Friday, 21 June 2013

Dreaming of Smugglers

Museum enthusiast Rob Merkel with one of Fairlynch Museum's latest attractions

For centuries smuggling was a way of life for Budleigh people. One of the best-known was the vicar of East Budleigh, the Rev. Ambrose Stapleton (c.1771-1852). He was noted for his long tenure at All Saints Church but also for the illegal brandy which he both consumed and stored in the church and in the ancient vicarage of Vicar’s Mead. 

Another celebrated smuggler familiar with the coast of East Devon was Jack Rattenbury (1778-1844), pictured left. Although he came originally from Beer, Rattenbury visited Budleigh Bay at least once when he was almost caught red-handed on 29 January 1821 by revenue officer Captain Stocker with “one hundred kegs of spirits, and a bale of tea” as Rattenbury wrote in his memoirs.


Small wonder then that Fairlynch Museum’s ‘Smugglers’ Cellar’ attracts many visitors who are happy to risk the journey down some rather tricky steps. It’s here that they can see Rattenbury’s encounter with Captain Stocker as depicted above by Devon artist Peter Goodhall. Now they can even listen to the famous smuggler himself as he tells his story. That’s thanks to the modelmaking skill of local designer Neil Rogers and the technical wizardry and voice of James Hipperson, grandson of Fairlynch enthusiast Rob Merkel. 

For many years Rob has dreamt of creating what he imagined a 19th century smugglers’ den might look like.  He is keen to locate more artefacts for the Cellar and would love to hear from anyone who might be willing to donate items: anything ranging from two-gallon wooden brandy barrels and old wine bottles to perhaps even the odd cutlass or flintlock pistol.  Given the anarchic state in remote coastal areas like East Devon where the tax-system and press gangs had not endeared the Government to the likes of poor fishermen,  smuggling in the age of Ambrose Stapleton and Jack Rattenbury was often a violent and dangerous business. It was nonetheless, feels Rob, a fascinating time.

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