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William Hawkin Arthur, the ‘smuggling king’

The most notorious smuggler on the Gower coast was William Hawkin Arthur. Born in Devonshire, Arthur was a successful businessman who bolstered his coffers by leading a 100-strong gang of smugglers from his home at Great Highway Farm.

Arthur’s gang would arrange secret meetings with cargo ships in sheltered coves. Starting at dusk and sometimes working through the night, they would unload the illicit goods and haul them by packhorses through the deep valley at Bishopston to a quiet lane (today known as Smugglers’ Lane) leading to Highway. Business boomed for the ‘smuggling king’ and his farmhouses at Great and Little Highway soon became a busy distribution centre for contraband goods across the whole of Gower, as Arthur and his gang became a law unto themselves.

Arthur and the law

Facing Arthur’s gang of smugglers was a small and poorly equipped band of Customs Officials, based in Swansea. Their ill-equipped force was no match for the local “free-traders” (ships carrying cargo to be smuggled ashore), as illustrated in a letter written to the Board of Customs in 1730:

“The smugglers are grown very insolent and obstruct our officers in the execution of their duty… the master and mariners of the ship Galloway… came up on deck with pistols and drawn cutlasses and refused them [the Customs Officials] to rummage.”

William Hawkin Arthur, the self-styled ‘smuggling king’, had long been the archenemy of Swansea’s Customs Officials, who desperately wanted to catch him red-handed.

The tale of the liquor keg…

One famous tale of Arthur’s gang outwitting the Customs Officials involves a keg of spirits, which Customs discovered in the loft of Arthur’s farmhouse. The chief officer, keen to secure Arthur’s arrest, decided to sit upon the keg to prevent the smugglers making off with his evidence, while his assistant fetched a horse. Arthur instructed his men to make as much noise as they could muster outside the loft. The officer, believing that the noise was just a ruse to entice him away from the incriminating key of liquor, remained firmly seated. What he didn’t realise is that Arthur had set about drilling a hole through the timber floor of the loft and into the keg, draining all of the liquor into another container ready to be hidden. The Customs Officials were left with an empty keg and Arthur escaped arrest, once again.

Battered and bruised…

One day in January 1786, Customs received a tip-off that a French ship was to unload an illicit cargo to Arthur’s gang. Fourteen Customs Officials laid in wait until after dark before attempting to raid Arthur’s farmhouse under a search warrant. Knocking on the farmhouse door they found the building in total darkness. The officials knocked harder until a gruff voice instructed them to “go away!” So they knocked harder still… when suddenly the door was flung open and the Customs Officials, caught off guard, were attacked by the masked gang who beat them and rolled them around in the farmyard muck. Battered and bruised the Officials retreated empty handed.

From that day, the smugglers continued their activities quite blatantly, often in broad daylight, as they considered themselves to be above the law and “untouchable”. Or so they thought…

Arthur’s downfall

Finally, on 13th April 1804, the Customs Officials achieved their goal of arresting Arthur, the ‘smuggling king’. Arthur’s downfall happened by chance: an officer called Lieutenant Sawyers of the Sea Fencibles (the Home Guard of Napoleonic days) was strolling Oxwich Sands with a local customs officer, Mr. Francis Bevan, when they saw a small cargo ship (known as a cutter) come into the bay and anchor. They watched as two men rowed ashore to approach them and ask the whereabouts of Highway, the headquarters of Arthur’s gang. Sawyer and Bevan calmly replied that it was just around the headland to Pwlldu Head, but knew excitedly that there must be a smuggling operation taking place!

That night, they gathered together a large group of officers and carried out a raid on Arthur’s farmhouses at Great and Little Highway. Their search proved fruitless until one of the men noticed that the earthen floor of one farmhouse was uneven and disturbed. Upon closer inspection they found a trap door leading to a cellar, packed to the rafters with contraband goods. A similar hidden storeroom was then discovered at the second farmhouse.

In total, 420 casks of spirits (nearly 3000 gallons, or 50 bathtubs!) were uncovered from the hidden stores. Arthur and his gang were arrested and so ended the reign of smugglers in Gower, as no new gangs dared to re-build the empire that Arthur had once ruled.