Post-medieval smugglers' cache at Tresco Abbey, Tresco


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1017769

Date first listed: 25-Sep-1997


Ordnance survey map of Post-medieval smugglers' cache at Tresco Abbey, Tresco
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District: Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)

Parish: Tresco

National Grid Reference: SV 89558 14281


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

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 Tresco Abbey survives well, showing clearly its manner of construction and demonstrating the well-concealed location sought for such caches. It is unusual in having a clear terminal date for its construction and use, provided by its situation beneath, and respect by, the later and datable wall; that terminal date also confirms its presence during the early decades of the 19th century, coinciding with the greatest pressures on smugglers to conceal evidence of their activities.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The scheduling includes an 18th or early 19th century smugglers' cache, a hidden store for contraband goods, situated beneath a later wall separating the eastern garden of Tresco Abbey house from Abbey Road on southern Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. The smugglers' cache survives as a low chamber approximately 1.5m square in plan and approximately 0.6m high, walled by large slabs laid flat in rough courses that slope inwards to the roof; its floor is obscured by silts and some scattered rubble. The cache lies entirely beneath the garden wall of Tresco Abbey and adjacent rising ground to the south. Near the west end of its north wall the chamber has a small rectangular opening that passes through the base of the later garden wall and opens onto south side of Abbey Road. The opening is 0.43m wide, 0.27m high and 0.3m long, framed by an upright jamb stone to each side and by large sill and lintel slabs. The cache is earlier than the garden wall which overrides it and whose construction might have been expected to lead to the cache's destruction; however when the wall was built in the 1830s-1840s for the islands' lessee, Augustus Smith, he is reported to have spared the cache because he believed it to have been a grave.

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.

Legacy System number: 15509

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Inglis-Jones, E, Augustus Smith of Scilly, (1969)
Inglis-Jones, E, Augustus Smith of Scilly, (1969)
Tangye, M, 'Cornwall Arch Soc Newsletter' in Scilly report, , Vol. 37, (1981), 3
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7326, (1988)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8914 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:

End of official listing