Pirates, smugglers, treason, and a fake king—Lundy Island has seen it all. Something about this enticingly close, yet seductively remote, little island has attracted ne’er-do-wells for over 1,000 years…
Lundy is a little island. It’s only 3 miles long and just over half a mile wide. It lies in the Bristol channel 12 miles off the coast of Devon on the west coast of England and south of Wales. Today, there are only about 28 people who live on the island.
Despite its remote location (or perhaps because of it) the little island has archeological evidence of habitation going back 3,000 years. Archaeological finds date back to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age; and in fact the grassy remains of some prehistoric houses can still be made out in the northern plateau.
Lundy is steep and rocky, often shrouded by fog, and the site of many shipwrecks over the centuries; it seems it was the land no ancient lighthouse could protect. (Today’s modern and solar-powered lighthouses lower down out of the foggy heights apparently do a wonderful job.)
The name ‘Lundy’ is believed to come from the Old Norse word for ‘puffin island’—’lundi’ being the word for a puffin and ‘ey’, an island. In Old Welsh, the name for the island was ‘Caer Sidi’, the ‘fortress of faeries’. In modern Welsh it is known as ‘Ynys Wair’, ‘Gwair’s Island’, in reference to an alternative name for the wizard Gwydion.
Despite the much more dashing wizards and faerie fortress associations, it’s the puffins that stuck.
But ‘puffin island’ is a deceptively cute name for an island that held host to scandalous goings on over the course of 1,000 years.
Lundy Island in the Dark Ages
During the Dark Ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire, was a time of some wildly speculative flights of fancy involving a race of giants on the island or that it was an entry point to the Celtic underworld.
Lundy Island may have come under attack during the Viking raids on Devon, Bristol, and Wales that took place in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Viking chieftain, Hubba (which is a delightful name for a Viking, despite all the raiding) led a raid on North Devon from Wales in 878 and was killed near Appledore on the coast of the mainland. An area known as the Giants’ Graves on Lundy is rumoured to be his resting place.
What is almost certain is that Lundy was home to a Christian community from the year 500. In the Beacon Hill cemetery, by the old lighthouse, there are four early Christian burial stones.
They have inscriptions, and the two earlier ones have been dated to around the year 500 and the later ones go into the 7th century. The fact that all four exist together on the same site makes the island unique, and shows that Lundy was an important place religiously. But what we don’t know is whether there was a Christian monastery on Lundy, or whether they are the remains of Celtic saints brought here because the island was regarded as sacred.
As the 8th century progressed, Viking raids on Britain became increasingly frequent. Lundy, with its sheltered bay, would undoubtedly have made an attractive base. Whilst no evidence exists to indicate Viking occupation (despite the name ‘Lundy’ coming from Old Norse) it does get a mention in the famous 12th century ‘Orkneyinga Saga’.
Marisco Years & Treason
The most obvious historical influence on the island, by virtue of the fact that the village tavern is named after them, is the de Marisco family.
The first mention of Norman ownership was by the de Newmarch family in around 1100. It seems the de Newmarchs leased the Island to the de Mariscos sometime around 1150, which is when their bizarre history kicks off.
In 1155, Henry II acceded the throne and commanded that the title to Lundy be given to the Knights Templar. The de Mariscos refused to surrender the Island, using it as a base for piratical raids on passing shipping and the North Devon coast, and allying themselves with the French and Scots against the crown.
Henry III took the throne and demanded the return of lands that had previously been granted away, and this included the island of Lundy. William followed the family tradition and did not give up the island, because it was a useful base for piracy. For whatever reason, apparently no more action was taken against them, until 1238, when the family head William de Marisco was implicated in a plot to murder Henry III. (Being feisty apparently ran in the family.) In 1242, the King ordered a raid on the island and William, along with 16 accomplices, was captured. They were taken to London where William was found guilty of treason and hung, drawn, and quartered.
Following this, Henry III took steps to regain control of Lundy. It was a natural fortress and the idea was he was going to build a castle there, which he did. However, a later William de Marisco persuaded Edward I in 1281 that he had the rightful title to the island and that the rebellious behaviour of his father’s cousin had nothing to do with him. A couple of Mariscos later, Olivia (the wife of this William’s son John) had possession of Lundy until her death in 1231, and that was finally the end of the family’s residence.
The castle that stands today on Lundy Island is alternately called Lundy Castle or Marisco Castle.
There are two historical problems with the castle. First, the castle built by Henry III was to protect Lundy against people like the Mariscos, so he certainly wouldn’t have called it ‘Marisco Castle’. The second is this is almost certainly not the building that Henry III built. All of the archeological evidence that has been gathered suggests that this building dates from sometime in the 17th century and was built by Thomas Bushell during the English Civil War.
