Friday, February 8, 2013

Pirates and Smugglers in New Brighton

by Tony Franks-Buckley

Although mostly associated with Cornwall, smuggling was a common occupation in poor seaside communities along all the coasts of Britain. Like many forms of crimes, it came about as the result of legislature, when Edward 1 placed a customs duty of wool exports to Europe, a duty that increased throughout the Hundred Years War, in order to fund the king’s attempts to become King of France. The customs service was primarily concerned with collecting duties, but as time went on, illegal trade increased, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries when smuggling reached industrial proportions. Wool exports were criminalised in 1614, and made punishable by death in 1661.[1] Smugglers began to arm themselves against the dreaded Revenue men, who were soon provided with 'cutters' to patrol the coasts. (Wirral Smugglers, Wreckers & Pirates - Gavin Chappell)

Wallasey forms the northerly corner of the Wirral and has always been somewhat remote from the remainder of the Wirral. A town without a centre, visitors had difficulty finding their way about; locals prided themselves in being a breed apart. In the 18th and 19th Centuries all of North Wirral was remote and cut off from more densely populated areas.

Wallasey was more isolated than most and it gained a notorious reputation as a haunt of smugglers and pirates. The headquarters of local smuggling was a house that once stood on the river front between Lincoln Drive and Caithness Drive on what is now Egremont Promenade. Built in 1595 by one of the Mainwaring family beside what was at that time Liscard Moor, on the high water mark of the River Mersey, it went through a number of different names including the Half Way House, The Whitehouse and Seabank Nook. Next to it were 3 houses, some of which remain, called Seabank Cottages. The house became a tavern during the American War of Independence, when American and English privateers roamed the ocean and John Paul Jones raided Whitehaven in Cumbria.

The tavern gained the nick name Mother Redcap's after Poll Jones, who always wore a red cap or bonnet. Its normal title was The Half Way House. It was officially this until late into the 19th century.

One of the ports of call of the Smugglers transferring contraband across Bidston Moss was the Ring 'o Bells, now Stone Farm, in Bidston. Owned by a local family, some say the Radley's, others the Pendleton's. In the mid 19th Century Mary Radley or Pendleton married a Simon Croft under which the Ring 'o Bells became as notorious as Mother Redcap's. It also had a well established reputation for Ham 'n Eggs! It is described in The Adventures of Christopher Tadpole! Simon Croft kept his own pigs but became something of a drunkard. A lively and mixed crowd used the establishment including prize fighters Tom Sayers, Jem Mace and 'Tipton Slasher'. Four years after his death, in 1864, Lady Cust (Leasowe Castle) prevailed upon Squire Vyner, the lord of the manor, to revoke the licence. Bidston has been 'dry' ever since. Sept 2010. Note: I have had an email from Victoria Hart who tells me that the pub was indeed a Radley pub. She goes on: I can confirm that it was Mary Radley who married Simon Croft. Radley is my mother’s maiden name and I have been researching my ancestors. Mary and Simon are buried together in St Oswald’s cemetery. Also I know that The Ring 'o Bells Inn was owned by the Radley’s - the first I can trace back to is James Radley (B: 1756) and Peggy Fog (B:1766-D:1837). I am not sure of the dates they were at the inn but Mary Radley was one of their 12 children. I also know that the Inn was originally nicknamed the Ham and Bacon house as the Radley's would cure their own ham and they were carefully preserved from damp.

On occasion revenue men may be found to be waiting near the moss for contraband. In such cases, the contraband was taken along the edge of the Moss and around to Saughall Massie, to a Mill, which stood in what is now Action Lane, Moreton. One such tale relates that a revenue man lay in wait as he had been tipped off that two barrels of rum were to be carried that night across the Moss to the Ring 'o Bells. As the carter approached the Revenue man leapt out of hiding and challenged the carter. You have rum in those kegs!! Nay, its ale - the Ring o' Bells has run out and I'm taking them some. On checking contents, it was indeed ale. The smugglers had got wind of the revenue man and switched the rum barrels for ale!!

Another instance was when Revenue men saw two men removing bales from the area of a wreck. After a pursuit, the bales were found to contain cabbages and ferns. The real stolen bales had vanished by the time the Revenue men returned to the shore. Mother Redcaps finally closed its doors in 1960 after an unsuccessful short lived nightclub venture, and was demolished in October 1974. During demolition the famous 'smuggler's well' was discovered by the workmen, they found lots of bottles, jars and flagons and they wanted to inform the museum authorities! The foreman insisted that the 'hole' be filled in and treasures of lost artefacts found were lost again. He threatened to sack anybody who told the museum! Sadly there are too many of these short sighted idiots around and much has been destroyed here and elsewhere that could have been saved. Maybe the foreman had found something he would rather not be made public? Who knows?

