and quickly made their way to the beach and requested that the two captains to come ashore to be examined, which they strenuously refused. This rejection left the two worthies with the only alternative but to board the vessels themselves, which, after some hard barging they bought most of the cargo. Wolfe and Sargent were delighted to have sold their cargo so quickly made it abundantly clear that they wanted to leave to the safety of the sea as soon as possible, and declared that they would have nothing with the unloading, stayed on board their ships. The local worthies keenly aware of their delicate position by their obvious involvement in this transaction commandeered every kind of small boat that were available, to bring the grain ashore. Once ashore the two worthies exploited the situation by ignoring the market price of the grain by selling it at greatly inflated prices to the desperate and disappointed people who had walked many miles and had waited so patiently on the beach. A Llanbedrog priest anxious not to loose such a profitable opportunity bought some of this grain for half a crown a bushel and proceeded to sell it at thirty shillings a bushel. This brazen act I am certain, did little to enhance the Christian image of charity he was supposed to preached to his congregation. Often there was a degree of enmity amongst these local landowners usually some battle about land but John Griffith, J.P. Cefnamlwch on hearing about this untoward behaviour of his fellow J.P's associating with such brigands and their selfish behaviour was determined to end such conduct, by attempting to arrest these pirates. John Griffith decided to approach his kinsman Richard Buckley, Beaumarais, Vice Admiral of North Wales for help, only to be flatly refused, because Buckley himself was often guilty of the same offences!? Further requests to the Sheriff at Caernarfon and the Queen's Armourer at Caernarfon Castle were also rebuffed.

There was a house guest at Cefnamlwch a John Thorpe, a London merchant whom his host, John asked for his assistance by offering him a large sum of 30 to catch these pirates. They hatched a plot whereby Thorpe was to board the ship and to buy the reminder of the grain on condition that it was to be delivered at Caernarfon port, where it would be easier to arrest them. Thorpe revealed this plan to Wolfe, and was rewarded with some grain for his efforts, but poor John Griffith completely unaware of this deceit was invited by Wolfe on board his ship and after a violent altercation in his cabin, John Griffith was last seen rowing ashore for his life as the two pirates prepared to set sail. The Admiralty began to take a great interest in the nautical traffic around our shores mainly because of their persistent fear that prevailed throughout the country of an invasion. Following John Griffith's request, Richard Buckley surprisingly obliging informed the Admiralty of the situation. This act to curry favour was quite foreign to Buckley who preferred to hid his activities out of the limelight but this action of his coupled with his history must have been made in search of some privilege or other. The authorities immediately set up a Commission to examine the behaviour of John Bodfael and his partner in this whole sorry episode. At the ensuing hearing the two miscreants attempted to defend their actions by submitting all kinds of quite ridiculous and absurd explanations for their actions, such as declaring that they considered it was an integral part of their duties to examine all suspicious visitors to their section of the coast. The two captains refused to come ashore to explain their possessions of their prizes, forced the two notables to board the ship. The two loquacious captains explained that they were sailing under " Letters of Marque " issued by the Duke of Northumberland. These impressive documents written on vellum, were granted in wartime by the authorities allowing merchant ships to act as ships of war, but on restoring of peace, their use was conveniently extended by pirates. These captains on being asked to produce them, said that they would be incomprehensible to them because they were written in French, the universal language of diplomacy at the time. Despite being assured that one of the officials was fluent in the language they persistently refused to produce them, an action considered by the Court as unsatisfactory, bearing also in mind, that the Duke of Northumberland had been decapitated ten years previously!!!

