Soap Smuggling in Wales

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first, the seas around the west Wales coast were infested with pirates. Amazingly, these ruffians were not just Welsh – there are records that pirates operating in the area came from places as diverse as Turkey, France and Ireland.

There was much illegal trading around Solva on the Welsh Coast via Ireland and the Isle of Man. This included tallow for use in soap and candle manufacture. (The Baptist chapel in Solva was lit well by candles made from tallow smuggled into Solva harbour, thus implicating people well respected in local society.) Cargoes of soap itself was also smuggled. 

As it was not officially part of Britain, goods would be brought in to the Isle of Man and stored there without fear of discovery by the crown. Contraband such as brandy, tea, salt and sugar could be stockpiled and then brought over when the price was right.

Salt was essential in soap manufacture and could be obtained by the soap-maker from kelp seaweed much more cheaply than if bought as salt on account of the high duties on the latter. Similarly, glass-makers were not excised by the presence of salt in their kelp, unless a very high percentage was present. In any case, the salt that rose to the top of their pots was skimmed off and sold as sandiver, fetching £8 to £10 per ton. Even the insoluble residue of kelp was valued as manure in the days before chemical fertilisers.

It was, however, only the soluble part of kelp that was of value to bleachers and soap-boilers. Soap-boilers used the kelp by reducing it to powder and dissolving it in water. It was rendered caustic by the action of lime after which the solution was well stirred and filtered. Thus the value of kelp in saponification lay in the quantity of alkali it contained but value rose more steeply than in direct proportion to alkali content, since a greater quantity of alkali was obtained from rich than from poor kelp at much less expense in labour and utensils.

Salt smuggling was rife on this part of the coast, in particular at New Quay, the little bay of Cwmtydu and the villages around St Bride’s Bay. The ‘Salt Survey’ commented that there were many small creeks around Fishguard where vessels were able to land contraband unobserved.

Skomer and Skokholm islands to the south were used as smuggling depots for everything from brandy to tallow and smugglers at St Davids to the north scuttled a government ship in 1770. However, the most persistent stories from this area centre on Solva , where houses are reputed to have concealed cupboards and shafts that were used to hide contraband.

Swansea coal ships often found themselves conveniently ‘blown off course’ to Ireland during the 18th century, where they would load up with salt and soap. Gower was a useful stop-off point when they came back.

The locals appeared to be on the side of the smugglers –

The Country People in General Favouring the Smuglers both on Salt and Customs Accot… I think a Boat here absolutely necessary as much Soap as well as Salt is Run here”.