As I have named this site The Moonraker, I have included below the story of the moonrakers. The legend is well known, but while the outline of the story is well documented, filling in the details largely depends on which book you read.
The story is simple, though, and its message clear.
A pair of Wiltshiremen engaged in smuggling brandy, hide a barrel of the contraband from the excisemen in a nearby pond and when they return at some later time, in the dark, they are caught in the act of raking the barrel back to land.
They immediately claim that they are trying to rake cheese – the reflection of the moon – from the pond and the excisemen, amused by the apparently simple-minded rustics, leave them to it.
The moral of the story is that, despite their earthy accents, Wiltshire folk are not as slow-witted as some would believe and, to this day, people born in the county are proud to call themselves moonrakers.
Just when the incident took place is far from clear, particularly as smuggling is by no means restricted to any one period in history, but at least one historian has claimed it originated in the 18th century.
The site of the pond is a matter of fiercer conjecture, with any one of the many Wiltshire towns and villages which boast a pond laying claim to be the home of the original moonrakers at one time or another.
Bishop’s Cannings, which has produced a number of tall stories over the years, is named in one book, Ralph Whitlock’s ‘Wiltshire Folklore and Legends’. He claims the two original moonrakers were from this village, which is a stone’s throw from Devizes and its suitable pond. Local people certainly seem to favour Devizes as the site of the pond.
Perhaps there are some clues in the verses written by Edward Slow, which are reproduced below. Published in 1894, this is at least closer in time than the modern versions of the story, though that, too, has surely been coloured by time.
At the end of the day, there isn’t even any evidence that the story is based on fact. Most fables are fiction.
Whatever details the original story had have been twisted and lost as the moonrakers’ legend has been handed down from generation to generation.
And that’s exactly as it always is with all the best legends.
‘The Wiltshire Moonrakers’ by Edward Slow as featured in ‘Wiltshire Rhymes and Tales in the Wiltshire Dialect’ (1894)
Down Vizes way zom years agoo,
When smuggal’n wur nuthen new,
An people wurden nar bit shy,
Of who they did their sperrits buy.
In a village liv’d a publican,
Whi kept an Inn, The Pelican,
A man he wur, a man a merrit
An his neam wur Ikey Perritt.
Ael roun about tha country voke
Tha praise of thease yer landlard spoke;
Var wen any on’em wur took bad,
They knaw’d wur sperrits could be had;
An daly it wur nice an handy,
At tha Pelican to get yer brandy.
Twer zwold as chep as tis in Vrance,
Tho a course, twer done in iggerance.
One winter, Crismis time about,
Thease lanlords tubs as ael ran out.
Zays he, this yer’s a purty goo,
Var mwore what ever shall I do;
Thie smugglin Zam’s a purty chap,
Ta lave I here wieout a drap;
An wen a promised dree months back,
A hooden vail ta bring me whack.
Bit praps tha zizevoke voun his trail,
An med a pop’d inta jail,
Howsemdever, I’ll zen and zee,
Ta marrer wats become a he.
Zoo nex day at nite he off did start,
Two girt chaps wie a donkey cart.
Ta Bristil town thay took ther way,
An got there as twer gettin day;
Tha smugglers house tha zoon voun out,
An tould’n wat they wur com about.
Ael rite, zays he, I’ve plenty bye,
Bit we mist keep a cuteish eye,
Var tha zize voke, they be in tha watch,
An two or dree have lately cotch.
Zoo tell woold Perritt thats tha razin
I coudden zen avore ta pleaz un.
Soo wen twur dark thase smuggler bwold,
Got dree tubs vrim a zacrit hould;
An unobsarved he purty smart,
Zoon clap’d em in tha donkey cart;
An tha top a covered up we hay,
Then zent tha chaps an cart away;
Ael droo tha streets quite zaef an zound,
Thay zoon jog’d out a Bristil town.
An vore tha vull moon ad rose,
To ther neative pleace, wur drawin close;
Wen to ther girt astonishment,
Thay met wie a awkurd accident,
In passin auver Cannins Brudge,
Tha stubborn donkey hooden budge;
Tha chaps thay leather’d well his back,
Bit a diden keer var ther attack;
Bit jibb’d an beller’d, shook his mean
Then kick’d bouth shafts right off za clane.
Up went tha cart, tha tubs vill out,
An in tha road zood roll’d about;
An vore tha chaps cood ardly look,
Ael dree ad roll’d straite in tha brook.
Well here’s a purty goo zays one,
Why will, wat ever’s to be done?
I’d like ta kill thic donkey quite,
If thee wurst, zays Tom, tid zar un rite.
Doost knaa wat tha matter wur?
