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If you ever visit Wiltshire, you may hear of or see the term ‘Moonrakers’. It’s the name used to describe anyone born in the county and there’s a rather charming folk tale associated with this name.

Wiltshire was well known throughout Europe for its supreme wool quality produced from the 15th to 18th centuries. Flemish and Dutch traders were based in Swindon in the north of the county. These merchants turned a good profit from their wool trade and were partial to a tipple at the end of each day. They had a taste for the hard stuff with gin and brandy favoured, but at this time there was a heavy import duty on spirits. The publicans wanted to increase the profit from their sales instead of paying heavily to support the Crown. The solution? Set up a smuggling route to bring in spirits rather than use the ports and therefore avoid paying the duty.

And so, for 200 years, spirits such as brandy and gin were landed in the quiet coves on the South Coast. They were then transported in barrels across Hampshire and Wiltshire, with the final destination often being Swindon.  

Fact versus fiction

There is some debate over where the story of the Moonrakers is set. Originally it was thought to be the village of All Cannings or Bishop’s Cannings, but neither had a pond or river. Further digging suggests it took place in Crammer Pond in Devizes, which at the time was part of the parish of Bishop’s Cannings, making sense of the claim of the location of the story.

Some historical evidence suggests that the two smugglers involved were named John Chapman of Devizes and Old Mr Mabett from Tilshead. The pub they were bringing their wares to is thought to be The Pelican Inn, Devizes.

The story was first reported in Francis Grose‘s Provincial Glossary in 1787. It’s likely to have occurred just before that time.

The facts behind this story are quite contentious, even to the present day, with other parts of the country claiming the account belongs to them. However, it does seem most likely it is an old Wiltshire tale.

And so the story begins…

John and Old Mabett were fetching barrels from the south coast and transporting them to The Pelican Inn in Devizes by donkey cart. It was a dangerous scheme as there was a chance of being caught by one of the excisemen. These men were employed by the Crown, specifically to catch poachers and smugglers. The punishment for such crimes was harsh, so smugglers were extra careful not to get caught.

The two men hid the barrels of brandy beneath a big pile of hay. They dressed in farmer’s smocks and straw hats, looking exactly like the part they were trying to play. Simple country yokels, travelling with their donkey and cart.

Sneaking along at night, the two men had a problem-free journey for the most part and eventually reached Devizes. Not too far to go now! A full moon was beaming from clear skies that evening as they skirted past Crammer Pond.

Unfortunately, it seems something startled the donkey and it refused to move, as stubborn donkeys sometimes do. The men tried, unwisely it seems, to beat the donkey onwards. The donkey did not like this one bit and let out a noisy bray before kicking the cart’s traces right off. The cart collapsed and the barrels rolled from the cart straight into the pond. The poor donkey disappeared into the moonlit night, leaving the men wondering what they should do next. Anyone could have heard the commotion, including any excisemen in the area. Trouble could be just around the corner.  

It was then that John and Old Mabett heard the sound of hooves approaching.  Thinking fast, the men grabbed the rakes that had fallen from the cart and began to pull the weeds of the pond over the barrels of brandy so they couldn’t be seen.

Thankfully, they managed to hide them just in time as it was indeed an exciseman that appeared.

“Night poachers!” He exclaimed, looking over the two simple-looking characters in front of him.

John was a quick thinker. Using his strongest Wiltshire accent, he said, “Oh zur. We beant no poachers, bit ‘av’ ‘ad a mishap, as ya zee – tha’ donk mead a zudden start – he gied a kick, and out went oor things, which lays all about – an’ look – thur’s oor gurt yeller cheese. He rolled staite into the pond – and so we’re reakun ‘im out agin!”

The exciseman looked at the two foolish men in front of him before laughing out loud. These two simpletons were trying to rake their cheese from the pond. But what they were actually doing was trying to rake up a reflection of the full moon! The exciseman was completely fooled by the charade. After exclaiming, ‘This beats it all!’ He trotted off, leaving the two fools to try and get their cheese from the pond.

Old Mabett and John wiped the sweat from their brows, found the donkey, pulled the barrels from the weeds and strapped them back into the cart. Arriving safely at The Pelican Inn, the two men’s mission was complete. They decided to stay quiet about the whole affair, but the story still got out.

Elsewhere, the exciseman couldn’t help but share the hilarious tale. Two simple fools, trying to rake a cheese out of the pond, not realising it was the reflection of that night’s full moon. It was evidence that, indeed, folk from Wiltshire were not so bright. Little did the exciseman know, the joke was on him!

So, there you have it! The story behind the Moonrakers of Wiltshire.

Hear the story of the Moonrakers, told with a traditional Wiltshire accent.

The poet Edward Slow wrote many rhymes and stories in the Wiltshire dialect. This one was published in 1881 and tells the tale of the Moonrakers.

If you’d like to listen to ‘The Wiltshire Moonrakers’, read with a good old Wiltshire accent, listen to this version read by Alan Doel.

If you have any stories about ghostly happenings, folktales or legends and anything just plain weird I would love to share your tale.

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