In September 1645 the State Papers contain an affidavit of Howell Price, Customs House Officer concerning rolls of contraband tobacco found at Brixham. During a cholera outbreak in the 1850s the Brixham smugglers took advantage of local fears and drove their cargoes back from Goodrington Sands in the parish hearse, the horses' hooves muffled according to custom, and a cortege of sombre "mourners" walking reverently behind. The coffin contained, not a body, but tobacco and French brandy. Another story concerns an old salt was once overtaken by an exciseman. With the artfulness of his calling, he sat on the keg he was carrying. Not knowing exactly how to start the conversation, the Excise asked him the time! Rising slowly, in a sepulchral voice, he answered deliberately: "Time for the living to be at rest; time for the dead to rise". He survived to smuggle another day. Another smuggler was caught in possession of kegs on his cart as he was driving away to the country. After accepting a lift among the kegs, the exciseman disclosed his occupation. "Stay there, then", he was told and the smuggler whipped up his horse, throwing him out and leaving his captor spread-eagled on the road.

The Brixham smugglers were most enterprising, cargoes being discovered more often than the men themselves. The "gentry" were at work for centuries. As early as 1645 the affidavit of Howell Price, Customs House Officer there tells of rolls of contraband tobacco being found at Brixham. In 1783 there was a monumental encounter between Capt. John Swaffin of the Spider "in the King's Service" and a large smuggling cutter, carrying 16 carriage guns and a crew of 50. With help from Brixham smuggler Thomas Perkinson, a cargo of 1,500 casks of spirits and four tons of tea had been landed on Paignton sands. Much later, in 1851, 142 bales of tobacco found in a cave.

In the mid-19th century Thomas, a local humorous verse poet, wrote of the exploits of Resurrection Bob, allegedly based on the true story of Bob Elliott:

Old smuggler Bob
Had done many a job
In running across the bay,
With a cargo of stuff
For Bob wasn't a muff
And did things in a businesslike way.

He'd a very small crew
But Bob Elliott knew
They were stars of the very first water
His skiff was his pride
Like a phantom she'd glide
No Custom House crew ever caught her ...

The crew of the smack
Were Slippery Jack
Bob Dugdale and Aaron Trier;
There was Fogwell and Shears,
Green, Lakeman and Myers
In fact, all bold men could require

But Bob had the gout,
So couldn't get out
When a cargo of stingo was due
So the "run" was made without him and all disposed of except six kegs, so said Slippery Jack:
"We must give out that you've gone dead
You can sit in a chair
Like your grandmother there,
And we'll stow all the stuff in the bed".

However, the Coastguard Commander knew that the "run" had been made although respect for the dead restrained him from searching Bob's house, saying to his men:
But we'll keep it in sight
By day and by night
'Till they've buried the duffer - and then!

There was no other chance
But to lead them a dance
So a coffin of monstrous size
Was made, and good need,
For Bob was no reed,
Yet the box caused little surprise.

'Twas a mournful day
When they bore him away
Not he in his grandmother's clothes;
'Twas his spirit they bore,
Whilst to keep from a roar
In a kerchief Bob buried his nose. BUT

That very same night
A terrible sight
Was beheld by coastguards three
On the Totnes road
With a phantom load
They could solemnly swear 'twas he.
And each declared
Bob Elliott glared
Like one they'd rather not name
While the nag cocked his tail
Like a harpooned whale
And snorted a crimson flame

As late as 1907 smuggling still went on. Vessels carrying on the trade were called coupers. They never came within the three-mile limit but loaded their cargoes (mostly tobacco and eau-de-Cologne) into any fishing boat with whom they came into contact.

The fight against smuggling continues. When the Brixham trawler Good Hope (BM231) picked up drugs off Start Point from a yacht from Morocco, she was tracked by HM Customs Cutter Venturous in an operation known as Operation Bacardi. The Good Hope landed £1.5 million of cannabis at Brixham Harbour at 4.20 am on 19 August 1990. The men were later picked up at the Granada Services at Exeter. They were all finally sentenced at Exeter Crown Court in December 1991.

© copyright John Pike

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