The beautiful coastline of Gower harbours many dark and despicable secrets! Its secluded coves and remote bays were once home to the covert activities of smugglers and wreckers who preyed on passing ships and brought illegal cargos ashore in the dead of night…
Smuggling was rife and widespread not only in Gower but around Britain’s coast during the late 18th and 19th century, when a heavy and unwelcome custom duty was imposed on imported items like spirits, tobacco, tea and silk. It was an accepted part of everyday life for many coastal communities and the people of Gower were no exception. If you weren’t involved in smuggling yourself, then you certainly knew someone who was!
Small, quiet bays such as Pwlldu and the aptly named Brandy Cove were popular locations for landing illegal cargos – often under the watchful eye of Gower’s self-styled ‘smuggling king’, William Hawkin Arthur, who ran the local criminal gangs from his home at Great Highway Farm on Smugglers Lane.
With the busy marketplace of Swansea close by, the coastline of Gower saw much traffic from ships often travelling to and from Ireland laden with coal, salt, soap and even more precious cargos. These ships proved to be tempting targets for gangs of ‘wreckers’ – criminals who would wreck and loot cargo ships that passed by along the coast. They would sometimes do this by lighting lanterns along the foot of rocky headlands during stormy nights to confuse sailors into thinking it was a safe place to land their ships – when instead they would crash into rocks. The wreckers gained a reputation for being ruthless and would often leave no survivors of the ships they wrecked, so that nobody could tell of their crimes!
Smuggling on the Gower Coast
The rise of smuggling on the Gower coast took place during the 18th and 19th centuries in response to customs duty being imposed on sought after items such as spirits, tobacco, tea and silk. A thriving ‘black market’ sprung up for luxury goods and large sums of money could be made by those willing to break the law and bring them ashore.
The location and landscape of Gower made for a perfect smugglers’ paradise. It was near to the busy marketplace of Swansea yet home to many secluded bays and sandy inlets where illegal contraband could be brought ashore unobserved.
Not that it mattered if prying eyes spotted the smugglers at work! Most local people had connections to smuggling gangs and their activities were widespread throughout the community. Many farmers cooperated with smugglers by lending horses and barns for pulling and stowing cargo on land. One hiding place for smuggled goods was even discovered in a stream bed behind the Old Rectory at Rhossili, which could only be accessed by diverting the stream itself – a lengthy procedure that surely could not have been unnoticed by the rector! Proof perhaps that even the most upstanding citizens were happy to turn a blind eye to these illegal goings-on.