The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
Smugglers of Cornwall
Coast Guard / Revenue Men
Penrose Manor today
The Smugglers of Penrose
By William Bottrell in 1873
Written By William Bottrell in 1873
winters tedious nights, sit by the fire
good old folks; and let them tell thee
woeful ages long ago betide.
remains of the old mansion of Penrose, in Sennen, (Cornwall) stands on a low and
lonely site at the head of a narrow valley; through which a mill-brook winds,
with many abrupt turns, for about three miles, thence to Penberth Cove. So late
as forty years ago, it was one of those antique, mysterious looking buildings,
which most regard with a degree of interest that no modern structure inspires;
the upper story only—with its mullioned windows, pointed gables, and massive
chimney-stacks—was just seen over the ivey-covered walls of courts and gardens
that surrounded it.
was, however, a certain gloomy air about the ruinous walls and neglected gardens
embowered in aged trees, which might have conduced to such unaccountable stories
of apparitions and other unnatural occurrences, as were said to have taken place
Some three or four centuries ago, it was the property and residence of an ancient family of the same name; little more is known of these old Penroses than what can be gathered from wild traditions related by the winter’s hearth. The following among many others were often recounted by old folks of the West.
three hundred years ago, the owner of Penrose was a younger son who had been
brought up to a Seafaring life, which he continued to follow till his elder
brothers died unmarried and left him heir to the family estate; then, preferring
a life on the wave, he kept a well-armed, fast-sailing, craft for fair-trailing,
or what is now called smuggling; she was manned with us brave a crew as could be
picked out of the West Country; most of them are said to have been the
Squire’s poor relations. A favourite cousin, called William Penrose—who had
been his shipmate for years—was captain of the merry men all.
Squire often took trips to France and other places, whence his goods were
bought, and it is said that in his days Penrose crew were never concerned in any
piratical jobs; though we know that about that time smuggler, privateer, and
pirate, meant very much the same thing, whilst the two latter were then convertible
terms with most of our rovers on the deep.
and his seamen passed little time on shore except in the depth of winter; yet
the board in his hall was always furnished with good substantial fare and the
beet of liquors, free for all comers.
a few years, when the good man was left a widower, with an only child—a boy
about seven or eight—he seemed to dislike the very sight of land, for then,
even i winter, with his little son, his cousin William, and two or three old
sailors, he would stay out at sea for weeks together; leaving, as usual, the
care of his farms and household to the care of a younger brother and an old reve
returning from one of these trips, in a dark winter’s night, their boat struck
on Cowloe and became a wreck. The Squire swam into Sennen Cove with his boy, and
in endeavouring to save his crow got drowned himself.
only remaining brother, known as Jan of Penrose, constituted himself sole
guardian of the heir, and master of the place and property
this Jan hated all whom his late brother favoured; and in consequence of his
ill-will William Penrose left the West Country—for the sea it was supposed
—but whither he ‘wandered was unknown, as no tidings of him were received in
new master, however, soon got a large smuggling craft and manned her with crew
who cared but little what they did for gold or an exciting life; being
well-armed they feared nothing that sailed the ocean.
of Penrose never went to sea; but gave the command to a wretch—known to have
been a pirate—who was cast on Gwenvor sands from his ship wrecked in Whitsand
Bay, on the night that the good Squire Penrose wae drowned.
pirate-smuggler and his desperate crew boarded many a rich merchant-man going up
Channel, from which they appropriated whatsoever they pleased, and sent all
who opposed them to the other world by water.
wee no Preventive Service then, to be any check on our free trade. If Revenue
Cutters came near our western land, their crews dreaded to fall in with Cornish
fair-traders more than our smugglers feared the King’s men. As for riding
officers they would ride anywhere else rather than on the cliff, when beacon
fires blazed from the cairns of dark nights to guide fair-traders’ boats into
the rich goods and plunder were landed, and any over-curious person remarked
that they were not such as seemed likely to have been purchased from our
neighbours across the Channel, the jolly crew would give themselves credit for
being valiant privateers, and as such be much renowned by simple folks, and
their plunder passed as lawful prize.
came from all over the country to purchase the goods, stowed in vaults and other
hiding places about Penrose; and in winter the crew spent much of their time
there in drunken rioting with all the wreckers of the neighbourhood.
the good Squire was drowned his brother appeared to show every kindness, to the
orphan heir; yet it was remarked that the child seemed instinctively to avoid
his uncle and the cajptain, who consorted much together when the smugglers were
the boy could elude the old steward’s vigilance he would go away alone to the
rocks in Sennen Cove where his father was drowned, or shut himself up for hours
in his father’. bed-room, or wander about other parts of the gloomy north
wing, which was almost in ruins and seldom entered by other inmates.
winter’s day, the ground being covered with snow, Penrose’, people and many
others of the neighbourhood joined for a wolf-hunt. Traditions say that in those
times terrible havoc was often made on flocks by these fierce beasts, and that
children were sometimes carried off by them when hard pressed with hunger.
