Thursday, 7 April 2016

Plymouth's Female Smugglers and a Personal Ballad

I am fairly lucky with my family history in that a great deal of information has been passed to me through various generations of my relations who have lived in Plymouth, south Devon and Cornwall since the 1700s. The following poem was written in tribute to a few girls in 1813 in Plymouth and is based on recorded fact ....


Of course she was a Devon maid, from Plymouth town we're sure,
no contraband slipped Peggy's hands between the sea and moor.
From Cockside to Frankfort Gate, her patch was worth pure gold,
when the French became unstuck at night, Peggy sold their soul.

Where would the heart of Plymouth be without a Peggy Rider?
When watchmen melt into the darkness, that's enough to hide her.
Not that just the girl is hid, but sixty gallons of rum;
and with a few accomplices, distribution's done.

Look out for the Revenue men, from the Custom's House they'll hail,
every Janner is a suspect now but few end up in jail.
Turn a blind eye to the pilot boats moored up in Whitsand Bay,
It's European free trade, styled in a different way.

Farmer George, our wondrous king, is keen on enterprise,
so when Peggy Rider steps out, it's usually in disguise.
Now some snitch has written to the Mayor of Plymouth town,
our generous fiscal trading terms have been scaled right down.

Chase the French from Plymouth Sound but keep their brandy here,
Peggy is our saviour; we'll drink to her in beer.
Sing this to Napolean: va te faire foutre! each dusk,
as Peggy's girls can lift and shift a stash of elephants tusks.

Now who were Peggy's smugglers?  Let us know their names:
Mrs Weirs, Mrs Charks and Mrs Mary James.
Mary lived on Higher Street, overlooking Sutton's water,
I'm pleased to say, here today, I'm her three times great-grand-daughter.

(c)  Ruth Snell
Laira, Plymouth, 2016

So, where did this come from?  My grandmother, Rosetta James married my grandfather, Ernest Snell in St Matthias Church, North Hill, Plymouth in July 1920.  (She always told me her people were of the Charles Church parish 'back into time' and she wasn't far wrong with St Matthias being a sister church of Charles Church). On researching the James family tree I found John James, my great-great-great grandfather who was a Blacksmith on Higher Street (now part of Exeter Street) in 1813.  I discovered his wife was called Mary when I found the birth of their son (my great-great grandfather), also called John, who was baptised in Charles Church in 1813 by the infamous Rev. Hawker.  I found a few documents in the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office which describe more events of the age and then I discover more about my ancestors.  Mary in particular appears to have assisted a local female smuggler called Peggy Rider who was moving everything from ' ... sixty barrels of rum, tea, coffey, silk shawls, baccy and 'elefants teeth'.  Yeez ....... my granny carrying elephants tusks up Exeter Street .... shiver me timbers!!

Mary then appears in nearby Cawsand, Cornwall (a village famous for smuggling) in 1822.  It seems Edmund Lockyer, Mayor of Plymouth at that time, showed her leniency and was very kind to her so she wrote and thanked him.  Mmmmm .... was he involved too???  Apparently smuggling was, to the gentlemen (wealthier toffs of the era) an investment, just like stocks and shares.  I smile with such links to a wondrous Plymouth story. 

The above ballad was read out compliments of Wonder Zoo with Black Books and The Word at The China House in Sutton (where else?) Plymouth, on 30 March 2016. Thanks to Derek Shaw in Berkshire for taking my verse and putting it to music.  More to follow on the melody ...


N.B.  A translation of va te faire foutre! is well .... 'Kiss my ass' ..... the sort of thing an English smuggler might have said to Napoleon and his French associates in 1813.

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