Power, piracy and smuggling on Ynys Môn (Anglesey)

This post examines the relationship between the aristocracy of North Wales and Anglesey with smuggling and piracy.

Reading the interpretation panels in the Grand Jury Room during a visit to Beaumaris Courthouse Museum (see the Collection of the Month post here) I was struck by the relationship between the aristocracy, smuggling and piracy. One family’s name appears on the boards more than once – that of the Bulkeleys. But there was certainly another family who were inextricably linked with North Wales – the Stanleys. Neither family were Welsh by origin – the Stanleys were from Staffordshire and the Bulkeleys of Norman descent having settled in Cheshire. In 1483, however, the Stanley family interests moved to North Wales when William Stanley was awarded the office of chief justice of the region, and the Dictionary of Welsh Biography reflects that, through marriage in 1763, the Stanleys developed direct connections with Anglesey. Not as wealthy or influential as the Stanleys, the Bulkeleys had migrated to Anglesey by 1450 to become one of the most powerful families on the island and evidence of their status remains today with the Bulkeley Hotel, the Bulkeley Arms, and Bulkeley Place amongst others.

Branches of both families, then, were present on Anglesey during the eighteenth century when, as a result of soaring import duties on goods such as wine, spirits, tobacco, tea, salt, soap and candles, smuggling in the UK reached a zenith. With their proximity to the Isle of Man and with numerous remote beaches and landing places, North Wales and Anglesey became a smugglers paradise. And this is what piqued my interest – the Isle of Man was not under English jurisdiction. In 1405 Henry IV granted it on a feudal basis to the Stanley family and throughout their long three-hundred-year ownership it acted as a centre for the trade of contraband with goods such as brandy, sugar and salt transported to the coast of North Wales via flotillas of small boats.  

By the late 1700s whole communities across the UK were dependant on smuggling. Island communities such as the Scilly Isles were in league with the smugglers who could provide contraband goods which they could not otherwise afford. And this seems to be mirrored on Anglesey with the diaries of William Bulkeley reflecting that he supported smuggling through the purchase of contraband such as French brandy and claret. In May 1750 he wrote: ‘on account of a very penal law being passed last Session of Parliament against the running of soap and candles, there will soon be no soap to be had […] I bought today of a woman in that business 20lb almost (which I am afraid is the last I shall have of her).’

Entry for May 1750, diary of William Bulkeley

Piracy is also discussed on the panels in the Grand Jury Room which note that during Tudor and Stuart times ‘many gentry families were engaged in piracy’ and that a mafia-like network of wealthy families running pirate ships is believed to have stretched across North Wales. Certainly, Sir Richard Bulkeley III (died 1621) owned a fleet of ships and the museum panels go on to state that it was ‘common knowledge, though never proven’ that a number of his servants and his brother was involved in piracy and privateering. Although I can find no immediate implication that the Stanleys were involved in such a network, it is hard to believe that they were ignorant of such activities. It is thought the Isle of Man contributed around twenty to twenty-five per cent of their revenue but they were also known to keep the governance of the island at arm’s length, rarely visiting it. In 1794 David Robertson noted of the Stanleys in ‘A tour through the Isle of Man’ that:

It may not be improper to observe, that their personal history, except in a few instances, is unconnected with the public transactions of the Island. Being Subjects of England, they generally resided in that country; and so long as their Lieutenants remitted the revenues of the kingdom, they supinely acquiesced in their administration. For more than three centuries this family enjoyed the regal government of Man; yet in so long a period few of them possessed the ambition or generosity to visit their subjects: and when they conferred this honour, either their interests in the Island were threatened, or their personal safety in England endangered.

It may be that this tack was deliberate, and it was not until 1642 when James Stanley became Lord of Man and more regular visits were made that it was noted that his rule was ‘blighted with various issues such as smuggling.’

