Throughout history, alcohol smugglers have earned reputations that have painted them as heroes and villains in the eyes of the public. From the gentleman smuggler Bill McCoy to the dangerous Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lythgoe, rum runners are the stuff of folk legend and another name to be mentioned in the same company is Jack Rattenbury.
Born in the village of Beer to the east of Devon, Rattenbury was known as ‘The Rob Roy of the West.’ He wrote a journal about his exploits called Memoirs of a Smuggler, a major reason why Rattenbury is remembered today.
Rattenbury was born in 1778 and from a young age he had a fascination with the sea that made him want to become a fisherman. But he found the act of fishing to be boring and felt the itch to seek his fortune. At the age of 15, he became a privateer, only to be taken prisoner in France.
Managing to escape, Rattenbury set the tone for the rest of his life. He seemed to have a habit of pulling off daring escapes and while many of his adventures are likely an exaggeration, his journal does give an indication of his personality and his way of thinking.
An example of one of these escapes involved him being captured by a French privateer and he was commanded to steer the ship while the crew got hammered below deck. Rattenbury navigated towards the English coast and when the ship neared Portland Bill, he convinced the crew that it was Alderney.
When the ship got closer to shore, Rattenbury convinced the crew to lower a boat and then he dived overboard and swam to the Swanage harbour. Then he went to the local customs authorities, who sent their own vessel to recapture the ship that’d been taken by the French.
Embracing the smuggling life
Rattenbury’s smuggling operation was headquartered in the Beer Quarry Caves and his usual method was to buy tubs in the Channel Islands and then sink them off the English coast so he could collect them later.
The Rob Roy of the West didn’t limit himself to smuggling booze either. He also smuggled French prisoners and during one unsuccessful attempt he was caught by magistrates. Rattenbury made the excuse that he thought the prisoners came from Jersey and he was allowed to leave without a reprimand.
There were times when Rattenbury tried to give up smuggling. At one point, he tried to run a pub but was unable to make money out of it and closed the establishment in 1813 to return to the life he knew best.
Rattenbury continued smuggling into his later years and died at the age of 65. He was buried in Seaton churchyard on the 28th April in 1884.
A legacy in rum
The story of Jack Rattenbury lives on in Jack Ratt Lugger rum, produced by the Lyme Bay Winery. Jack Ratt is a spiced rum made from a blend of Caribbean rum aged in bourbon-charred oak barrels. It has been infused with spices of vanilla, nutmeg, orange peel and clothes.
The name comes from the fishing boats that Rattenbury used to smuggle goods into Lyme Bay. These lugger boats were often painted black and piloted during the night. They were fast, agile and difficult to catch.
Rattenbury portrayed himself as a swashbuckling adventurer and though he wasn’t the most successful of smugglers, he did provide the blueprint for what people like Bill McCoy would become.