The one that got away
Jack Rattenbury is famous not because he was a smuggler but because he wrote a diary of his activities and then published it.
Smuggling was a national pastime in the early 19th century and many clergymen were involved in illicit activities. John Smith, pastor of the Unitarian Congregational Church of George’s Meeting in Colyton
ghost wrote Jack's diaries for publication. Smith was not alone in his association with duty dodgers. A little way along the coast at Budleigh Salterton
the Reverends Matthew Mundy
and Ambrose Stapleton
had a thriving sideline in stolen brandy, which had operated for quite a number of years.
Back in Beer, Jack Rattenbury was born in 1778, son of a cordwainer – a shoemaker in our terms. Jack’s father went away to sea and was never heard of again, so his mother had to support them both by selling fish.
Young Jack first went to sea when he was nine years old, first on his uncle’s boat and then as an apprentice to a Brixham fisherman. Life at sea was hard and Jack changed ships a number of times before enlisting on a privateer bound for the Azores.
He loved the freedom of the sea and especially enjoyed the thrill and excitement of outwitting the authorities. By the time he was sixteen he was well travelled but restless when he spent time back in Beer with his mother. It was about this time that he became involved in smuggling, which he said was "then being plied very briskly in the neighbourhood" so he decided to have a go and see if he could make his fortune that way.
He had limited success but it wasn’t long before he was back at sea again, this time bound for Wales. Before long the ship was overtaken by a French vessel and boarded. The prize master had no experience in sailing a ship, so Jack offered to bring the ship back into harbour. The master was glad to take up the offer and went down below to drink grog with his companions.
Whilst the captain and his mates were busy drinking themselves insensible Jack Rattenbury began to think about escaping as well as revenging himself on his enemies. A thick fog coming up aided his plan, so Jack could change course without anyone noticing. When the fog cleared and daylight came Jack told the others that the land they could see was Alderney, when in fact they were just off Portland in Dorset.
By the time they got near to Swanage Jack had managed to persuade them to let him go ashore to get a pilot. When his three companions became suspicious, Jack jumped overboard and swam to shore, where he raised the alarm and sent men to get the customs officials.
Rattenbury then went back to join his original ship, but was then press-ganged into the Royal Navy. The press gang rounded up men, mostly against their will, and pressed them into service as seamen. Jack wasn’t in the Navy for long and jumped ship and made his way back to Beer. He spent the next five years busy fishing, smuggling, freighting and victualling, meaning he spent much of his time loading ships with fresh supplies.
In February 1799 he joined a brig headed for Newfoundland and he spent the summer and autumn of that year netting and curing an enormous catch of cod. After an eventful journey back to England, via Spain, Jack married Anna Partridge on 17th April 1800. The couple lived in Lyme Regis, but after four years, having been press-ganged again and escaping again, they were back in Beer.
Jack Rattenbury spent the next few years trying to avoid capture by the law enforcement officers and dabbling in smuggling and fishing. In July 1806 he was caught and sentenced to prison. On the road to Bodmin Gaol he once again escaped. He had various brushes with the law over the next few months. He was finally arrested for desertion from the Royal Navy. Needless to say he escaped again.
Not long after this he assisted a boat in distress and piloted her to safety. The boat was carrying men of the Prince of Wales’ Volunteers Regiment, which helped him immensely as they had friends in high places. After receiving a reward of twenty guineas and another guinea to print a handbill describing the rescue he was able to present a copy of the handbill to Lord Rolle. One week later he was told that the Royal Navy had dropped the charges.
In 1809 he changed careers again and opened a pub. However, this didn’t work for him either and before long Jack Rattenbury was back to smuggling and in trouble with the law again. He bought and sold a number of boats, effectively becoming a dealer, but by 1821 the law had caught up with him again and from 1826 - 1827 he was in prison in Exeter.
He didn’t like prison food, so he had his food allowance paid to him. This allowed him to have foods of his choice brought to him.
During the summer of 1827 his luck changed a little and on 14th June he attended the House of Commons in London to forward the case for the building of a harbour at Beer. On 28th June he ran a smuggling expedition and 8th July he was back in London, this time at the House of Lords promoting the harbour scheme.
Thanks to his connections with Lord Rolle, Jack Rattenbury had great hopes of getting on in the world with the harbour scheme and a plan to build a canal. Sadly for him it all came to nothing and he returned home in July with "blue ribbons in my hat, and a merry heart . . . but was sadly disappointed in the result" because the bill was passed but the project was dropped.
In November 1831 he was captured again by the authorities and spent fourteen months in Dorchester prison. When he was released he was in his fifty fifth year and decided that it was time for him to retire. The Rattenbury family weren’t altogether finished with smuggling and Jack’s son William continued the "business".
Jack Rattenbury died at the age of sixty five and was buried in Seaton churchyard, somewhere near the north transept; the exact place of his grave is now unknown. He lives on in fiction though, the smuggler Elzevir Block, one of the characters in J. Meade Falkner’s novel Moonfleet, written in 1898, has a striking resemblance to Jack Rattenbury.
In Beer, Rattenbury’s cottage is still standing and he is remembered on Rattenbury Day, the sixth Friday after the first Monday in August.
You can see a picture of Jack Rattenbury in the Anchor Inn or if you prefer you can visit the home of Jack Rattenbury's patron Lord Rolle