The Lake District's Dark Past

Smugglers, bootleggers, liars and thieves – three tales from the days when the mountains of Cumbria were even wilder...

Illustration: Steven Hall / Trail Magazine

Illustration: Steven Hall / Trail Magazine

Of the many things the modern Lake District is, the one thing it most certainly isn’t is the 18th century. Journey down the Borrowdale valley today and you’ll pass day-trippers, swish hotels, hill-weary walkers and farmers on quad bikes. But 200 years ago this valley, scowled over by crags and sliced by streams cascading from the peaks above, was the clinking epicentre of one of the Lake District’s most important industries. The bones of the mountains standing above it had long been found to contain two valuable commodities: slate, and another strange, particularly messy black substance. Through the ages, the latter was used for everything from the moulds for cannonballs and coins, medicines, glazes for pottery, the lubricant for guns and the lead in Michelangelo’s pencil. And its extraordinary value was outdone only by its novel occurrence so close to the Earth’s surface, veined through one of the Lake District’s most famous mountains. It was known by many names – cawke, black lead, plumbago – but today we know it as a pure form of graphite. But then it was known mainly as wadd. And wadd was big business. It was first discovered near Seathwaite in 1555. By the 18th century it was one of the most valuable substances that could be pulled out of the ground. Then, a ton of wadd could fetch £1,300, and by the middle of the 19th century it was worth £5,000 – the equivalent of £300,000 today. Its uses were so widespread and smuggling it so lucrative that a law was passed in 1752 ensuring the armed protection of its mines. Workers were searched upon finishing their shifts, and violation carried harsh penalties: stealing or receiving stolen wadd was punishable by whipping, forced labour or transportation to the Antipodes. Predictably, anything requiring guard this heavy attracted a degree of unseemly attention; smuggled wadd deals done in the back rooms of Keswick inns may even have given rise to the term ‘black market’ – so called for the stains it would undoubtedly have left on the hands of those who peddled it. Out of this period two names would soon become notoriously synonymous with both Borrowdale and mountain skulduggery in general: Moses Rigg and Lanty Slee.

I The Wadd Trafficker of Great Gable
Borrowdale, 1780

‘Rigg’ is an old word. These days there are many Riggs in Lakeland on the map, where they typically describe spurs and rocky ridgelines; but there are also Riggs in the phone book. The word comes from the old English word hrycg, and used as a name it translates as ‘dweller by the ridge’. Most of the hundred or so Riggs living in the Lakes today don’t dwell by ridges in the immediate sense. But in the olden days – sometime around the late 18th century – it seems that there was one Rigg in particular who did. His name was Moses.

Moses Rigg is one of those local folk heroes with whom history has a vague relationship. Anyone who has walked the path from Honister slate mine beneath Gable Crag and into Wasdale will probably have walked the Moses Trod, and possibly heard that the path is said to be named for a quarryman who worked the Honister mines. Moses would travel between the valleys, they would say, with a lucrative line in smuggling contraband, concealed in the slates.
It was also said, rather romantically, that Moses built a hut high in the crags above Borrowdale as a secret storage depot for hauls of stolen wadd from Borrowdale. The hut – precarious and invisible – required rock-climbing to reach at a time when rock-climbing was resolutely an industrial necessity, and resolutely not an enjoyable pastime. It was therefore both practical for illegality (and convenient for legend) that Moses decided to site his hut in the one place no-one but him would be able to find or see it. Various locations were conjectured for Moses Rigg’s hideout throughout the years since: in the cracks of Honister Crag, high on Green Gable and even in the slate mine at Honister. Wainwright made reference to an ancient ‘smuggler’s retreat’ on Great Gable in The Western Fells, but noted that ‘not a trace of the hut remains.’     
Moses Rigg – as well as a prolific wadd thief – was also, apparently, a whisky smuggler. He would make the liquor from the water he found in the fells and operated an illegal still, possibly from the same hidden retreat. This would join the wadd in the hauls of slate he would drag along his ‘trod’, and sell as a sideline to supplement his back-breaking, poorly paid work as a quarryman.      

Mired in the rural charisma of the region – which is unusually thick with the misheard half-truths of Lakeland whispers through the generations – Moses became a folk hero. This is just as well, because official records for the man are non-existent.