“We think the actual location of the castle that Henry III built is in this place called Bulls Paradise, which is in the centre of the present day village. Thomas Bushell held Lundy during the Civil War for the Royalist cause in the 1640s. Having built the castle, he was quite successful in defending Lundy as it was the last of the Royalist strongholds to fall to the Parliamentarians. The building subsequently fell into disrepair.” (Michael Williams)
Pirates & Smugglers
Lundy was a favoured island for pirates, smugglers, and merchants because it was located directly in the shipping lanes leading in and out of the Bristol Channel. Lundy proved to be a perfect refuge for merchants, smugglers, and pirates alike who wanted to avoid attention. Since anyone caught doing business with a pirate could also be tried as one, the offshore location of the island was invaluable.
By the 12th century, merchants of Bristol were already trading with Ireland and Wales, and the city itself was a flourishing port and manufacturing centre. However, it was not until the 16th century that Bristol began trading with Mediterranean cultures. A massive spike in the number of merchant ships that traded with Bristol occurred in the middle of the 17th century. By the year 1654 transatlantic traffic represented only 1/8th of the port’s activities, whereas in 1685 it involved nearly 1/3 of Bristol’s overseas trade. The many ships coming to and from Bristol were perfect targets for pirates in the channel. The time period directly correlates to the rise in piracy in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean and is known as the Golden Age of Piracy, which spanned from 1650 to 1750. (Boyle 27)
During the 17th century, all along the Devon coast, Barbary pirates burnt settlements, sank ships, and carried off men, women, and children into slavery. There were large numbers of pirates—in 1640 it was reported that there were 60 ‘Turkish men-of-war’ off the South West coast. The Royal Navy is remembered as second to none, but throughout the 17th century the coast of England and Ireland was a lucrative hunting ground for Salé Rovers. These pirates were named for the slaver town Salé, in modern-day Morocco; these men were the roving pirates that sought human plunder for the slave trade.
“Oliver Cromwell, alarmed that the pirates were crippling ports and damaging the English merchant fleet, decreed that any captured ‘Arab’ should be taken to Bristol and slowly drowned. He also commissioned Robert Blake and William Penn to clear the pirates off their base on Lundy Island. The pirate stronghold was bombarded and those not killed or captured fled back to North Africa. Despite this, pirates continued to mount raids on the coastal communities of Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset.” (Dixon)
For five years, this island in the middle of the Bristol Channel [Lundy] became a Barbary Pirate HQ, a base for raids as far afield as Iceland. The bogeyman-in-chief was the pirate Jan Janszoon. Originally Dutch, in the parlance of the time he ‘turned Turk’. To better be able to strike up and down the North European coast, he needed a base. So, sleepy Lundy Island became part of the Barbary Pirate kingdom. Or, so the story goes. This piracy was a bustling business, one known and feared throughout Britain’s coastal communities, thanks in part to letters like this: ‘The ship was surprised by a Turkish man-o-war, Matthew lost his whole estate and was taken to Salé in Barbary, where the captain of the Turkish ship sold him for 350 Barbary ducats. He lives in misery in iron chains and is forced to grind in the mill like a horse all day long, is fed on bread and water, and insufficient of that. And is tortured to make him ‘turn Turk’. A great ransom has been set on him, which because of his losses he cannot procure.’ (Sam Willis, ‘Invasion’, BBC)
Trinity House wrote to the privy council that there were 1,200-1,400 English captives in Salé, most of them taken within 20-30 miles of Dartmouth, Plymouth, and Falmouth, writers complain that the coast is not guarded by ships to defend the King’s subjects, and that ‘our friends are not restrained from arming and aiding infidels’. Spurred on by the lack of security on its shores, the Navy beefed up its defences. The spectre of the green flag of the Salé Rovers became a thing of the past around Britain’s coast.
“Their raids became another forgotten chapter in our history. Why? Perhaps because the memory of them harassing Britain’s coast at will didn’t exactly fit with the idea of Britannia ruling the waves.” (Sam Willis, ‘Invasion’, BBC)
***As a side note, and rather bizarrely, during all this Lundy was offered as a safe haven for Sir Lewis Stukeley, the man who became a social outcast after his arrest of Sir Walter Ralegh. Sir Lewis died, apparently ‘raving mad’, on Lundy in 1620. ***
While Sam Willis posits the reason for the piracy history hush-hush in the official narrative (there is certainly no mention of it on the Lundy Landmark Trust website) might be due to keeping up the image of ‘Rule Britannia’, perhaps part of this is due to a lack of archeological evidence supporting their use of the island. Researcher Patrick Boyle notes that there have been multiple archeological investigations on the island that have produced material culture from periods when piracy was recurrent on the island, from the 12th century to the 18th century. However, none of the artefacts were directly related to piracy. “A simple reason could be that the pirates did not leave behind enough material to be found. Another reason may be that it is simply not possible to differentiate pirate material culture from regular material culture of the same period. Pirates were ordinary people and used the same everyday objects as other ordinary people.” (Boyle 8)
The sun may have set on the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730) but nefarious deeds were not done on Lundy yet. In 1750, Lundy was leased to Thomas Benson, a shipping merchant and MP for Barnstaple. Lundy Island appeared to be uninhabited, neglected, and derelict—just right for his shady dealings. Benson used his position to secure lucrative tobacco contracts. The amount loaded onto his ships was always more than the amount unloaded in England—the missing tobacco was secreted off the ships at Lundy. To avoid customs tax, he would unload the tobacco at Lundy, then secret it ashore at night under the noses of the revenue men, a very profitable scam. But Benson had another secret, as well as tobacco, he also had an illicit trade in convicts.
