Spotlight On … Blackjacks & Smugglers.

Spotlight On … Blackjacks & Smugglers.

Written by Victoria Green.

When I drink beer, I don’t normally think much about the vessel that it arrives in. As long as it gets the beer from the tap to my mouth, it’s all the same to me. Though did you know that tankards used to be made of leather? Leather was plentiful and cheap, and could be manipulated into various shapes and sizes to fit one’s need. Though somewhat of an unusual thought to a modern audience, ‘blackjacks’ were very much en vogue during the 17th Century.

Blackjacks are tankards made of leather, usually coated with tar and used for holding beer or ale. The name itself comes from the tankards’ distinctive shape; archers of the time wore ‘jacks’ or gambeson-style defensive jackets which were sleeveless, straight down the sides, flaring out at the bottom. The tankards became known as blackjacks because the majority were coated inside with black pitch to make them waterproof.

The National Leather Collection has a vast collection of blackjacks and holds the Oliver Baker archive, a collection of manuscripts written by the authority on the production of blackjacks and bottells. My favourite, however, is a blackjack that has links to Britain’s smuggling past.

The southwest of England, Cornwall and Devon in particular, was famous for smuggling during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Of course, these weren’t the only places that smuggling existed, but a unique environment with a lack of prevention and high levels of poverty stimulated the trade to unprecedented levels. Smuggling saw the introduction of contraband into the UK, ranging from tea to tobacco or spirits like brandy and gin. Also popular was a form of smuggling called ‘wrecking’, whereby goods were taken from a wrecked ship. There are stories of smugglers lighting beacons and luring ships to their doom so that they could be plundered. Almost everybody at the time was involved in smuggling, even the clergymen.

The National Leather Collection’s ‘Will Watch’ blackjack is described as ‘of a bulbous shape, 9” high’, and dated to the 17th Century. It still features remnants of the original resin waterproofing, and has an interesting piece of parchment stuck on the bottom. This reads; ‘This leather jug was once the property of Will Watch, the famous Cornish smuggler and was found in an old farm house in Cornwall.’

Ever since I was a child, reading Treasure Island and holidaying in Cornwall, I have been fascinated by the Cornish smugglers and pirates. So I immediately tried to do a bit of digging into the smuggler in question. As it turns out, Will Watch was certainly an elusive fellow and remains so, with little information to be found on the topic. There is, however, a 19th Century ballad written in his honour (c.1820). The ballad ‘Will Watch; The Bold Smuggler’ tells of how Will promises his lover that if his next mission is successful, he’ll mend his ways and become an honest man. The authorities eventually catch up to him in the night, and Will is shot dead. The next night in secret, as Will requested, his crew buries him on the beach. It is the ballad of a larger than life smuggler, living the hedonistic life of crime until his misdeeds catch up with him.

I like to imagine that where Will Watch went, so did his blackjack, perpetually full of ale.

To read more about the blackjacks at the National Leather Collection, read Wayne Robinson’s blog on the Oliver Baker Archive.

This blackjack is just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.