A maddening but fascinating article about Moses Rigg by RB Graham that appeared in the Fell and Rock Climbing Journal of 1924 flustered that: “everybody has heard of him; everybody knows of him; everybody knows that the track was made by Moses; but who ever saw him in the flesh?”

Later in the article, Graham answers his own question. And herein lies a nasty little twist in the tale of Moses Rigg. He traces Moses’ historical trail to the testimony of a local known as ‘Old Will,’ who for many years in the mid 19th century was the landlord of the Wast Water Hotel. Old Will remembered from his childhood an old man named Moses who would bring slate over the Trod from Honister slate mine. Old Will said that this was the Moses after whom the path was named, and that the old man carried his wares in a pony trap, which doubled as an illegal whisky store. The whisky he distilled from bog water, which he then hid among the slates. Bog water made the best whisky, so he said.   

The problem is, Old Will was also famous: as a liar. His proper name was Will Ritson, and it was he who began the World’s Greatest Liar contest, which continues to this day at Wasdale Head. Ritson’s tales weren’t always as colourful as foxhounds mating with golden eagles, or turnips so big they were hollowed out and used as sheds. Ritson would lie about anything that made a good story, and would insist all his stories – fantastical and non-fantastical alike – were true. In his Fell and Rock Climbing Club article, RB Graham established that Ritson’s tale of the old smuggler Moses is in fact the only recorded contact with this shadowy man. That it came from this notoriously unreliable source means the legend of Moses Rigg may just be that. He may well have never existed at all. But before we dismiss him as the product of imagination, let’s consider the other well-known scallywag of the age...

Illustration: Steven Hall / Trail Magazine

Illustration: Steven Hall / Trail Magazine

II The Langdale Bootlegger
Langdale, 1800

Inevitably for a man as sketchily known as Moses Rigg – and given the similarity between their extracurricular activities – his legend has over the years become muddled with that of another, slightly more traceable scoundrel.  

Lancelot ‘Lanty’ Slee was born in Borrowdale to Irish parents sometime around 1800, and he would become notorious for having a quick temper, a sharp wit and a series of illegal moonshine stills high in the mountains above the Lakeland valleys. Blamed for lawlessness and banned from import, 1825 saw the law on whisky relaxed, but heavy taxation ensured alcohol acquisition remained a headache. The restrictive Distillery Act of 1834 also helped Lanty’s produce of potato and bog-water whisky to become hot property. Delivered in pig’s bladders, this also became the origin of the terms having ‘a skinful,’ and getting ‘bladdered’.
Lanty’s activity was perhaps not as risky as Moses Rigg’s alleged wadd smuggling. Certainly the penalties were less severe, something helped in Lanty’s case by having several local magistrates on his list of customers, to whom he would sell his moonshine for the tax-free sum of 10 shillings per gallon. In order to evade the discovery of his product, Lanty created stills in various remote locations around the central Lakes, and had as a base of operations his own strategically placed farm in Little Langdale, from which he could see the excise men approaching in good time. The code for purchase was to ask Lanty if he’d ‘had a good crop of ‘taties’ [potatoes] this year’.   

Trafficking his product was for Lanty something of an expedition. Having customers in the coastal village of Ravenglass meant that Lanty was forced to travel the steep, rough-trod Wrynose Pass. This suited the clandestine nature of Lanty’s activities but carried its own risks: Lanty had the added hazard of excise men to avoid. This meant travelling by night, and packing
the horse’s feet with hay sacking to mute the sound of the hooves. To make the arduous journey more lucrative, Lanty would bring equally bent tobacco back across the pass into the Lakes. It is said that the old coaching inn at Fell Foot, the last house on the Langdale side of Wrynose Pass, was by virtue of its location a den of smuggling activities.

Famously, Lanty made use of caves, mostly in and around Langdale. One such cave, near Betsy Crag, still contained some of his distillation equipment as late as the 1960s. The precise whereabouts of Lanty’s stills were understandably a well-guarded secret, particularly after his conviction for the pursuit in 1853. It is said he moved operations higher up into the mountains after this, up until his death at a venerable age in 1878.

