Cornish Smugglers

Smuggling has many stereotypes and these images often include a small group of men unloading barrels in the night. However, until the early 1800s it was a highly organised, well financed business that was run on very efficient lines. Captain James Dunn is a good example of the key financiers and organisers of the trade.

James Dunn

Captain James Dunn was a man of contradictions. He was a follower of John Wesley, yet he was also a notorious smuggler. In Truro Cathedral in Cornwall there is a window depicting John Wesley and dedicated to James Dunn and his son Samuel.

Born in 1755 in Mevagissey, Dunn was the owner of several Mevagissey vessels including the Clausina and this vessel was well known to be involved in smuggling.

Smuggling before 1805 was an open practice. Ships would go to Guernsey where spirits could be legally purchased in large barrels and during the return passage the barrels were emptied into smaller ones. These were landed and distributed for sale in England.

In 1799 income tax was introduced to support war with France. This was a threat to a cash-rich man such as Dunn and he went into business as a shipbuilder with Thomas Henna. They were in partnership from 1799 to 1806 and built many fine cutters for the smuggling business. These were either owned by Dunn or sold to Guernsey, Rye and elsewhere. When the partnership broke up, Dunn continued as shipbuilder until his death in 1842.

Helen has researched James Dunn’s accounts, which include a list of the vessels he built.

Most of Mevagissey was involved in the smuggling trade. James Dunn's suppliers were Maingy of Guernsey and other known associates of his in Mevagissey and elsewhere were:

  • Peter Brown, smuggler and mariner
  • James Melhuish, innkeeper
  • John Allen and his wife, innkeepers
  • Sampson Ball, local banker
  • William Hugo, victualler
  • Thomas Hinkson, blockmaker
  • James Sleeman of Crantock
  • Thomas Bodilly of Guernsey
  • Captain Samuel Furse
  • Captain James Kendall