John Penrose nor the captain went to the chase; when at night the game-laden
hunters returned and blew their bugle-horns, they remarked with surprise that
the young heir— who was a general favourite—did not, as ‘was his wont,
come into the court to meet them. The boy was sought for in every place whither
it was thought he might have strayed. His uncle seemed to be much distressed,
and continued the fruitless, search until it was surmised that the child must
have missed his way in returning from Sennen Cove, wandered out under Escols
Cliff; there got drowned by the flowing tide, and carried out to sea on the ebb.
this, Jan of Penrose, having all his own, became more riotously debauched than
ever; and his gang having taken a somewhat strange aversion to their captain, he
left and was no more seen in the West.
tapestry chamber and all the northern wing was shut up, or unoccupied, as it had
the reputation of being haunted. None of the servants nor even the
devil-may-care smugglers would venture into it after night-fall, when unearthly
shrieks would be heard there, and strange light, seen flashing through the
casements till near morning. Lights were also often seen in an orchard just
below the town-place when no one was there.
unnatural occurrences, however, put no check to the excesses of Penrose band and
the lawless castaways who joined thern. By way of variety to their fun, they
frequently disguised themselves and made nocturnal excursions to some village
within a few miles, whore they would alarm the quiet folks in the dead of night,
by discharging their firearms in a volley; and make a bonfire of a furze-rick,
out-house, or thatched dwelling.
poor villagers in their fright, would mistake these wretches for outlandish
people, come again to burn and pillage as in days of yore.
were all the more ready to think so because about this time the Spaniards had
great fondness for roving round the western coasts, and often did much damage in
defence less places; it was in Jan Penrose’s time, too, that a few Dons, high
by day, put off from a galley in Whitsand Bay, landed on Gwenvor Sands, and
destroyed Velan-dreath Mill. To return to Penrose crew, at the height of the
fright and confusion they would carry off such young women as they had before
agreed on; the gallants would take their fair-ones before them on horseback to
Escols Cliff or the hills, where they would be left alone by daybreak, to find
their way back afoot. having carried on this sport a long time with impunity,
they become so bold at last as to make an attack on Buryan Church-town;
fortunately, however, Buryan men were apprised of their intentions in time to be
armed and ready to give them a warm reception; in short they lay in wait for the
smugglers, drove them all into a vacant place near the cross in Church-town, and
there surrounded them; when thus hemmed in the band fought desperately, and till
nearly every man of them warn killed or disabled they continued shouting to each
other, “cheer up comrades, die one, die all, and die we merrily;” and so
many of them met their end in this encounter that Penrose band was soon after
night of the following Christmas, whilst a large company was assembled at
Penrose, keeping high festival after a day’s hunt, loud knocking was heard at
the green-court door, and soon after a servant conducted into the hall an
elderly wayfaring man who requested a night’s shelter from the snowstorm
Penrose received the wanderer with hospitable courtesy; his steward, the old
reve, to provide him with good cheer; The guests continued their glee and paid
but little attention to him, for begging homeless pilgrims were all too plenty
here at that time.
company was also entertained by professional droll-tellers and ballad-singers;
persons of that class were then—and long after continued to be received, as
substitutes for minstrels, in gentlemen’s houses of the humbler sort.
stranger, however, regarded the company with attention, and noticed that the
master of Penrose looked wretched and haggard amidst all the merriment. His
scrutiny was interrupted by the steward who conducted him to another room where
a well furnished board, beside a blazing fire, awaited him.
stranger having refreshed himself, told the old steward how he had just returned
from a long pilgrimage in foreign lands, and had seen many places spoken of in
miracle-plays, which were acted in the Plan-an-Gware at St. Just, and how he had
that morning arrived at Market-jew on board an eastern ship that traded there
also said that he once had friends in the West Country; whether they were alive
or dead he knew not, but hoped to obtain some tidings of them on the morrow.
wanderer’s voice seemed familiar to the old steward, and recalled former time
but, ere they had time for more discourse, they were invited to return to the
ball and see a guise-dance, which was about to commence.
