I’ve always been enamored with Cornwall and southern England. Little did I know, when I first started researching the Seatons in my Nelson’s Tea Series, that several of my own family surnames traced back to Cornwall. (Isn’t it phenomenal when instinct leads to particular places, eras, events, and even names in the stories that authors’ write?)
Cornwall and Devon have rich and colorful histories which include Druids, legendary Avalon, and Roman, Saxon, Norman, and Norse invasions. Think The Last Kingdom, featuring sexay Alexander Dreymon, and Exeter, noted in the dreaded Doomsday Book and the Duchy of Cornwall.
Smuggling in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries called for careful strategy and hard-working strength. Those who became free-traders were ordinary people like you and me just trying to make ends meet. Others, dodgier folk, were lured by the promise of immediate wealth. And more often than not, entire villages participated in smuggling because, at that time, hardly anyone considered free-trade to be breaking the law. In fact, many smuggling operations were conducted in the cellars of churches along the Cornish Coast.
According to Tin, Salt, ’Baccy and Brandy, an article written by Tony Carne in the Courier (Dec 2010/January 2011 issue), mineral deposits were the property of the Crown, which received divided royalties from workers. “That right transferred to the Duchy in 1338.”
After the smelting process ended, tin ore was taken to a Stannery Coinage Hall where a corner was taken off the ingot (tin). (The term corner, coign, is what coinage comes from.) Its purity assayed, the tin was then stamped, taxes paid, and sold to buyers. But this lengthy process denied hard-working tinners the wages they labored to obtain. As a result, tinners began to hide metal in bales of wool and sacks of grain, smuggling the profitable merchandise out of the county where it could be sold for twice the price.
Salt, a necessary staple, was also heavily taxed. Cornish people preserved fish in brine, used salt to season their food, and produced salt licks for their livestock to get them through winter. “Salt was extracted from sea water at Saltash, also at Atony House where the remains of salt pans are still visible, whilst in the early 1800s there are even records of people obtaining salt from the heavily polluted waters of Millbrook Lake.” ~ Tin, Salt, ’Baccy and Brandy
Here is something you might not know. Free-trade’s rise to infamy began with salt. Once pickling fish became the norm, rather than using the usual smoking process, a commercial industry was born. France and Spain imported salt. The industrious Cornish people answered that need, especially when tin and copper mines quit producing, setting off a chain of events that continued from the 18th Century, Napoleonic Wars, and the mid-19th Century when luxury items like soap, spirits, tea, tobacco, fine cloth, and coffee were high in demand.
It’s the indelible Cornish spirit that draws me back to Cornwall time and time again as the setting for my books. The people there face brutal elements daily: howling winds, raging surf battering against monolithic limestone cliffs, and yet there’s a comradery that few outsiders can ever truly understand. Given their colorful, eventful past, it’s easy to see why the Cornish people are superstitious and leery of outsiders. They are a country unto themselves, a chapter in a book I want to write again and again.
If you turned to free-trade, what product would you smuggle?