Hidden Glamorgan

Exploring the Hidden History of the Vale of Glamorgan

June 07, 2020

The Smugglers Of Barry Island


For many people a trip to Barry Island is a fun day at the seaside; Ice cream, fish and chips, a sandy beach and fairground rides. For the majority of its existence however, the small tidal island at Barry was a lonely and isolated place. The Rev J Evans writing in 1803 remarked that Barry Island exuded:

‘A characteristic dreariness-that inspired melancholy’ and that ‘to those accustomed to the luxury of society, and other pleasurable amusements, Barry will not furnish a single inducement to visit or reside.’

This loneliness provided the ideal setting for a wild and romantic period in the history of south Wales, that of smuggling.


 (Facing east from the mainland and depicting the original medieval church of St Nicholas in the foreground, this painting from the early nineteenth century captures something of the rural character of the area) 

Smuggling was an endemic problem along the Glamorgan coastline and a constant headache for the port authorities of the Bristol Channel, especially during the eighteenth century. Criminal gangs sought to profit by smuggling in contraband from the Continent and avoiding the high tax imposed by the Government. Alcohol and tobacco were the most smuggled contraband but the smugglers would attempt to conceal anything which turned a profit.

Barry Island fell under the authority of the port at Barry, itself under the overall jurisdiction of the Port of Cardiff. The authority of the Port of Cardiff extended as far west as Nash Point and the Collector for the Port of Cardiff had his work cut out for him, so much so that an allowance was made to this official starting in 1730 for him to keep a horse to enable him to ‘ride the coast’ and fulfil his duty.

It would have been the job of the port officials to board vessels and seize any contraband not declared. The smugglers were engaged in an almost constant ‘cat and mouse’ game with the port authorities. For port officials such as John Wilkins, who was the waiter and searcher for the ports of Sully and Barry in 1699, this would have all been a part and parcel of his job. The smugglers who frequented Barry Island did not always use this one location exclusively - they would have operated up and down the Bristol Channel and would have used the various ports and small islands to their advantage.


(This early panoramic photograph depicts Barry Island from before the construction of the docks – this scene would have been familiar to a customs man during the days of smuggling) 

One smuggler who is likely to have used Barry Island for offloading contraband was Richard Robinson who was, as communicated in a letter from London from 10th September 1734, a Guernsey based smuggler. Richard dealt in tobacco as well as tea, brandy and rum, and operated two vessels along the Glamorgan coast at this time. A detailed description of Richard’s two vessels was provided for the customs officials at Barry as well as details of the crew. Barry Island would have provided the ideal place for a smuggler such as Richard to ply his trade and it is highly likely that he once did so here.



(In 1734 the customs men at Barry were told to keep watch for the Guernsey smuggler Richard Robinson’s three - masted sailing ship for which he used for smuggling, possibly similar in form to the Vandura, a three-masted schooner which run aground at the Old Harbour beach, late nineteenth century)

There were many attempts of smuggling at Barry Island during the eighteenth century. William Richards, Surveyor for the Port of Cardiff, was in May 1770 instructed to inform the officials of the port at Barry to keep watch for three vessels know for smuggling. In an act of piracy, these vessels had also attacked another vessel in the Bristol Channel and it was a possibility they would attempt to land contraband on Barry Island. An individual by the name of ‘Jack the Batchelor’ was specifically referred to. In 1773 William Richards was instructed to inform the port officials at Barry to keep watch for a ship called the Fox which was running contraband along the coast of Wales. It is possible this vessel would have used Barry Island to unload its cargo.

Customs men not only had the power to impound smuggled goods but also the vessels themselves. In 1782 at Aberthaw, a small boat loaded with contraband was abandoned by smugglers after the appearance of customs men. The boat was requisitioned for the use of customs officials who described the vessel as ‘very well built and will do exceedingly well for a customs boat at Penarth.’

Perhaps the most notorious and well known of the smugglers of Barry Island was Thomas Knight. Infamous in his day, Thomas Knight for a period of time resided on Barry Island and was often surrounded by a large gang of 60-70 armed men. This made the job of the officials of the port at Barry all the more difficult. Knight also kept a large ship off Barry Island which he used for smuggling. 1784 seems to have been a busy year for Knight. On April 17 of that year it was reported that an armed vessel with 24 guns and a crew of 53 was running what was by all accounts a very open smuggling operation off Barry Island with Knight having little or no fear of the authorities–it is no surprise that the people of the area ‘were in such dread of Knight and his gang.’  


