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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Looe is a Place of Smugglers Tales and Pirate Legends

If you take a look around Looe it doesn't take much to imagine it as a town of smugglers and pirates. With it's narrow alleys and hidden nooks there was plenty of places for a pirate to slip away unnoticed, or as they were often armed, jump out on a lone customs officer.

Smugglers Cottage on Looe Island
Looe island became a hub for smugglers who could pay to have their goods stored in a cave out of sight
from even themselves. There is a cave on the island that is said to be over 30 yards long. Legend has it that there are secret tunnels connecting the island to Looe.

The island was brought from Elizabeth I by the Trelawney family in the 1600's, the island was then rented to the Finn family in 1781. Finn had just spent 7 years on Mewstone island off shore from Plymouth as punishment for the crime of causing a nuisance to his neighbors and apparently got the taste for an isolated life. The Finn family also shared the island with the Hooper family who have connections to smuggling.

Amram Hooper was said to be the chief smuggler of the time, although he and his family didn't smuggle the goods themselves they would hide contraband goods for a fee and then get them across to Looe when the coast was clear. Smuggled goods would include spirits, tea and silk stockings or anything that had a high duty. He along with his sister Jochabed and daughter Matilda are involved in many of the smuggling stories of the island although often the spellings of names get changed.

Matilda was nick named Black Till which is very similar to another island resident Black Joan a member of the Finn family. There are two stories of Black Joan committing murder the first I heard was that she killed a tall man on the island the skeleton of which has been discovered there and the second story of how she got into an argument with a Jamaican seaman in the Jolly Sailor Inn and shot him in the head. Although jailed for this crime she was acquitted despite the witnesses probably due to the magistrate being one of her best customers. The tale of Black Till is that she would pretend to be in distress in her rowing boat to distract the attention of any officers so that her father could move the contraband goods.

The islanders were not alone in their smuggling. A farmer would ride his white horse along the coast to signal that the coast was clear and if it wasn't he would take it back home. The Hooper gang were later joined by Thomas Fletcher, an Irishman who absconded from the coastguard to join the smugglers.

Who knows what hidden treasure could be found on the island. There is a story of how a group having a picnic on the island rushed into a barn when it started to rain and fell through the floor. Under the floor they discovered hidden spirits.

The Jolly sailor where Black Joan was said to have shot a man was also home to a quick thinking landlady. When a customs officer came to check the pub she quickly sat on an illicit keg and concealed it beneath her petty coats whilst calmly knitting. There are also stories of a woman who concealed a secret passage in a Looe cottage behind her skirts.

The house built by customs to keep an eye on smuggling in Looe.
Every Tuesday in Looe during the high season you may see a pirate walking around as their legends are remembered by the local people who dress up as pirates for one day a week. If you want to join them and get your own piratey treasures take a look at our website.

Skull and Crossbones Tattoo - 25p

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