I thinks a got a vorester;
Var I nevir knaw’d un hack like this,
Unless zummit wur much amiss.
Look at un now he’s in a scare,
An gwain as hard as he can tare;
We bouth shafts danglin on tha groun,
A wunt stop till he gets wom I’m bown.
Zoo let un, I dwoant keer a snap,
Var then thay’ll gace thease yer mishap;
An zen zumbiddy on tha road,
Ta help ess get wom saef tha load.
Bit zounds, while thus we do delay,
Tha tubs, begar, ull swim away;
We mist get em out at any price,
Tho’ the water be as cwoold as ice.
Dwoant stan geapin zo, var goodness zeak,
Run to thic rick an vind a reak;
I thinks that I can reak em out,
Var ther thay be swimmin about.
Two reaks wur got, an then thaese two
Did reak an splaish we much ado;
Bit nar a tub diden lan,
Thay hooden zeem ta com ta han.
Zays Tom, I’m tired a tha job,
An hooden a tuck un var ten bob;
I ad a mine ta let em goo,
An zoo I will if thee hoot to.
Get out, girt stup, we mist get in,
Tho we do get wet ta tha skin.
Till never do ta let em be,
Zo tuck thee pants up roun thee knee.
Tha chaps then took tha water bwould,
Tho thay wur shram’d ni we tha could;
An jist as thay did heave one out,
Ael at once a feller loud did shout–
HEL’OH, me lads, wat up to there,
NIGHT POACHERS, ah, if teant I swear.
Let goo, zays Will, I’m blow’d if tent,
Vizes excizemen on tha scent;
Push off tha tub var goodness zeak,
Get out tha brook, teak hould a reak;
Reak at tha moon a shinin zee,
An dwoant thee spake, I’ll tackle he,
Bit av ad a mishap as ya see.
Comin frum Vize we donkey cart,
On tha bridge tha donk mead zudden start;
An jirk’d, an jib’d, then gied a kick,
An het bwouth shafts off purty quick.
Out went our things wich as ya zees,
Lays ael about, an yer’s a cheese;
He roll’d rite on straite in thease brook,
An Tom’s a reakun vor’un look!
Tha Zizeman swallered ael o’t in,
An ta zee Tom reakun, gun ta grin,
Girt vool, zays he, as true’s I’m barn,
Why that’s tha moon, thee beest reakun vor’n
An then a busted out agean,
An zed of ael, that beat all clean;
Ta zee a crazy headed coon,
Reak at the shadder of the moon.
Will wink’d at Tom, Tom wink’d at Will,
Ta zee how nice he’d took tha pill;
Ah, zur, you med laff as long as ya please,
Bit we be zure it be a cheese.
Zee how he shows hisself za plain,
Com Tom, lets reak vor he again.
Zo slap an dash went on reakin,
While Zizeman he var vun wur sheakin;
An off a went houlden his zide,
Var longer there a cooden bide.
We grinnin his eyes did auverflow,
Ta zee thay chaps a reakin zo;
An ta think that now he’d tould em zo,
Tha girt vools hooden ther frake vergo.
Zoo up a got upon his hoss,
An as tha brudge a went across,
He zet up another harty grin,
Wen a look’d an zeed em bouth get in;
An zed girt vools till zar em rite,
If thay da ketch ther deaths ta nite.
Bit wen he ad got clane away,
Tha tubs wur got wieout delay;
And hid away, quite zeaf and zoun,
Var a dark nite wen tha moon wur down.
Then at the Pelican thease chaps,
Purty zoon wur tellen ther mishaps;
Bit ael ther troubles they vergot,
Wen they’d emptyied well tha landloards pot,
An wen he a coose did pay em well
Thease little stowry not ta tell;
Zo wen tha Zizemin nex did com,
Woold Perritt he a coose wur mum.
An in a glass did jine wie glee,
Wen Zizemin twould tha tale ta he;
Bit he laff’d mwore wen zeaf one nite
Tha tubs wur brought wom snug an tite;
An many a bumper went a round,
To think thay’d beat tha Zizemin zound.
Bit he tha tale did zoon let out
To ael the countery roun about;
An to thease day, people da teeze,
All Wilsheer voke about tha cheese.
Bit tis thay as can avourd ta grin,
To zee ow nice a wur took in.
Zoo wen out thease county you da goo,
An voke da poke ther vun at you;
An caal ee a girt Wilsheer coon,
As went a reakun var tha moon.
Jist menshin thease yer leetle stowry,
And then bust out in ael yer glowry,
That yer smeart Excisemin vresh vrum town,
Wur took in wie a Wilsheer clown.