Sir Richard Bulkeley, died 1573, unknown artist; high sheriff of Anglesey for 1547, 1442 and 1561; high sheriff of Caernarvonshire for 1550 and 1558
Charles Stanley, 8th Earl of Derby (1628-1672), Lord lieutenant of Cheshire and Lancashire

Representatives of the Stanley family were frequently high sheriffs of Cheshire and Lancashire: to be precise they held the role sixteen times between 1463 and 1809. Likewise, members of the Bulkeley family held the position of high sheriff of Anglesey twenty-five time between 1542 and 1827. This included William Bulkeley, the above-mentioned diarist who also served as a justice of the peace for Beaumaris.1

To draw to some sort of close here – though not necessary a conclusion – both the Bulkeleys and the Stanleys were frequently holding positions not just of prestige but of responsibility in that ultimately, they were upholding the law. As such, their roles were complex and duplicitous and it is hardly surprisingly that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries few smugglers were caught; those that were, as reflected in the diaries of William Bulkeley, were often treated with leniency. As a final note and to reflect what a tangled web it was: William Bulkeley’s daughter, Mary, married Fortunatus Wright, a privateer from Liverpool.2

  1. The term ‘sheriff’ derives from the ‘Reeve of the shire’ – medieval reeves were responsible for overseeing labour and the financial accounts of a manor, and for attended courts. A high sheriff, however, was responsible to the king for the maintenance of law and order within the shire, or county, and for the collection and return of taxes due to the Crown ↩︎
  2. A privateer was a private owner of an armed ship. During war they were often engaged on commission and legally allowed to pillage. However, when not on commission they were frequently intertwined with piracy ↩︎

The preservation of records and the writing of police histories


A number of histories of UK police forces begin right at the beginning of policing with rich information about parish constabularies, early reform and the establishment of the Metropolitan Police. For some, by the chronological ending of the book, information tends to get thinner or peter out. The reasons for this could be three-fold. First, that regional force histories were often written at the point of amalgamations instigated by either the 1964 Police Act or the 1972 Local Government Act, in order to preserve a perceived loss of history. Or they may have been written to mark other major landmark events such as force centenaries many of which occurred in the mid-20th century. Secondly, this, in turn, indirectly influenced the chronology of national histories – for example, T.A. Critchley acknowledges that he made use of ‘forty or so’ local police force histories.[1] The third reason feeds into a reliance on secondary material (published books) which may indicate a lack of primary material (original records). Again this is particularly pertinent for regional forces whose records have never been incorporated into the Public Records Act and consequently were less protected.

This, then, really forms the crux of my blog: whether writing about police history, history of crime, or wider criminal justice history, and whether under the umbrella of academia or personal research, it all relies on the ability to access primary material held in record offices or by police force museums. I’ve written about this now on a number of occasions, most notably in my PhD thesis, but I’ll continue to beat the drum because here in 2021 I feel there is an under-represented concern about the health of historical writing and the ability to be able to create a balanced, current and relevant history of policing in the UK.  This blog, then, will set out to explore these challenges.

Recognition by police forces that their records have research and historical value

The Amazon page for The English Police by Clive Emsley provides a clue to the first of these challenges in describing the book as: “A comprehensive history of policing from the eighteenth century onwards, which draws on largely unused police archives ….”[2] Professor Emsley, as the doyen of policing history, undoubtedly had the necessary contacts to access those largely unused police archives. He also had insider knowledge in that in 1989 he and Dr Ian Bridgeman published their comprehensive survey of archival material held by police forces in force museums, archives, cupboards, store rooms or in offices at headquarters.

One outcome of Bridgeman and Emsley’s survey was L.A. Waters’ Towards a records management policy for provincial forces in England and Wales which was published by the Police History Society in 1992 and circulated to all UK police forces.[3] It was hoped this would at least draw attention to the plight of many of the records identified by Bridgeman and Emsley and provide a simple guide to assist forces in recognising and archiving valuable historical material. In 2003, Emsley and Dr Chris Williams sent out a survey to UK police forces in order to ascertain whether the guide had improved the situation. The responses to this survey identified one key problem which remains relevant today: only ten per cent of responding forces appreciated what sort of material was of future historic value with many archiving ‘a narrowly defined and static group of “historical” records.’[4]

The flow of records from police forces into the public domain

To an extent, Bridgeman and Emsley’s 1989 survey only told half the story because it didn’t touch on what police records were already sitting in the public domain in record offices. With finite funding and time and limited to just six record offices, my PhD research at least offered a glimpse of this missing narrative. By conducting surveys of online catalogues, corroborated with more direct contact with archivists, it showed that all six archives received large collections of policing records between the 1940s to 1980s. However, post 1980s there was a drop in all cases to near zero deposits being made by those same forces today. The surveys also revealed some important pointers around why police force records were entering the public domain:

  • Just over fifty per cent of the records currently held by archives could be described as ‘informal deposits’ in that they were presented to the record office by retired police officers, families of police officers, individual officers acting on their own initiative rather than any force agreed deposit.
  • Included in this were significant quantities from closing force museums;
  • Large quantities of records were deposited with record offices during periods of amalgamation as a result of closing station and department clear-outs, but also perhaps triggered by more emotional responses of removing material from the perceived subsuming force.
  • Much of the later material –  post 1980 – tends to be of a more curated nature: annual reports, newsletters, photographs, histories of the force; this again reflects not only a lack of understanding around what is important to preserve, but insecurity around what can safely be preserved.
  • More recently some police forces have removed collections from their local record office – notably Cumbria and Surrey police forces.

The rise and fall of police records at Cheshire Archives & Local Studies


The reasons for the demise of historical police records entering the public domain is complex: of course computerisation and a reduction in paperwork needs to be viewed as a major contributor. But legislation such as Freedom of Information and Data Protection (GDPR) and PACE have all led forces to apply additional layers of control over their records and to view them as ‘high risk.’ One clear contributor has been the Management of Police Information (MoPI) which by narrowly defining and closely adhering to the DPA, FOIA and other legislation and policing protocols, has overshadowed and neglected the historical importance of the UK police.

The future of policing histories

Writing history is a complex balance of processes which involves access to a good range of primary material and the ability to interpret the material that is presented: who selected it; why is it there; what are the voices that are not represented? The section above clearly illustrates that what is selected is often tempered by emotional responses or control. The intellectual landscape of deposits is changing: layers of acts and policies not only started to plug the leaking fifty per cent of records flowing unofficially out of police forces and into the public domain, but reassessed the remaining fifty per cent.

As a good news story to end on: with work from the Home Office, the College of Policing and a number of key advisors, MoPI is being redrafted as a new Code. Perhaps the long beating of the drum has finally been heard because it will now have a greater emphasis around archiving records which is hugely welcomed. However, there are two critical points to monitor: first will this create greater access to records for researchers – and without access there is no history? Second, if it does encourage forces to archive more material, what sort of material will be preserved? It takes skill and courage to select representational cross-sections which tell the entire story and whether forces have the expertise or resources to do this only time will tell.


Notes and further reading:

There are some recent and great success stories of important policing collections being deposited with local record offices, for example, Northamptonshire and Devon & Cornwall and it is hoped this trend will continue in the light of the new code. I would also like to recognise all those force museums who often work in difficult circumstances and yet provide excellent research facilities.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council have recently launched a Heritage Portfolio with the aim of supporting and protecting policing heritage

Bridgeman, Ian and Clive Emsley, A guide to the archives of the police forces of England and Wales (The Police History Society, 1989) (available here)

Sutton-Vane, Angela (2021) Investigating the murder file: A biographical analysis of creation, survival and impact (PhD thesis: The Open University) (available here)

Willlams, C.A. (ed) Giving the past a future: Preserving the heritage of the UK’s criminal justice system (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2004)

[1] For example Critchley cites histories of Swansea, Anglesey, Kent, Leeds and Cheshire Constabularies. T.A. Critchley, A history of police in England and Wales: 900-1966 (London: Constable & Co. Ltd, 1967)

[2] Emsley, Clive, The English police: A political and social history (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996)

[3] Waters, L.A. Towards a records management policy for provincial forces in England and Wales (Police History Society, 1992) (available from the Police History Society)

[4] Williams, Chris A. and Clive Emsley, Police records archiving policy in Great Britain: interim report, The International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice (Milton Keynes: The Open University, 2003)

Images: Header image: Metal boxes on the shelves of the AySA archives (image in the public domain); File: East Sussex Record Office, R v Field and Gray, 1920, SPA 10/51/1; Graph: showing opening and closing dates of police records held at Cheshire Archives & Local Studies, created by Angie Sutton-Vane.