(Information taken from Wirral Smugglers, Wreckers & Pirates, a 2009 publication by Gavin Chappell which is on sale at local bookshops and Amazon) here.

The prayer of the Wirral Wreckers was tragically answered on many occasions. At the foot of the old Wallasey Parish Church tower lie two weather worn and almost forgotten gravestones, concealing a tale of one such shipwreck on the Wirral shore. An apt resting place, looking out, as it does, over Leasowe Castle and the Wirral shore, the waters of Liverpool Bay and the very sandbank where disaster struck. On Christmas Day, 1838, the packet ship "Pennsylvania" set sail from Liverpool bound for New York. She proceeded to the mouth of the Mersey to await the first favourable wind. She was a superior and fast sailing freight carrying vessel, with cabins commodious and elegantly fitted.

On this voyage there were 40 people on board, of which 5 were passengers. On the 12th day of Christmas, a Sunday, she finally put to sea on her fatal voyage. It was 10.30am and there was already a strong wind blowing from the southeast. The ship had a good run as far as Point Lynas, off Anglesey, which she reached by 9pm. Then she was totally becalmed for some 10 minutes, the proverbial lull before the storm.

The wind freshened from the southeast, and soon after midnight the Pennsylvania was in the midst of a hurricane. It was the 13th day of Christmas. The storm continued unabated throughout the Monday. About the Pennsylvania efforts were made to clear the damage, and turn the ship about. When daylight came on Tuesday, Captain Smith, her Commander, tried to put back to Liverpool. On reaching Ormes Head, a course was plotted for the Mersey Lightship. Unknown to the Pennsylvania, however, the floating light had parted from its mooring the previous day. Normally it was anchored off the East Hoyle Bank to help guide mariners safely into the Horse and Rock Channels.

The newspapers of the time were suspicious:

"To say the violence of the gale drove her from her moorings is absurd. The floating light ......... makes its appearance ......... so regularly in the Mersey with every onslaught of the elements ...... (That one might suspect) those who tended it felt so deeply for their own personal safety in times of danger that they quit their post. Again, during the past gale when most needed to guide vessels in distress, has this vessel parted her moorings. It is scarcely two months since she parted her moorings before a gale and came into port. To us this is very extraordinary and inexplicable."

The Pennsylvania still bewildered by the absence of the Lightship, dropped anchor off Hoylake, about three miles from the shore. It was now 1.30pm on Tuesday. Before another anchor could be dropped however, the vessel swung around, drifted, and struck the Hoyle Bank. The force of the gale rammed her into the bank 8 or 9 times, and she started to take on water rapidly. Strangely, two other packet ships, the St Andrew and the Lockwoods also struck the Bank, not more than half a mile apart. One cannot help but recall the words of James Stonehouse, writing in 1863:

"Many a fierce fire has been lighted on the Wirral shore on stormy nights to lure the good ship onto the Burbo or Hoyle Banks, there to beat and strain and throb, until her timbers parted ......."

In an attempt to reach the shore, the Pennsylvania's jolly boat was launched into the gale. Aboard it were 5 passengers, including one William Douglas, as well as the Chief Mate, Lucas B Blydenburgh, and several of the crew. Those worn gravestones in a Wallasey churchyard tell only too well the fate of that little boat. Only one of its occupants survived. Meanwhile back on the wreck of the Pennsylvania, the long boat, the only other prospect of escape, was lost in heavy waves, which also swept the Captain overboard. It was 3pm Tuesday.

Much of the hull was now underwater. The remaining crew climbed desperately into the rigging where they were to cling for dear life for 19 hours. It was not until 10 am the next day that the steam tug Victoria took them off, except that is, three of the crew who had literally been starved to death of cold and hunger in the rigging during the night. 21 were saved from the wreck, 19 drowned. From the wreckers of the Wirral shore, the storm had come as a belated Christmas present. Liverpool newspapers commented:

"We lament finding that these infamous wretches, the wreckers, have been at their fiendlike occupation, plundering what the elements have spared, instead of seeking to alleviate the calamities of their fellow creatures. The wreckers who infest the Cheshire coast were not long in rendering the catastrophe a source of emolument to themselves. The property of the passengers and crew where plundered by them to an alarming extent. The Steward, who had in his trunk, sixty watches and other articles of jewellery, found on regaining the vessel that the whole of it had disappeared". Some reports placed the value of the cargoes carried by the Pennsylvania and St Andrew as high as £400,000, so it is hardly surprising that the wreckers chose the Pennsylvania as their "especial prey". The Pennsylvania had suffered most, her state cabin has almost entirely been stripped.