Benson had a contract with the government to transport convicts to America, but instead he landed some of them on Lundy where they were used as a slave workforce. BBC Four discovered 14 separate contracts to transport convicts held in the Devon Heritage Centre. While he was at it, Benson continued the Lundy tradition of smuggling. “In 1752, he heavily insured his ship the Nightingale, which was fully leaden with a valuable cargo of pewter, linen, and salt, supposedly sailing for Maryland in America. He gave orders to his captain to secretly unload the goods on Lundy Island, and to scuttle the vessel. This he did, and the plot was discovered by the authorities, following a confession from a crew member, and the captain was convicted and hanged in London.” (Michael Williams) The poor captain was severely punished, but Benson himself escaped to Portugal. His English assets and lands were seized by the crown, but he was able to live out the rest of his life evading justice. He is rumoured to have died in Oporto in 1771 at the age of 64, but no direct evidence of this has been found.
By the 19th century, Britain was sick of the ongoing Lundy fiasco and the safety of shipping became a top concern. Bristol merchants got together to build a lighthouse on Lundy, to turn it from a place of hidden debauchery and dangerous shipwrecks to a useful haven.
In 1819, Trinity House came to Lundy to start work on what is now called the Old Light on Beacon Hill, the highest point on the island. It was completed in 1820. Unfortunately Trinity House hadn’t reckoned on the fog that often envelopes Lundy, which obscures the light. Despite several alterations to the lighthouse, complaints from ships persisted, so in 1863 a fog-signalling station was built to supplement the lighthouse. “Eventually Trinity House admitted defeat to the fog, and abandoned the lighthouse, and in 1897 they built two lighthouses at a lower level where they wouldn’t be obscured by fog. Like all lighthouses nowadays, both the north and south lights are unmanned, but the Trinity House Keepers remained part of the community. Back when they were manned, the Lundy post was a popular lighthouse posting because it was one of the few offshore postings where you could walk to a pub.” (Michael Williams)
The Heaven Years
In 1834 Lundy Island was purchased as a family home by Sir William Hudson Heaven, who built the first road on the island as well as an elegant house named Millcombe.
The family then remained on the island for over 80 years, presiding over its most prosperous period, and their legacy is apparent from the numerous gravestones in the cemetery. It was around this period that the writer Charles Kingsley visited the island, which he later described in his novel Westward Ho!
“The Heaven family used Lundy as a summer retreat, although financial difficulties led to the family moving to the island permanently in 1851. In 1836, he built the villa, which we now know as Milcombe House. Like the other buildings on Lundy, it has been restored by the Landmark Trust. Including its inward-sloping roof that is used to collect rainwater for drinking.” (Michael Williams)
Millcombe House aka ‘The Villa’, with inward-sloping roof to collect rainwater.Source: Williams, Michael, ‘A History of Lundy’ talk by the Lundy Field Society, Sky Gathering 5, Cloud Appreciation Society, 26 May 2019
His son Reverend Grosset Heaven was also educated at Oxford, he took holy orders and moved to Lundy in 1863 to teach and to be a church minister on the island. He inherited Lundy on the death of his father in 1883, by which time it was a heavily mortgaged estate. Hudson struggled manfully with the Island for 33 years until his death in 1916. Hudson’s legacy is the church, St Helen’s, which he has constructed in 1897.
The Reverend Heaven became its first vicar, the ring of bells was installed in the tower and is still popular today with visiting bell ringers.
Lundy in the 20th Century to Today: Tourism, a Self-Proclaimed King & a 24-hour Pub
In 1917, the last of the resident Heaven family, Walter, was forced by his creditors to sell Lundy. At the time, the Island was badly rundown and its buildings mostly in disrepair. Augustus Christie’s offer of £15,000 was considered generous.
Christie’s approach to Island ownership was totally professional. Firstly, he employed a surveyor to assess what investment was required. His solicitors were instructed to clarify the Island’s legal status, especially regarding taxation, and the farm was leased to a successful North Devon farmer Mr Herbert May.
