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 ↩︎