It’s here that the paths of Lakeland’s two most famous scallywags converge once more. It’s also been suggested that Lanty Slee also made use of the old Moses’ Trod path between Honister and Wasdale; and many associate the legend of the elusive smuggler’s retreat in the crags of Great Gable with Lanty Slee rather than Moses Rigg. This is not unreasonable given the former’s penchant for secreted, high mountain stills and the fact that he was unquestionably a real person, whereas the latter may not have been. Is it possible that Moses Rigg built the hut, then Lanty Slee inherited its use? Perhaps Lanty Slee alone constructed and used this high outpost, and Moses Rigg never existed at all? Or – as is so often the case with such things – maybe the hut and much more besides are merely colourful, over-exaggerated rumours?

The last physical evidence of Great Gable’s smuggler’s retreat was said to have been swept into history long ago, confirmed in 1983 by fell-wandering, crag-climbing columnist A Harry Griffin, who had climbed Gable Crag to find nothing remaining of the hut. Even Wainwright – as far back as 1966 – claimed there was ‘no trace’ of it left, if indeed it ever existed at all. Like its notorious alleged occupants, the smuggler’s retreat on Great Gable seemed destined to become little more than a part of the vague tapestry of historic Lakeland skulduggery. It’s a romantic but thin prospect: had the hut existed it would most certainly have been the highest building in England at a time when building such things was a considerable challenge, especially in the hellishly damp Borrowdale weather. Were it to exist, it would be a key piece of evidence capable of shedding light on the illicit activities of Lanty Slee, and may even confirm the existence of the murky Moses Rigg. In remaining conspicuously and conveniently unfound, the hut and its secrets seemed lost. That is, until a murky day in 2005, when something remarkable happened: Trail found it.   

Illustration: Steve Hall / Trail Magazine

Illustration: Steve Hall / Trail Magazine

III Epilogue
Smugglers Retreat, Great Gable, 2005

Few records. Muddled accounts. Colourful legends spread by known local liars. A legendarily precarious hut, unfound and allegedly lost. For concrete evidence of Cumbrian smuggling’s more dramatic characters, it wasn’t looking good. But when a 20-year-old memory in the dusty mental halls of Trail’s mountaineering editor Jeremy Ashcroft came to light in 2005, it was too good to resist an expedition to test its veracity. Jeremy’s recollection was of spotting an unmistakably human-built structure located within a gully cutting the north-facing Gable Crag in two during a climb in 1983 – the same year Harry Griffin asserted there was no evidence of the hut left. The temptation to prove (or disprove, once and for all) the hut’s existence was too tempting, and so in the winter of that year Jeremy and Trail’s then editor Guy Procter set off under suffocating cloud into the rafters of Great Gable. Searches were made around the tops of several gullies on the crag, until the landing pad of a precarious abseil off a spur of Central Gully, around 200m from Great Gable’s summit, yielded a fortuitous surprise. Guy later wrote of the discovery that followed: “Four walls, perpendicularity, a flat, square floor – angles that issued a still, small voice of man-madeness from the vast chaos of the rest of the crag. This, without a shadow of a doubt, was it.”

The structure was unmistakably that of a small, low, extraordinarily situated building, constructed from the native stone. Only the walls remained, but they were unmistakably intact. But the most revealing surprise was yet to come – one that would tie the two tales together deftly. While searching for signs of whisky distillation, the group came across a deep shaft but also a peculiar grey object ‘the size and shape of a slightly manky-looking potato.’ A speculative scrape yielded a silver substance beneath a weathered surface, and a daub on a notepad confirmed it: in this high, strange place, they had found a piece of wadd.
Was the hut potentially one of Lanty’s stills? Possibly. Lanty was real, after all. But, more significantly, this evidence showed this hut was indeed at some point used to move or store wadd – giving credence to the older story of Moses Rigg and his secret retreat. A call to the Lake District Historic Environment Record confirmed the discovery as new and potentially significant. Trail had not only found history; it had made it.

Many mysteries of these shadowy smugglers remain, and thank goodness for that: Lakeland folklore is all the better for it. But the rediscovery of the hut on Gable Crag was an important piece of evidence to fortify one of the Lake District’s most enduring folk tales, and a credible shot in the arm for one of its earliest, most enigmatic mountain men.

                                              This article first appeared in Trail Magazine

                                              This article first appeared in Trail Magazine