Tales of swashbuckling pirates are few and far between in this part of the world as the West coast of Wales is away from the main trade routes although the many small and remote coves have lent themselves well to smuggling operations. The coast is rugged and as it was unlit by large towns many ships ran aground to be relieved of their cargoes by grateful locals.
There was much illegal trading on the Welsh coast via Ireland and the Isle of Man. As it was not officially part of Britain, goods would be brought in to the Isle of Man and stored there without any fear of discovery by the Crown. Contraband such as brandy, tea, sugar, salt and soap could be stockpiled and then brought over when the price was right.
During the 1700s it was reported that the tax collected on legitimate imports scarcely paid the wages of the finance officers who were collecting it. It was a constant battle for the ‘revenue men’ as often local magistrates and sheriffs were on the side of the smugglers because of the high taxes being levied.
Following anonymous information in August 1704, a riding officer set off from Merionnydd with seven men to follow a number of boats that were unloading salt illegally along the west coast. When they arrived at New Quay they saw around 150 people with 200 horses ready to unload salt from the boats. As they were only eight officers against so many, when the smugglers realised they were there, the officers had to fire their guns to defend themselves. They were arrested by the local constables and one of the officers had to face the court because he had injured a smuggler. It was clear that the local magistrate sympathised with the smugglers. As herring was so important to the livelihood and diet of the people of Cardigan Bay there was great trade in smuggled salt.
The mouth of the Teifi, Mwnt beach, Aberporth, Llangranog, Cymtudu, New Quay, Cei Bach, Aberaeron, Aberarth, Llannon and Llanrhystud were famous for smuggling as they are hidden creeks and coves along the coast.
There was one character, however, who made his presence felt and that was William Owen. His story began in the parish of Nevern, Pembrokeshire, in 1717. Born into a wealthy farming family, he was sent to school but refused to go on to university insisting he wanted to be a sailor. He ran away to sea in his teens but returned after a year as he had decided he was too much of a gentleman to be whipped.
He worked on the family farm for a while but eventually tired of menial labour and ran off to sea again. On his return in 1733, his parents bought a small boat for him but when William took up with a maid in Cardigan, they repossessed it. William promptly married the maid and when children began to arrive his father relented and returned the boat to Owen as well as providing some capital so that they would have a means of income.
Owen traded legitimately for a year but was impatient to make his fortune and began smuggling. His inexperience landed him in trouble on his maiden voyage when his vessel was seized by customs officers on the return trip from the Isle of Man. Penniless, he enlisted as second mate on board a ship bound for the West Indies from which he soon fled after a quarrel with the captain. His next voyage was on a well-armed smuggling ship named the Terrible.
When the Terrible was approached by two Spanish ships her captain was inclined to try and outrun them but Owen, with the support of a large part of the crew, was having none of it. With the captain locked in his cabin, he led the ship into battle, and they managed to kill 60 Spaniards while the Terrible lost just 11 men. Owen was wounded in the back of his head but the crew were treated like heroes when they arrived in Barbados – so much so that Owen’s liaisons resulted in a number of illegitimate children.
Further smuggling adventures took him to the Caribbean, Salamanca and Honduras but many were centred around Cardigan, Cumbria, Liverpool, Dublin and the Isle of Man. Owen narrowly avoided capture in the Isle of Man by pretending to be a Welsh baronet cruising on his yacht.
On one trip to Cardigan a crowd of 80 or more attacked his ship during a corn riot. They opened the ship’s hatches and also stole the mainsail. Owen fired on the crowd wounding the leader. With his crew of two he then drove the crowd off his ship and forced them to hand back the mainsail. Owen brought a prosecution against seven of the rioters but Owen himself was bound over to keep the peace.
Owen’s smuggling exploits were interspersed with periods vaguely on the right side of the law. On one occasion a heavily armed British man-of-war blew off his mainmast forcing him to strike his colours. The captain of the man-of-war was so ‘delighted’ at having captured Owen, who apparently thought him ‘such a brave fellow’, that he appointed him midshipman.
Unbelievably, Cardigan revenue officers asked him to help them in the hunt for salt smugglers. Whilst the officers’ backs were turned Owen cheerfully sold his own smuggled goods before finally sailing for the Isle of Man.
There was another brief respite from smuggling when he decided to assist Thomas Parry, an Aberystwyth attorney and a friend. Parry had incurred the wrath of the Johnes family of Aber-mad by attempting to retrieve a debt and was being harassed by the family. Owen led a troop in an assault on their mansion. The conflict was finally resolved when Owen placed a cask of gunpowder on a wagon, set the wagon on fire and ran it under the balcony of Aber-mad.
While on business in Kendall, his ship was seized by customs officers who took almost everything he owned from on board, a loss which he calculated at between £400 and £500 excluding the value of the ship. Owen was left with but a shilling in his pocket. He went to Cardigan where he advertised the loss of his ship and raffled a cow by which means he raised £30.