stranger seemed interested in the quaint performance of “St. George and the
Turkish Knight.” A droll-teller in his character of bard, took the part of
chorus; explained the intent of coming scenes; instructed and prompted the
actors as well.
play being concluded and the guisards well rewarded by the wayfarer, he withdrew
and told the steward that he felt weary after his long walk though the snow and
would be glad to lie down; if all the beds were occupied, he could repose, be
said, in a settle by the fireside, for a few hours only, as he intended to leave
early in the morning.
old man replied that he feared any other accommodation in his power to offer was
not such as he might desire,—although the house was large, with ample
bed-rooms for more guests than it now contained—because a great part of the
northern end was shut up for a reason that the inmates did not like to talk
about. Yet as he believed the pilgrim to be a prudent man, who was, no doubt,
learned in ghostly matters, he was glad to unburden his own mind and have his
visitor’s councel, with his prayers for the of the unquiet spirits that
disturbed the place he told how many of the upper rooms, though well furnished,
were unused and fulling to ruin on account of the unnatural sounds and sights
before mentioned. To which the stranger answered that he had a mind at ease he
had no reason to dread any ghostly visitants; if the steward would conduct him
to a room in the haunted wing he did not fear for his rest.
old steward, taking a lamp, lad the way to the tapestry chamber—being the best
room in that part of the mansion. A faggot of
dry ash-wood—already laid in the large open fire-place—was soon in a
blaze, and the room well aired and somewhat comfortable.
old man brought in bread, meat, and wine, that the guest might take more
refreshment during the night, and supply his wallet in the morning if he started
before breakfast. After returning with more wood and bog-turf to keep in the
fire, he bade the guest good-night, sweet rest, and pleasant dreams
the old steward had retired from the dreaded room, its occupant was in no haste
to rest himself on the large stately looking bed; but seemed never weary of
examining the old portraits and quaint liguree in the arms (which might have
been intended for portraits too), the massive oak furniture with bold,
grotesque, carvings, ancient armour, coats of mail, and other interesting
objects, which were suspended from the walls, or in hanging presses with all of
which he appeared familiar; so that it was near midnight when he sat down in the
storm had ceased and a full moon,
shining on newly fallen snow, made it almost as light as day. He opened the
casement and looked into the court, where he saw a company of young men and
women passing out singly and in silence.
visitor, being well acquainted with West Country customs knew as this was
twelfth night that the object of this silent procession was to work some
of the many spells, usually practised at this time, for the purpose of gaining a
knowledge of their future destiny with respect to what they regarded as the most
important of all events - marriage and death.
great was the desire of many young People to obtain an insight of what the
future had in store for them, that they often practised singular rites,-still
well-known in the West,-which are probably vestiges of ancient magian
ceremonials connected with divination.
night, however, the young peoples intention was simply to gather ivy leaves and
pull rushes; by the aid of which, with fire and water, they hoped to discover
who would be wedded, and with whom, or buried before the new year was ended.
There are many instances of predictions, with regard to the latter event,
conducing to accomplish their own fulfilment, from their effects on people of
pilgrim had not sat long, looking out of the open casement, when he saw the
company of young men and maidens come running back, apparently in great fright.
The doors were all immediately slummed to, the noisy mirth and music suddenly
ceased in the hail. The house, in a few moments, was shrouded in thick fog; all
was still as death about the place for some minutes, then a noise was heard like
the distant roaring and moaning of the sea in a storm.
ocean sounds seemed to approach nearer and nearer every instant, until the waves
were heard as if breaking and surging around the house. In the wailing wind was
heard a noise of oars rattling in their rowlocks for another instant; then as of
the casting of oars hastily into a boat.
was followed by the hollow voices of the smugglers, drowned with the old Squire,
hailing their own names, as drowned men’s ghosts are said to do when they want
the assistance of the living to procure them rest. All
this time the green-court appeared as if filled with the sea, and one could hear
the breakers roaring as when standing on a cliff in a storm. All the buildings
and trees surrounding the mansion disappeared as if sunk into the ground. At
length the surging of waves and other sounds gradually died away until they were
only heard like the ‘calling of cleaves’ before a tempest.
steward had told the stranger of these noises and appearances, which had
become frequent of late, to the great terror of the household; but he gave
little heed to the old man’s tales, thinking that such visions were merely the
creations of weak brains diseased by strong potions
said that when the young folks reached the outer gate of the avenue, near which
they would find the plants required for their spells, all keeping silence and
taking care not to look behind them—as this or speaking would spoil the
charm—a female, who was a short distance ahead of the others, saw what
appeared to be the sea coming over the moors before a driving fog. She ran
shrieking to join her companions, who also beheld the waves fast
approaching—rolling, curling, and breaking on the heath. They all ran into the
house with their utmost speed; and some who had the courage to look behind them,
when near the court door, saw the curling breakers within a few yards of them;
and a boat, manned with a ghostly crew, came out of the driving mist as they
rushed into the house; and, not daring to look out, they saw nothing more.
