Post-medieval smugglers' cache at 'Smugglers' Tresco


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SV 89717 15306

Reasons for Designation

The Isles of Scilly, the westernmost of the granite masses of south west England, contain a remarkable abundance and variety of archaeological remains from over 4000 years of human activity. The remote physical setting of the islands, over 40km beyond the mainland in the approaches to the English Channel, has lent a distinctive character to those remains, producing many unusual features important for our broader understanding of the social development of early communities. Throughout the human occupation there has been a gradual submergence of the islands' land area, providing a stimulus to change in the environment and its exploitation. This process has produced evidence for responses to such change against an independent time-scale, promoting integrated studies of archaeological, environmental and linguistic aspects of the islands' settlement. The islands' archaeological remains demonstrate clearly the gradually expanding size and range of contacts of their communities. By the post- medieval period (from AD 1540), the islands occupied a nationally strategic location, resulting in an important concentration of defensive works reflecting the development of fortification methods and technology from the mid 16th to the 20th centuries. An important and unusual range of post- medieval monuments also reflects the islands' position as a formidable hazard for the nation's shipping in the western approaches. The exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains on the islands has long been recognised, producing an unusually full and detailed body of documentation, including several recent surveys.

Smugglers' caches are hidden stores where contraband goods were concealed from the authorities, potential informants and rivals. Rising trade, demand and taxation affecting imported commodities such as tobacco, spirits and tea during 17th and 18th centuries, coupled with few effective controls on maritime activity outside the major ports, encouraged an illicit trade by smugglers profitting by avoiding payment of duty on goods run across from the Continent or acquired at sea from trading vessels in the Channel. Trade in contraband goods was especially rife along most of the south coast of England, facing the Continent; some small ports and coastal villages in Kent, Sussex and the south west achieved notoriety for their smuggling activity, involving large numbers of vessels and men and forming a significant part of the economy in some areas by the mid-18th century. Early counter-measures included a network of Customs Stations whose collectors controlled Revenue Cutters, sometimes supplemented by naval vessels. Despite some limited success, their resources were too thinly stretched and could not match the local knowledge of the coastline of the smugglers. Increasingly effective control only came with the ending of the wars with France when, in 1816-17, the Customs was considerably expanded to include the new Coastguard, with sufficient manpower to operate as a widespread preventative force along the south coast. In conjunction with stringent penalties, the trade in contraband goods had been severely curtailed by the 1840s. Accounts of successful anti-smuggling actions by Customs and the Coastguard forces reveal a variety of ingenious methods adopted in the early-19th century to conceal smuggled goods after their arrival and before or during their distribution, reflecting the increased pressure on the smugglers' activities. In addition to securing the contraband beneath the surface of the sea, fixed to weights on the sea-bed, other favoured sites of temporary storage included hidden caches constructed within, beneath and near dwellings or public houses used by the smugglers. Until the establishment of the Coastguard, conditions in the south west of England proved especially favourable for smuggling, with its deeply indented coastline remote from the centres of authority and administration but conveniently facing the Continent and adjacent to the trade routes entering the Channel. The enhancement of these factors in regard to the Isles of Scilly was used to advantage by many among its population, as is testified by the repeated complaints of successive Customs collectors based there. The importance of smuggling as a vital supplement to the islands' economy of the 18th and early-19th centuries is shown by a petition in 1819 to relieve the islanders' poverty, citing the effectiveness of the new preventative force as a main cause of their distress. Apart from historical references and association with some surviving buildings on Scilly, this formerly important activity leaves relatively few remains, chief among which are smugglers' caches and a series of 19th century lookout points set up and used by the Coastguard force. Three smugglers' caches are known to survive on Scilly, one on St Mary's and two on Tresco. Each is visible as an underground chamber in a hidden location separated from nearby contemporary dwellings and each is of differing form. The number of smugglers' caches that survive nationally is not known and by their intentionally-concealed nature, more are likely to survive than have been recorded. Smugglers' caches provide one of the few surviving remains of an activity which demonstrates the interplay of developing trade and increasing efficiency of law enforcement during the post medieval period. The smugglers' cache at "Smugglers" cottage survives well. Its position and unusually complex design show clearly the degree of skill, ingenuity and effort invested in concealing the location of such caches and making their examination difficult at a time when the activity they represented formed an important part of the local economy. This cache also shows the strategic factors important in the siting of such clandestine stores, being located near but not obviously at a landing place and within easy reach of a well-used anchorage.


The scheduling includes an 18th or early 19th century smugglers' cache, a hidden store for contraband goods, situated beneath the garden of a cottage now known as "Smugglers", near the north east coast of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. The smugglers' cache is visible as an underground passage and chamber, `T-shaped' in plan, in the garden close to the south of the cottage. Its entrance passage, the stem of the `T' plan, is 0.35m wide and 1.5m long, WSW-ENE. The entrance itself, at the WSW end, is flanked by a broad upright slab forming a jamb at each side, 0.5m high and rebated at the outer end to accommodate the missing door. Beyond these jambs, the entrance passage is walled by coursed slabs. The descent of the entrance passage to the chamber very effectively obstructs entry. Its floor drops steeply beyond the entrance jamb slabs, descending approximately 0.7m over the following 0.85m of the passage. The passage roof enhances the obstruction: it remains level, covered by two flat slabs and a slender corroded iron bar, until near the end of the passage when the roof level suddenly drops 0.4m at a slab laid vertically and resting on the innermost coursing of the entrance passage. Beyond this, the passage opens slightly north of centre in the west wall of the subterranean inner chamber of the cache, the cross-bar of the `T' plan. The chamber is rectangular, 1.8m long, NNW-SSE, by 0.6m wide and 0.75m high, cut directly into the granitic subsoil, locally called `ram', but faced on the west by coursed slab walling. The chamber is roofed by four large slabs laid flat across the sides and chocked level in places with small stones. The cache is covered by soil, a thin layer over the entrance passage but much deeper over the chamber. A shallow and partly silted hollow runs down to the passage entrance, exposing the ends of its jamb and roof slabs and kept clear by rough walling on the south of the hollow. This cache and its adjacent cottage are located near the southern side of Old Grimsby Harbour, one of the two main harbours on Tresco and with easy access to the deeper water anchorage of St Helen's Pool to the north east.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Tangye, M, 'Cornish Archaeology' in A Smuggler's Cache, Tresco, Isles of Scilly, , Vol. 14, (1975), 119-120
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7371, (1988)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8915 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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