On one trip in 1744 he had disposed of most of his smuggled goods in St Brides Bay, Pembrokeshire. He sailed with the remainder of his cargo on to Cardigan where he was met by the revenue cruiser, which he quickly repulsed. He unloaded his prohibited goods but his vessel was ambushed by the Collector of Customs and twenty assistants. Owen and his crew killed four men one of whom was customs officer James Phillips. Four days later with the advent of fair weather he absconded to the Isle of Man.
The coroner’s inquest found that Phillips had been murdered by Owen but there was no trial as a person could not be tried in absentia.
The net was closing in on Owen. The Governor of the Isle of Man issued a warrant for his arrest. Two of his crew had already been captured and his ship seized. A watch was placed on all Manx ports to prevent his escape but he finally managed to escape in a Strangford oyster-boat. He later returned to the Isle of Man on business but the authorities soon became aware of his presence when bad weather marooned him on the island. He fled to the hills but, cold and hungry, Owen surrendered.
The Commissioners of Customs brought a strong case against Owen and his crew but he obviously impressed the judge with his defence as they were acquitted on the smuggling charges.
Owen and two members of his crew were then charged with the murder of James Phillips but, according to Owen himself, they were convicted merely of manslaughter. The sentence does not seem to have been imprisonment since – if Owen is to be believed – he made his way to the Isle of Man immediately after the trial.
In late September 1745 he headed for South Wales in a vessel belonging to his cousin but a raging storm wrecked the ship. Owen was the sole survivor. He returned to the Isle of Man before sailing to Liverpool and then making his way to Cardigan where he stayed with friends until the following March before returning to Dublin where he found employment as a ship’s mate. He then became master of a 20 gun privateer called Admiral Blake of Liverpool in July 1746. After a six month voyage with little success the privateer returned to Cork but the crew had fallen victim to disease off the Barbary Coast, which claimed many lives and severely affected Owen. After a while he moved from Cork to Dublin but on the way he caught a cold which brought about a relapse. He stayed in Dublin for a while still very ill. He left Dublin for Liverpool and lodged at a doctor’s house before returning to Cardigan to recover his health. By this time all his possessions had either been sold or pawned.
A meeting with James Lilly, whom he knew well, signalled Owen’s eventual downfall. According to one source Lilly himself was a notorious smuggler who had escaped from gaol in Haverfordwest where he was awaiting transportation to America for stealing two linen shirts.
They had, apparently burgled John Thomas of Nevern, stolen twenty guineas and shot a servant in the face in the process. Having vanished for a few days Owen and Lilly were seen in Cardigan and the hue and cry gave pursuit. Lilly shot the horse of the leading pursuer whilst Owen shot the pursuer himself. Owen was captured and thrown in gaol for killing Evan George of Cardigan while Lilly had been killed.
A coroner’s inquest brought in a verdict of murder. Owen was duly indicted and tried at Carmarthen on 17 April 1747 and, after again defending himself, he was convicted. He was executed on 2 May 1747. He was thirty years old.
References: www.llgc.org.uk; www.earlymodernweb.org.uk; www.bbc.co.uk
Siôn Cwilt became something of a national hero in Ceredigion in the early 18th century. He lived in a cottage near Synod Inn where there is still a place known as Banc Sion Cwilt. It is believed Sion had built a ‘one night’ house there because it was half way between Ffynnon Bedr, owned by Sir Herbert Lloyd, high sheriff of the county to whom he was related, and two beaches famous for smuggling – Cwmtydu and Cei Bach.
The area was remote and out of the way and suitable for smugglers hiding from the authorities. Sion Cwilt would ride his horse to meet the smugglers’ boats, armed with a sword and a gun. As in other areas famous for smuggling, many important local people depended on smugglers for their wines and spirits, Sir Herbert among them.
Some say Sion’s nickname – Cwilt – came from the fact that he wore colourful coats or cloaks but it is also possible that it is a corruption of the word ‘gwyllt’ (wild). The name John Qwilt appears in the Llanina parish minutes recording the baptism of his son there in 1758. Another nickname that appears is Sion Sais, suggesting that he was not able to speak Welsh fluently.
Despite a team of armed men dedicated to the prevention of smuggling, and watchhouses in New Quay where toll men kept watch for smugglers’ boats, Sion Cwilt eluded discovery and was never caught.
Some time later a man called Daniel Ifans was caught and arrested in Llangranog for selling smuggled brandy. He was found guilty and hanged. Sion Cwilt disappeared from the secluded cove at Cwmtydu. He was never seen again.
References: www.llgc.org.uk; www.earlymodernweb.org.uk; www.bbc.co.uk; ‘Smyglwyr Cymru’, Twm Elias a Dafydd Meirion, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2007