The two culprits became more and more uncomfortable with persistent cross examination and offered all kinds of stupid and unbelievable explanations for their actions, such as that they had gone on board to act as interpreters. John Bodfael on further closer examination was forced to declare that he had dealings with this pirate before and he had gone aboard to collect some money that he was owed after selling some cattle from Bardsey Island. With the passage of time John Bodfael sensing that he was losing his case, attempted a last excuse by saying that he was a benevolent man and felt it was part of his public duty to go and buy this grain to relieve the great suffering of the Lleyn people and his only involvement was with the unloading of the grain. However, like many such Commissions no further action appears to have been taken and there is no record of the two worthies being disciplined!!
In 1569 John Wynn, Bodfael found himself in trouble with the Crown authorities and was subpoenaed to appear before the Star Chamber. He was accused of being " The chief captain of pirates at Bardsey Island and he was using the is; and as head-quarters for his cohorts and providing these pirates and smugglers from his ample stores with provisions thatched had specially stored for such purpose on the island. He was further charged with selling illicit goods at Chester market aided by his chief assistant, William Morgan " Both father and son enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Duke of Northumberland who saw to it, despite strenuous efforts by other powerful Welsh families granted John Wynn the most influential post of Vice Admiral of North Wales. Bardsey Island had been given to John Wynn's father Sion Wynn ap Huw by the King Edward VI in 1549 as a reward for his distinguished service during the crushing of the Kept rebellion when he was hurt and his horse was slain under him, but despite his injuries, he bravely carried the banner of England.

Bardsey Island was called " Isle of the Saints " and was the site of an old medieval monastery and a sacred place long before Cadfan established it in 512 A.D. It was seat of learning and a refuge for dispossessed religious communities and said to be the resting place for over thirty thousand saints. Morgan ap leuan, the High Sheriff in 1585 became concerned about the unreasonable behaviour of pirates and smugglers on the island which he felt was so very alien to the high moral and spiritual standard the island had stood for so many centuries. He brought a serious charge against John Wynn describing him as a terrible man and accused him of being the chief captain, protector and financier of these outlaws, being rewarded with gifts of iron, wine and all kinds of highly saleable goods. He further accused John Wynn of appointing William Morgan, as overseer of the island who aided and encouraged the visits of these lawbreakers by supplying all their needs of water and food and supervising the disposal of the illegal goods to distant markets, like Chester. This accusation like many others, probably due to John Wynn's influential family came to nothing.
The authorities always felt at a great disadvantage as I have already mentioned, in prosecuting local notables because of intimidation to witnesses by those accused that had nurtured an image of popularity and generosity by being liberal benefactors.

A typical example of the machinations and greed of these local squires came to the fore in an account about a French ship in 1589 called " John Marlow " which ran into difficulties off St Tudwal's Island and had gone to shelter in Pwllheli harbour. This was the year after the destruction of the Armada and there happened to be in the harbour a British man-of-war, whose officers took immediate possession of the vessel. William Maurice of Clennau and John Grifith, Castellmarch, both J.P's on hearing of this occurrence quickly made their way to the harbour no doubt sensing it could be adventitious. These men using their local agents to avoid being accused of personal involvement, organised a gang who made a somewhat rash but unbelievably successful attack on the French ship The Naval personnel were overwhelmed and the French "passive prisoners" aboard were released which were so glad to escape with their lives, gratefully accepted an offer for their ship and escaped from the area. There followed the inevitable enquiry whose verdict allowed the ship, its cargo and considerable sum of money aboard, to be duly presented by the authorities to William Maurice of Cilcennau and John Griffith, Castellmarch " In consideration of the great and costly pains and travail the said gentlemen have borne "

There is another example of abuse of power by local dignitaries the case of Sir John Wynn's friend Robert ape Richart who was brought before the court accused of being a pirate. It took but little time for Sir John to persuade the six members of the jury that were his tenants of his to find his friend not guilty of any of these foul deeds despite the culprit had pleaded guilty!?

Lest it should be thought that Pwllheli sailors were innocent of such acts there is recorded in 1566 in an Article of Enquiry held in the town to examine the suspected involvement of two brothers from the town namely Jevan ap Meredith, alias Banner and his brother Richard. It appeared that a captured a Dutch ship sailing from Barbary to Antwerp laden with sugar, molasses, goat skins and other wares had been captured by pirates and had arrived in local waters The two brothers were accused of " receiving and assisting of pirates, lately arrived at St Tudwal's ", it was a typical story of these pirates after selling their ill-gotten goods to the inhabitants of Pwllheli quickly sailed away, leaving these two men to face the music after being suitably rewarded for their local knowledge !!!.

Custom Officers

Many thanks to Mr Cowell for this article.

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