Smuggling

Smuggling became a significant and widespread industry around Britain's coast during the late 18th and 19th century, when a heavy and very unwelcome customs duty was imposed on such items as spirits, tobacco, tea and silk, etc.

Gower's coastline, with it's coves and desolate bays, was ideal for the covert smuggling operations that had almost become accepted common practice for the majority of Gowerians during this period.  Connections to smuggling rings and their activities were widespread throughout the community, and there is evidence to suggest that even the clergy turned a blind eye to the illegal trade.  For instance, a large hiding place for smuggled goods was discovered in a stream bed behind the Old Rectory at Rhossili, which was only accessible by diverting the stream, a procedure that surely could not have been unnoticed by the rector.

Small remote bays such as Pwlldu and the aptly named Brandy Cove were undoubtedly used more than any other location to land 'the goodies', and it was at the nearby Great Highway Farm that Devonshire-man and illicit trader William Hawkin Arthur lived.  Ideally located, Arthur soon gained the reputation of being Gower's smuggling king.

Arthur's smuggling gang would set to work as soon as a vessel had sheltered secretly within the dusk of a secluded evening shore.  The illicit goods would then be swiftly unloaded and hauled by pack horses halfway through the deep valley at Bishopston to the quiet lane (today known as Smugglers' Lane) leading to Highway.

With Arthur's 'business activities' booming, the two Gower farmhouses at Great Highway and Little Highway soon became the headquarters for a 100-strong smuggling workforce, using the farms' outhouses as storehouses for contraband and distributing centres for the whole of Gower.  The smugglers were so successful and confident in the face of ineffective control from Swansea customs officials, that they almost became a law unto themselves, showing nothing but contempt for the poorly paid customs officers who attempted to confiscate any contraband they discovered.

Customs had been trying to catch Arthur's gang red-handed for some time when, one day in January 1786, they were tipped off that a French ship was to unload it's cargo that afternoon.  The 14 customs men decided to lie in wait until after dark before surprising the Arthur family's farmhouse with a search warrant and a sharp rap on the door.  However, finding the farmhouse in total darkness, nobody answered their call.  The men persevered, knocking harder until a sleepy voice finally answered the officials by instructing them to go away.  Suddenly the door was flung open and the customs men, caught off guard, were attacked by the masked gang who beat them and rolled them around in the farmyard muck, shouting with glee.  Battered and bruised the officials retreated empty handed.  Thenceforth, the smugglers continued their operations quite blatantly, often in broad daylight, undoubtedly with a feeling of power at being above the law.

Another rather amusing story of Arthur's gang outwitting the customs officials, involves a keg of spirits which customs discovered in the loft of Great Highway Farm.  The chief officer, cautious of the gang's ability to evade arrest, decided to sit upon the keg to prevent the smugglers making off with his evidence, while his assistant fetched a horse.  William Arthur instructed his men to create 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 his discovery, kept firmly seated, guarding the keg.  Meanwhile, Arthur set about drilling a hole through the timber floor of the loft and into the keg, successfully draining all of the liquor into another container ready to be rehidden.  With an empty keg as the only evidence against him the raid resulted with no arrests being made and once again customs left the farmhouse both empty handed and embarrassed.

But finally, many years later, on April 13th 1804, customs achieved their goal.  Just by chance, that afternoon Lieutenant Sawyers of the Sea Fencibles (the Home Guard of Napoleonic days) was strolling Oxwich sands with the local customs officer, Mr. Francis Bevan, when they saw a cutter come into the bay and anchor.  They watched as two men rowed ashore to approach them, and unknowingly ask the whereabouts of Highway.  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 organised for that very night. 

They decided to keep this information to themselves to avoid the gossip which would likely ensue, and to gather the customs men and members of the Sea Fencibles in the early hours of the morning, to descend upon the Highway farms en masse.

Searching both farmhouses proved fruitless until one of the men noticed that the earthen floor was uneven and disturbed.  Upon closer inspection of the area they discovered a trap door leading to a cellar.  A similar find in the other farmhouse led to the ultimate collapse of the smuggling stronghold in Gower - the gang were arrested after 420 casks of spirits (nearly 3,000 gallons) were uncovered from the hidden stores.

The farms at Great and Little Highway still exist today near Pennard Church on the way to Southgate.  Great Highway Farm has been greatly modernised, whilst Little Highway Farm was rebuilt nearby.  The original building of Little Highway Farm, after being used as a roadside barn until eventually becoming derelict, was developed, around 10 years ago, into three dwellings presently called "Little Highway Mews".  Curiously, there is no sign of the infamous cellars at either site, and if it were not for the detailed report on the raid which was submitted by Customs & Excise on 31st July 1804, their very existence may never have been validated.

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