Unlike the Heavens, Christie saw the business potential of encouraging visitors. He started by converting the Manor Farm into a hotel, established a ‘Refreshments Room’ for day-trippers and purchased the Lerina as a supply boat which was licensed to carry 12 passengers.
To improve access, he had the breakwater and quay constructed in the Landing Bay and what are now known as the Montagu Steps to provide a landing on the West Side.
In just seven years, Lundy had become a vibrant community again. During the summers, it was visited at least twice weekly by excursion steamers providing a landing fee income in 1924 of £124 (split 50/50 with Mr May) which along with the other sources of revenue resulting in a small annual profit. Christie sold Lundy in 1925 to Martin Coles Harman. Martin Coles Harman got a bargain for the £16,000 Lundy cost him.
Young Martin, at the age of 18, had made a Lundy day trip in 1903. He was so enamoured with the Island that when Lundy came up for sale 22 years later, he bought it. Harman was quite a character and firmly believed, in his words, that Lundy was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire recognising King George as its head.
Harman ran Lundy Island like his private kingdom, but the actual running of the island was handled by his agent Felix Gade. Felix and his wife ran the island for many decades, while Harman ran his businesses from London, visiting from time to time with his family. Much of what Lundy is today is because of Felix Gade’s tireless work.
His wife, Rene Gade, set up facilities to welcome visitors. The Manor Farm Hotel had accommodation for visitors, and tea was set up for day trippers coming over on the steamers.
Gade continued in his role as agent even after the Landmark Trust took over the running of the island in 1969. He was born 1890 and came to Lundy in 1926. At the age of 80, Gade decided it was time to retire, which he did in 1971.
During 29 years of ownership, Harman put his distinctive stamp on Lundy, literally.
When the GPO withdrew its postal service in 1927, he initially handled all the mail at his own expense. In 1929, to offset the cost, he introduced his own ‘Puffin’ stamps, which Gade ran for him. These stamps are still going today. The cost of the stamps covers the cost of UK postage, plus the cost of ferrying it across the channel to the mainland. Lundy has the oldest private postal service in the world, and celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019. The stamps are denominated not in pennies, but in puffins. These continue to this day and early issues have become serious collectors’ items.
The stamps led to an Island currency, in denominations of half and one puffin. However, this fell foul of the Coinage Act 1870 and despite Harman’s contention that Lundy was a self-governing dominion he was fined £5, with 15 guineas costs. The coins were withdrawn from circulation, becoming collector’s pieces too.
As a keen naturalist, Harman introduced several animal species, most successfully the Lundy Ponies, the Sika deer, and Soay sheep, and was instrumental in the formation of the Lundy Field Society, to which he subscribed a gift of £50 and allowed use of the Old Light as a headquarters and hostel. The island is now owned by the National Trust, and run on their behalf by the Landmark Trust.
Today on Lundy Island you are more likely to see bird watchers and hikers than pirates and smugglers, but there are still rowdy times to be had at the one pub on the island.
The pub is what drew lighthouse workers to take the post, back when the lighthouses were manned by resident lightkeepers, because it was the only offshore posting within walking distance of a pub!
The doors of the Marisco Tavern today are open 24-hours a day to welcome any campers or wayward visitors in from the cold and out of the island bluster. Next time you visit, raise a pint in honour of the poor souls who were held captive here, but also the crazy dreamers who kept reinventing the little island as a world unto itself.
Here is a peak at Lundy Island in 1931 from archive footage by British Pathé:
Sources and further reading…
BBC Four, ‘Britain’s Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates, and Rogues—Thomas Benson: Member of Parliament, and smuggler’, 2 December 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p039xgnb
BBC History Magazine, ‘History Extra’, Lundy Island Devon, 17/07/2013 https://www.historyextra.com/period/prehistoric/lundy-island-devon/
Boyle, Patrick J., ‘The Archaeology of Lundy Pirates: A Case Study of Material Culture’, MPhil Dissertation, University of Bristol, September 2016
Cliffe, Charles Frederick, The book of South Wales, the Bristol channel, Monmouthshire, and the Wye (London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co) 1847. Book.
Dixon, Kevin, ‘The Barbary Pirates of Torbay’, We Are South Devon, 1 November, 2018, https://wearesouthdevon.com/barbary-pirates-torbay/
Landmark Trust, Lundy https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland/discovering-lundy/history/
Lundy Field Society Newsletter, No. 41, December 2011, https://lfs-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/newsletter/LFS_Newsletter_41.pdf
Williams, Michael, ‘A History of Lundy’ talk by the Lundy Field Society, Sky Gathering 5, Cloud Appreciation Society, 26 May 2019 https://www.facebook.com/cloudappreciationsociety/videos/2779500608787437/?v=2779500608787437
Willis, Sam, BBC Four, ‘Invasion! with Sam Willis’, Episode 1, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6cvrxd