THE HISTORY OF THE HELFORD CONT…
But this rural idyll has not always been as much of a peaceful backwater as it might seem today.
In 1497 the Helford Passage Ferry played a role in one of the most important episodes of Cornwall’s history when it is thought to have carried the army of men who were marching north during the Cornish Rebellion. Led by Michael An Gof and Thomas Flamank the rebels marched from St Keverne on the Lizard to Blackheath near London. And this scene was re-enacted in 1997, on the 500th anniversary, when the Helford Ferry again transported a modern-day force of Cornish people commemorating the event by marching on London.
One also has to wonder whether the 200 civil war troops, who had held out in one of the last Royalist strongholds in Cornwall at Dennis Head, would have crossed the Helford by ferry in 1646 on their way to Truro and humiliating surrender.
Pirates & Smugglers
As the once lively river trade that had occupied many local people since medieval times began to fade another rather nefarious industry took its place. Falmouth and Penryn had quickly surpassed Gweek as the ports of choice for shipping and so the isolated Helford River became the haunt of pirates and smugglers.
In 1602 the Cornish antiquarian Richard Carew wrote that the Helford “cannot be controlled” and that it had gained the nickname of “Stealford” because of its reputation for pirates. These ruthless men would attack and plunder any ships that made the mistake of entering the river or passing too close to its mouth. Carew describes them as “the worst sort of seafarers . . . pirates, whose guilty breasts, with an eye in their backs, look warily how they may go out ere they will adventure to enter”.
As for the smuggling that so famously inspired the writing of Daphne du Maurier, the Helford River certainly has some tales to tell. The secluded creeks and concealed landing places still make the Helford perfect for illicit enterprises. During the late 18th and early 19th century there was an almost relentless cat and mouse game being played out between the Revenue’s preventative ships and customs officers and the smugglers for whom ‘freetrading’, as it was euphemistically called, was a way of life.
Henry ‘Harry’ Carter, one of the notorious smuggler brothers of Prussia Cove, married Elizabeth Flindal of Helford in 1786 and a serious incident that occurred opposite Passage Cove the year before may well have involved the Carter men. The Sussex Advertiser of January 1785 reported that “a large smuggling lugger mounted with 20 guns and commanded by a noted outlaw appeared off Helford.” The ship was spotted by the Revenue men who, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, tried to prevent the smugglers from landing their goods. The officers were driven off, some “mortally wounded” and others forced to swim to shore. The newspaper reported that this outlaw captain “visits where he pleases with impunity.”
But things did not always go the freetrader’s way, on one occasion a lucky customs officer was hunting birds in the woods near Gweek when he stumbled upon a cave containing 63 barrels of brandy. He must have felt rather triumphant seizing the haul without firing a shot.
But even when the Revenue men did succeed in confiscating illegal imports the smugglers of the Helford were not averse to a little retaliation. In 1840 the Customs House on the Helford was ransacked. Around 30 men broke in and made off with 126 kegs of contraband brandy.