A number of plunderers were, however, taken into custody. One in particular, a John Bibby, boatman, is worthy of our interest. When apprehended he was found to have forty yards of new cloth, valued at £12, folded round his body. In his fishing boat were found books, a large and handsome cruet stand, and a black coat, a pair of trousers, a pair of drawers and much else.

It transpired that the coat had belonged to the late Captain Smith and the cruet stand to the same ship. The trousers belonged to Mr Thompson, its sole surviving passenger. The owner of the drawers was never ascertained. Bibby claimed in court that the cloth had been given him by a man on the Pier Head. Nor had he any idea how the other articles had found their way into his boat. He was fined £27. In default of payment he was to be jailed for 6 months. He might have considered himself lucky, for it was an age when a not unknown penalty for wrecking was public whipping or even transportation. William Douglas, one of the 5 passengers, who along with the First and Second Mates, tried to escape from the wreck. However, the ill fated boat did not live long in the tempest. About midway between the vessel and shore, she swamped, and all on board was thrown into the sea. He succeeded in reaching the shore, he was immediately taken to Leasowe Castle but he only survived a short time. The Captain and First and Second Mates were also drowned. It was thus reported,

"His mortal remains (Lucas Blydenburgh) were attended to the grave by all American Captains in port, as well as by hundreds of seamen. The sight was most mournful “The Inscription reads:"Sacred to the memory of Lucas B Blydenburgh of New York, Mate of the Packet Ship Pennsylvania, who was drowned near Leasowe Castle after leaving the wreck during the Memorable Gale on January the 8th 1839. Aged 40 years"

Max Moeller Director of Research Services The Historical Society of Pennsylvania 1300 Locust St. Philadelphia, PA 19107 has replied to a question from me asking about ships images, he states that: I have found two images reproduced in published sources (both of which should still be available in bookstores) of the U.S. Ship Pennsylvania . Neither of the originals are owned by HSP. They are:[2] “Launch of the U.S. Ship Pennsylvania”, a wood engraving by R.S. Gilbert, July 1837 – private collection (reproduction found on page 271 of Russell Weigley’s Philadelphia: A 300 Year History, 1982); and “View of the Launch of the U.S. Ship of War Pennsylvania”, lithograph by Lehman & Duval after G. Lehman, 1837 – Library of Congress (reproduction in Edwin Wolfe’s Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City, 1990).

The following extract is taken from the book "Portrait of Wirral" by "Kenneth Burnley”.

One hundred and fifty years ago this stretch of coast was renowned for its wreckers; robbers and smugglers who would lure the Liverpool-bound vessels on to the sandbanks using decoy lights and flares. Once ashore, the wreckers showed no mercy towards the unfortunate crew and passengers; if their lives were spared, their cargoes and belongings were not. But not all wrecking was deliberate; winter storms claimed many ships, and local people were quick to arrive on the scene to salvage what they could. Henry Aspinall, of Birkenhead, wrote this vivid description of a severe storm in 1839: On 6th January 1839, the day was fine; a fair wind blew for outward-bound ships. Many left the Mersey under sail, among them the St Andrew, the Lockwoods, and the Pennsylvania, first class packet ships, loaded with valuable cargoes and emigrants together with a few saloon passengers for New York. On the morning of the 7th, the barometer fell to a very low point. The vessels had almost reached Holyhead, when suddenly the wind changed to the north-west and blew a hurricane. The three vessels at once put back for the Mersey, the only shelter in such a gale. Unfortunately the wind veered dead north-west, and took the three vessels on to the Burbo and West Hoyle Banks. The sea rose to a fearful height, and the vessels settled in the sand until they were literally smashed to pieces. No boats could live. The moment they reached the water they were swamped and all on board were washed away. Many were drowned and washed ashore at Leasowe, Hoylake, and the neighbouring coast. Such a sight I never saw before or since, nor should I like to. The scene deeply impressed. The beach was covered with wreckage and dead bodies. I vividly recall the latter. It was, indeed, a most pitiful sight. To this day, in old Hoylake cottages, may be seen cupboards, doors, satinwood fittings, and glass and ebony door handles, washed up and appropriated by the finders, sad relics of a catastrophe which caused a great sensation in the district.

To learn more about the History of Pirates & Smugglers in New Brighton you can purchase the book from Amazon here



The Treasure of Treasures is now available to purchase here:



[1] Wirral Smugglers, Wreckers & Pirates - Gavin Chappell
[2] Philadelphia: A 300 Year History, 1982, Russell Weigley


  1. Facinating history. Thanks for posting. I tweeted.

  2. Just found this via Ancestry, very interesting. Mother Recap's and the Ring O' Bells were separate inns. Mother Recap's was in Wallasey and was demolished in the 1970s, the Ring O' Bells still exists, but is no longer an inn. Simon Croft's father is my 5th great-grandfather.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.