The Wiltshire Moonraker Story...

Not the 007 type - the REAL Moonraker!


Great Britain is divided into around 70 Counties with names like Essex, Yorkshire etc., and most of these have their own local storey. Somerset for example, has a story about some locals who tried to build a wall to imprison a beautiful bird. The story of the Moonrakers is well known amongst the folks in Wiltshire.

The county of Wiltshire, which boasts many familiar features including Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge has it's own story. Who knows if the story is true or not, but it is one which was frequently told to me during my childhood years.

To set the scene I need to take you to the village of Devizes which is a small community in the middle of the county with a standard village duck pond near the town centre. I remember driving past it many times and enjoying the picturesque setting, but this tale goes back several hundred years. Perhaps the best way to commence this story is to relate a few lines of an old song - in the brogue of the time, of course:

          We be Wiltshire Moonrakers, Out for a spree
               out for a spree, out for a spree.
          As clever, as clever as clever can be
               clever can be, clever can be.
          Us gammoned the zizemen and diddled em well,
               diddled em well, diddled em well.
          So hark to this tale we be go'in to tell,
               go'in to tell, go'in to tell.              

The story was set in the time of smugglers and pirates, when a man would go to extraordinary lengths to obtain a glass of whiskey. The shortage was caused by the viciously high excise duty on spirits and the corresponding low wages paid to workers. The demand created by this situation had to be satisfied and it was here that the locals showed that with ingenuity and perseverance, even the most persistent of zizemen (Customs and Excise officers) could be outwitted. A consignment of illicit liquor of the Irish variety had been secretly landed on the south coast and had to be collected and transported to the northern area of the county. The roads were frequented by zizemen and a suitable disguise was required to avoid detection.

The local garb for a country working man consisted of a full length white smock and an old hat which was pulled down and perhaps even held in place with a few extra strands of straw. To be completely authentic, several wooden hay rakes were found. The local group of larrikins borrowed a farmer's hay cart and horse and set out for their mission.

The trip south was not un-eventful with several inspections of the old cart. Of course, nothing was found and the travellers were able to continue on their way after giving an explanation that they were going to pick up some feed for their employer. There was also the possibility of being accosted by a highwayman but the risk here was low because of their dress.
In due course, the destination was reached and a small cask of the 'liquid gold' was purchased, loaded on the cart and covered with hay to conceal it's presence. Travelling down was thirsty work and a few pints of ale at the local pub prior to the return trip, seemed like a good idea since there was less chance of being stopped at night. When the pubs closed at 10.00pm, the travellers decided to commence their journey home.

Sound travels well at night, and the wheels of old cart were in need of a good greasing. Locals who have just spent several hours in the local pub singing bawdy songs, have a tendency to continue their celebrations afterwards and such behaviour can be difficult for the more sober members of the group to control. Consequently, it's not surprising that the night shift Zizemen were attracted to the goings on. The travellers spotted the enemy approaching and were in a state of panic at the prospect of being caught. The possible consequences - being sent on a government ship to live in a dreadful penal colony on the other side of the globe, made a quick escape imperative.

They began to speed up and at this time were approaching the town of Devizes. The cobbled streets were just too much for the old cart and it was here that providence saved the day. As they sped around the curve near the duck pond, the catch, holding the back panel of the cart in place, came loose. The precious cargo rolled off the cart, along the road, and straight into the duck pond.

The revellers paused for a moment as the cask disappeared below the surface, and then, realising the need to draw their pursuers away from the scene, pulled on the reins and drove the old horse on through the town. The zizemen, being on better steeds, were soon able to catch up and question the travellers. However, a convincing act caused the questioners to decide that they had just come across a group of harmless local revellers, so with a few cautionary comments, the zizemen continued on their patrol.

Now came the task of retrieving the sunken cask. Once the coast was clear they headed back to the duck pond and, taking the rakes, began dragging the pond. They soon found the treasure and were just beginning to bring it to the surface when suddenly, the zizemen returned. "What do you think you are you doing", yelled out one.
Some situations can be resolved with force, and some with lengthy explanations. Neither of these were suitable and it was lucky that it happened to be a brightly moonlit night - the reflection of the moon in the water provided the solution. "We're just trying to get this lovely big cheese out to take home for supper' one said.

The zizemen looked at each other and began to laugh. "A right bunch of country yokels, we have here" they told each other. "Go on home" they instructed, "And keep the noise down - it's past midnight". The zizemen rode off, passing jokes to each other about the intelligence levels of the locals.

Once the coast was clear, the cask was retrieved and re-loaded. The remaining trip was uneventful and the cask was duly stored at the home of one of the men. The contents of the cask and the events in getting it home provided many evenings of pleasure, not to mention a few headaches of the physical type.

People outside the county of Wiltshire often joke about the Wiltshire 'Moonrakers', trying to get their cheese from the Devizes duck pond. The Wiltshire people who know the true story are able to silently chuckle, at the events of that night so long ago.

        Us fogies, we came along o the night,
                    along o' the night, along o' the night
          	With Caskie of spirits all packed up tight
                    packed up tight, Packed up tight.
          	We gammoned those zizemen and diddled em well..........             
And that is the story of why those of us who come from Wiltshire are often referred to as "Wiltshire Moonrakers" 
Bob Clifford

Thanks to Ron Paine of Swindon for the pictures of The Crammer - Link to Rons Home Page

Does anyone have the correct words and music to the song? If so please Email it to me

Other Moonraker Links

Weird Wiltshire


Wiltshire Poems

Moonraker Ale

BBC Link

Copyright B. Clifford 2004 All rights reserved.
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