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Devon County

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With an introduction by his descendent, Vernon Rattenbury


The Rattenburys have long been associated with Devon and the sea. The family are thought to have come to Devon (Okehampton) in the 15th century from Bavaria, Germany, and branched out from there in the years that followed.

In 1649 a merchant, John Rattenbury, built his "Great House" at Sutton Harbour in Plymouth, which still exists today as the China House pub.


The China House (c 1666), Sutton Wharf

The China House pub today

Picture by Jim Harrop-Williams ©

Pictures of England.com


From there, over the years , the family migrated in turn to Modbury, Exeter, Ottery St Mary, Honiton (1727) and Beer (1778) where John "Jack" was born. He is my great-great-great-grandfather and ever since his father was press-ganged into the Royal Navy, the family have been serving at sea for the last eight generations in either the Royal or Merchant Navies.

His son, John Partridge Rattenbury, after a period in the smuggling trade was lost at sea from a London merchant ship in 1844 and my great-great grandfather William was a fisherman, stoneboatman and lifeboatman at Lyme Regis. My grandfather John served in the Royal Navy during WW1 and my father John, during WW2. I myself served 28 years in the Royal Navy (including the Falklands War) and my son has also chosen to go to sea.

We don't smuggle now though!

Vernon Rattenbury


Jack Rattenbury
Jack Rattenbury from a lithograph by W. Bevan



The text that follows is by Charles Harper and was first published in 1863:

The name of Beer is famous in smuggling annals, for it was in the then rather desperate little fisher- village that Jack Rattenbury, smuggler, who lies in Seaton churchyard, was born in 1778. Smugglers and highwaymen in general are figures that loom dimly in the pages of history, and, like figures seen in a fog, bulk a good deal larger than they ought. But the famous Jack Rattenbury is an exception. He does not, when we come to close quarters with him, . diminish into an under- sized, overrated breaker of laws. Instead, he grows bigger, the more you learn : and a great deal may be learned of him, for he printed and published the story of his life in 1837.

It seems that he was the son of a Beer shoe- maker, who, by going for a sailor and never being heard of again, vindicated the wisdom of that proverb which advises the cobbler to stick to his last. Young Jack Rattenbury never knew his father. He began his adventures at nine years of age, as boy on a fishing-smack, and then became one of the crew of a privateer which set out from Brixham during the war with France and Spain, to prey upon the enemy : meeting instead, at the very outset, with a French frigate, with the unexpected result that privateer and crew were speedily taken, as prize and prisoners, to Bor- deaux. Escaping on an American ship, he at last reached home again, and engaged for a time in fishing. But fishing was poor employment for an adventurous spirit, and Rattenbury soon found his way into smuggling.

He first took part in the exploits of a Lyme Regis boat, trading in that illegitimate way to the Channel Islands, and then found more lawful employment on a brig called The Friends, of Beer and Seaton. But the very first trip was disastrous. Sailing from Bridport to Tenby, for culm*, he again experienced capture : by a French privateer on this occasion. The privateer put a prize-crew of four men on the brig, with orders to take her to the nearest French port. ' Then," says Rattenbury, " when the privateer was gone, the prize-master ordered me to go aloft and loose the main-topgallant sail. When I came down, I perceived that he was steering very wildly, through ignorance of the coast, and I offered to take the helm, to which he consented, and directed me to steer south-east by north. He then went below, and was engaged in drinking and carousing with his companions. They likewise sent me up a glass of grog occasion- ally, which animated my spirits, and I began to conceive a hope, not only of escaping, but also of being revenged on the enemy."

*Culm is a carboniferous shale used as fuel in parts of Devon in the 19th Century . It is in effect the waste product of anthracite which, when mined produces a soft sooty form of coal which burns very inefficiently. It is found throughout Devon and Cornwall hence names like River Culm and Culm Valley.



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