(This painting (1793) by George Morland (1763–1804) offers a realistic depiction of smuggling)

The customs officials of the port at Barry were apprehensive about confronting Knight. Alexander Wilson and Evan Thomas attempted to confront Knight but were ‘ill-treated by the people of the Island’ and prevented from doing their duty. In the same year, Thomas Hopkins, a ‘waiter and searcher’ at Barry and Sully attempted to seize smuggled wine from Knight on Barry Island but could not prevent Knight from removing it. Small wonder that a letter written in 1785 concluded that all persons living on Barry Island were involved with Knight’s smuggling operation. In fact, when Knight’s ship was moored nearby it was said to be impossible for the customs men to even approach the place, such was the control Knight had over Barry Island.


 (Dating from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, this photo depicts Whitmore Bay and Nells Point before development and conveys how ideal Barry Island was for a smuggler such as Thomas Knight)

Around 1787 Knight was finally driven from Barry Island and his ship confiscated. He moved his operations to Lundy Island but was never again to achieve the success he had when operating from Barry Island. With Knight gone it was reported that the smuggling activities at the Port of Aberthaw was also greatly reduced. Barry Island was not yet to be free from smugglers. In 1788 it was reported that Knight was briefly replaced by a smuggler called Arthur who was strong enough to require the assistance of around 60 regular soldiers to be dislodged from Barry Island.


(A mid nineteenth century painting of Barry Island. Despite smuggling being a thing of the past by this point in time, the painting gives an idea of how Barry Island would have appeared when smugglers operated there)

Not all illicit activity was organised smuggling, on occasions it was nothing more than plain opportunism. In the year 1712 a French vessel ran ashore at Sully loaded with wine and brandy. It took the combined efforts of customs officials lead by a M. Morgan and a number local men to disperse a large armed mob of looters intent on stealing the cargo. 


(The location of this late nineteenth century photo with its east facing view of Barry Island, taken from Sully, is a likely location of the wrecked French merchant ship from 1712)

The apprehending of smuggled contraband was not the only duty of the port officials on the coast of Glamorgan. They would also receive instruction to apprehend individuals wanted by the authorities. One such example was an instruction from London to the port authority of Cardiff dated October 12 1710. The letter instructed the Port of Cardiff to send copies of the details to the smaller Glamorgan coastal ports, including Barry.

The letter expressed great concern about the possible landing of Catholics from Holland and the Low Countries on the Glamorgan coast, and for watchers at Barry to be vigilant. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was raging on the Continent and in the Low Countries which displaced Protestants and Catholics alike. Catholics though were regarded with high suspicion in Britain during this period. Even the lonely Barry Island it seemed could not escape the politics of the day.


   (View of Barry Island before the construction of the docks with Holton farm in the foreground)

It was not just political enemies of the state the officials of the port at Barry were instructed to keep watch for. Wanted men, or individuals who had fled from justice were also sought after. One such example from a letter sent from London dated 5th June 1735, advises the authorities of the ports of Glamorgan, including Barry, to keep watch for a wanted fugitive from Cornwall. The man was Henry Rogers who was wanted for ‘murders and other most notorious violances and outrages and is since fled from justice.’ A description is also provided of Henry who was a ‘large blond man about 6 foot high inclinable to be fat.’ As an added incentive to Henry’s apprehension a £200 reward was offered, which was a considerable sum at the time.

In 1744 William Richards, who was surveyor for the Port of Cardiff, along with port officials at Barry, were instructed to keep watch for Joseph Haynes who had robbed one of George the second’s daughters, Princess Amelia, and was attempting to flee justice.

By the end of the eighteenth century smuggling on Barry Island was by and large a thing of the past, although there was still the occasional attempt. In 1791 a group of smugglers were caught red-handed attempting to offload smuggled goods from a vessel named John of Comb. One of the customs officers tried to board this vessel but was subject to numerous threats which prevented him from confiscating the boat and its contents. In 1798 customs men seized a large quantity of brandy and port at Barry Island. 


(Early photograph of the tidal waters between Castleland on the mainland and Barry Island. This would have been a familiar sight to smugglers)

During the early nineteenth century, Barry Island reverted to its former quietude-frequented only by the occasional English tourist keen to explore the then fashionable rugged and romantic Wales. The Rev J Evans in 1803 makes no mention of smugglers, but however spoke of the small farmhouse which was by the time of his visit ‘fitted up as a lodging house, for those desirous of sea-bathing in retirement.’ Barry Island was evidently safe enough to accommodate its first tourists. 

Tales of smuggling exploits survived for a long time in local folk memory and were still a part of the oral history of the area until the end of the nineteenth century.


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