weary wayfaring man, having a clear conscience, feared nothing evil in what
appeared to him an unaccountable mystery, even in that time of marvels; and,
having told his beads, he committed himself to good spirits’ care.
brave man was rather soothed than alarmed by a plaintive melody, until there was
a change in the harmonious strains, which grew more distinct; and mingled with
them were the tones of loved and once familiar voices, calling, “William
Penrose, arise and avenge the murder of thy cousin’s son!”
a glance towards the window—whence the sound proceeded—he saw just within it
the apparition of a beautiful boy in white raiment. A light which surrounded it
showed the countenance of the lost heir of Penrose. At the same time the room
was filled with an odour like that of sweet spring flowers.
pilgrim, William Penrose, spoke to the spirit and conjured it, according to the
form prescribed by Holy Church, to speak and say what he should do to give it
rest. The apparition, coming nearer, told how ho had been murdered by the
pirate-captain of the smugglers, on the grand hunting day; and how his uncle had
given the pirate a great quantity of gold to do the bloody deed—that he had
been buried in the orchard under an apple-tree, that would be known, even in
winter, by its blasted appearance,—that the murderer was then in Plymouth,
keeping a public-house, the situation of which was so plainly described by the
spirit that William Penrose would have no difficulty in finding it, and bringing
the murderer to justice by means of such proofs of his crime as would be found
beneath the blasted tree. Moreover he told William that the spirits knew he was
gone on a pilgrimage for their repose; and that they all, through him, sought
his aid to enable them to rest in peace.
William Penrose having promised to perform all according to the wishes of the departed, music was again heard and the spirit gradually disappeared in a cloud of light.
Then the weary man sunk into sound repose from which ho only awoke at break of day.
cousin, the good Squire, had also appeared to him in a dream, and told him that
concealed in the wainscot, beneath a certain piece of tapestry, he would find a
secret cabinet, in which was preserved good store of gold and jewels for the
infant heir; and that the key of this hidden treasury was behind a leaf of
carved foliage which ornamented the bed head. He was told to take what money lie
required for his journey and to keep the key.
found everything as indicated in his dream. Jan of Penrose had often sought for
this private recess— where heir-looms and other valuables were concealed, and
only made known to the heir when of age, or to a trusty guardian, if a
minor—but he was deterred from further search by such an apparition as made
him avoid the chamber, and of which he would never speak after his fearful
fright was past.
pilgrim arose and requested the old steward to accompany him a short distance on
his Journey. Before they parted the stranger discovered himself, to the old
man’s great delight, to be the long-lamented William and told him that he was
about to undertake a long journey for the repose of the dead; that he would
return when he had accomplished his mission; and bade the steward adieu, without
speaking of the apparition or the cause of disturbances in the mansion.
Penrose, having arrived in the ancient town of Plymouth, and entered the mean
public-house to which he had been directed by the apparition, saw the person he
sought lying stretched by the fireside in a squalid apartment that served for
kitchen, guest—chamber, and sleeping room.
former pirate-captain looked like a deserter from the churchyard (as we say);
the face of this child-murderer was the colour of one long in the tomb; with but
little signs of life except in the lurid glare of his sunken eyes.
Penrose with much difficulty induced the ‘wisht looking’ object to
converse; and, after a while, led him to talk of the West Country, then of
Sennen. From that the pilgrim spoke of Penrose, and asked him if he knew, in
Penrose orchard, a certain apple-tree, which he pointly described. He had no
sooner mentioned it than the inn-keeper exclaimed, “I am a dead man.
miserable wretch begged the pilgrim to have mercy on him and listen to his
confession, in which he declared he was driven to commit the murder by his evil
spirit that made him dislike the child, because he had long hated his parents,
more than from any love of gold given him by Jan of Penrose, to remove the only
obstacle to his possession of the estate.
