• Poldark comes to Charlestown

    Poldark comes to Charlestown

  • How good are you at steering your boat?

  • John Lethbridge’s wooden diving ‘barrel’

  • Climb aboard our lifeboat

  • This unique and interesting collection which has taken many years to collate

    Titanic a unique and interesting collection which has taken many years to collate

  • Ross Poldark

  • RMS Titanic

Shipwreck and Heritage Centre



Smuggling and fishing

Smuggling was at its peak between 1700 and 1850 when a full time living was to be made from the 'trade'. These men were known as ‘free traders' because they plied their 'trade' across the English Channel supplying not only luxury goods, but everyday items as well. With the government imposing extortionate taxes, many everyday items such as salt, tea and handkerchiefs were not within reach of the common man so the Free Trade was relied upon for these basic necessities; unbelievable when smuggling today is synonymous with more dangerous trades such as drugs and weapons.

Renowned for their excellent seamanship and with the ineffectiveness of the customs men, the free traders on the whole, evaded capture. They would drop tubs of brandy over the side of the boat to be recovered later and this was known as ‘sowing the crop'. There are many terms still in use today that have been coined from the smuggling era such as ‘the coast is clear' and ‘rummage'.

On land, a well established organisation supported the smugglers. Men carried the tubs of brandy on their shoulders up to the cliff-tops and were supported by batmen who would protect them. On reaching the top, carters would take the barrels away inland using mules or donkeys. Jamaica Inn is infamous as a smugglers hiding place even though it stands in the middle of Bodmin Moor. Smuggling, although dangerous, was a highly profitable business and supported by many. Shares became available in smuggling operations by the 19th century and those involved included the parson and the country squire as well as the common man.

With the advent of changes in the 19th century, moral, social and economic reasons brought about the decline of the smuggling trade and the end of the free trader.


The Cornish fishing industry a century ago employed over 11,000 people and although the principle revenue was pilchards, the annual cycle involved crabbing, mackerel, pilchard, hake and herring. The fishermen would even explore the Atlantic for deep sea fish such as cod.

The pilchards would visit Cornish waters at the end of the summer so the fishermen would prepare themselves during July, ensuring the nets and boats were ready. The seine net used to catch pilchards cost around £800 but included three boats, two nets and the cellars with all necessary equipment such as washing troughs, fish stands, baskets etc. As the cost was so high, several people would own shares in the enterprise. Charlestown had three seines at the most and for every man working the nets there would be at least two people on shore to process and market the fish

Once the shoal of fish was spotted from the cliff-top by the water or ‘huer', the ‘lurker', or third boat, would direct the first boat to encircle the shoal. The second boat with the tuck net would help close the net and the fish would be towed to shallow waters and anchored to the sea bed. This kept the fish alive and fresh until they were harvested.

The fish would be carried to the cellars where women would layer them with salt and the children helped running to and fro with fish, salt and water. After the fish had been cured or pickled, they were packed in barrels and pressed to extract the oil. This ‘train oil' was collected and used for tanning, as a lubricant for painting ships‚ spars and for coarse paint to weather-proof the clapboard covering of many Cornish cottages. It was also burnt in oil lamps in the home and in the streets of London.

1n 1847, 122,000,000 fish were exported from Charlestown but with the introduction of steam ships, by 1870 only two cargoes of fish were carried by sailing ship. The end of the 19th century saw the beginning of the decline of the fishing industry and by the second world war it had all but disappeared. Although the fishing industry continues today, the change in fishing quotas and the lack of enormous shoals appearing in-shore, mean the huge revenues once commanded are no longer obtainable.