Penrose—who was still unknown to the inn-keeper wondered
what cause of ill-will he could ever have had against the good old Squire or his
wife, until the former Pirate told how he was the prodigal son—long supposed
dead—of an ancient, respectable, but poor family, whose ancestral seat was
within a few miles of Penrose—how, almost from his childhood, he had long and
truly loved, and as ho trusted, had his love returned by the lady who became the
wife of Squire Penrose,—how that he had left his home in St. Just on a
desperate privateering expedition in hopes of soon gaining sufficient riches to
make the ladys parents regard him with favour,—how, whilst he was returning
with gold enough to buy the parish, Penrose had wooed and won the lady—his
first and only love, for whom he had toiled and suffered every hardship during
He also related how when he came home so altered, by the burning suns of the Spanish Main, that his nearest relatives knew him not, and found out the ill return his lady-love had made him, that his only solace was the hope of revenge.
of the gold that he had sweat blood to gain, for the sake of the faithless fair,
was laid out in a fast sailing craft, which might pass for a merchantman,
privateer, or pirate, as she was all in turn during a few years that he roamed
the British seas. The vessel was manned with a desperate crew, most of them his
old comrades, who would do anything to please him. The design he had formed,
more through hate than love, was to carry the lady off to some foreign land.
year or so after his return he lauded one night in Whitsand Bay, accompanied by
a great part of his well-armed crew, who took their way towards Penrose, where
he learned ere their arrival, that his design of carrying off the lady was
frustrated by her having been laid in the grave a few days before. After this he
wandered over sea and land by turns, caring nothing what became of him, until
cast on Gwenvor Sands— poor and naked, as his ship foundered in deep water,
when all but himself were drowned; and, as bad luck would have it, he reached
the shore on some loose part of the wreck.
worst portion of his story from this time is already told; but no one can tell,
as ho related, how the desire of gold—to enable him to recommence his roving
life, far away from the hated sight of the land and everything else that
recalled a remembrance of his blighted youthful hopes—maddening drink, and a
wicked heart, farther irritated by Jan Penrose, made him murder the child that
he would have given a hundred lives to restore before he received the uncle’s
bloody gold. Since then he had never a moment been free from remorse. He wished
for death, but feared to die. If he drank himself mad, that only increased the
horror of his thoughts
had scarcely finished his sad tale when William Penrose discovered himself to be
the well-remembered playmate of the wretched man’s innocent youth; and he had
only time to beg Penrose to bestow in alms his ill-got store, for the scarcely
hoped for mitigation of future punishment, when he breathed his last
William Penrose returned to Penrose and made himself known, to the great joy of
old servants and others, he found that what was thought to be merely the gloomy
and morose temper of its master frequently made him shun all society, an to
wander about the hills or cliffs and other solitary places, for days and nights
one either loved, feared, or cared enough about the surly man to pay him any
regard. He was absent then in one of his melancholy moods, and William with the
steward, aided by other old trusty servants, removed the child’e remains from
beneath the blasted tree to Sennen churchyard; and out of respect to the
honourable old family, little was said or known about the sad occurrence.
of Penrose was no more seen alive in the old mansion, for the same night that
his nephew’s remains were buried in consecrated ground, he hanged himself in
the malt-house; and he haunted it long after.
the spirit’s injunction William Penrose had still to find and remove the
bodies of the old Squire and his crew. Now it was supposed that they were
‘sanded ‘—that is sunk in the moist sand and covered by it during a
flowing tide—near Gwenvor Cove, because corpse-lights had frequently been
seen, and the drowned sailors had been heard there “hailing there own
names,” as they are still accustomed to do when requiring aid of the living
day Penrose and others found the bodies of the old sailor-squire and his crew
near the place where fishermen had heard the “calling of this dead,” and
their remains were laid to repose, with all holy rites, in an ancient
burying-ground. near Chapel Idné, whore the wind and. waves sing their
everlasting requiem in music they loved well when alive
Notes By W. Bottrall c.1873
1. William Penrose, now heir-at-law of the bartons of Penrose, Brew, and other farms in the West Country,—disliking to live in the place connected with such melancholy events—gave up his rights of heirship to another branch of the family; resumed his pilgrim’s staff; and was supposed to have died in the Holy Land.
2. The Penroses still in the West are said to be descended from a younger branch of the ancient family of Sennen; with whom the Pendreas or Pendars were intermarried.
3, The family of Jones purchased the Penroses’ West Country property, and it remained in their possession until the beginning of the last century i.e. 18th century
We hear again of smugglers being kept in pay by the last Jones, of Penrose, and by others who succeeded him. From the facilities afforded by this secluded place for concealing contraband goods, it was always noted as a favourite resort for western fair-traders.
people about the Land’s End believe the old mansion was always haunted; and it
is said this was the principal reason for taking down and rebuilding a portion
of it a few years since.
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