This name refers to a folk story set in the time when smuggling was a significant industry in rural England, with Wiltshire lying on the smugglers' secret routes between the south coast and customers in the centre of the country. The story goes that some local people had hidden contraband barrels of French brandy from customs officers in a village pond. While trying to retrieve it at night, they were caught by the revenue men, but explained themselves by pointing to the moon's reflection and saying they were trying to rake in a round cheese. The revenue men, thinking they were simple yokels, laughed at them and went on their way. But, as the story goes, it was the moonrakers who had the last laugh. In the words of Wiltshire shepherd William Little who recounted the story to writer John Yonge Akerman: “ Zo the excizeman ’as ax’d ’n the question ’ad his grin at ’n,…but they’d a good laugh at ’ee when ’em got whoame the stuff.”[note 1]
The story dates to before 1787, when the Moonrakers tale appeared in Francis Grose's Provincial Glossary. Research by Wiltshire Council's Community History Project shows that a claim can be made for the Crammer, a pond at Southbroom, Devizes, as the original location for the tale. Other accounts naming the village of Bishops Cannings 2½ miles to the north-east of Devizes, which has no pond, are explained by a change in the parish boundaries in 1835, which transferred the Crammer from that parish into the town. However, many other places in the county have laid claim to the story.
- Expanding the elisions gives "So the exciseman as asked un the question had his grin at un, but they had a good laugh at he when them got home the stuff." From the OED: "As: replaced by that, but still common in southern dialect speech." "Him: en, un, 'n, is still current in southern dialect speech." "Him: In s.w. dialects he is the emphatic objective, beside the unemphatic 'en, 'un."
- "Smugglers myth lives". Wiltshire Gazette and Herald. Retrieved 31 July 2012.
- Smith, A. C. (1874). "On Wiltshire Traditions, Charms and Superstitions". Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. Devizes, England: Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. 14: 326–327. ISSN 0262-6608.
if the trade of the smuggler seems somewhat an unlikely one...in the heart of the downs of North Wiltshire...whole population[s]...carried cargoes of contraband goods by the little-frequented ridgeways or trackways...and so handed them on to the very middle of England
- Akerman, John Yonge (1853). Wiltshire Tales. Soho, London: John Russell Smith. pp. 168–9. OCLC 793719788.
- Provincial Glossary, OCLC 84873860, Quoted in "moonraker". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. December 2008.
- "Bishops Cannings". Wiltshire Council. Retrieved 2009-09-01.
the Crammer in Devizes, a seemingly excellent pond for moonraking used to lie within the parish of Bishop’s Cannings.
- "The Legend of the Moonrakers". Swindon Life. Retrieved 2009-09-02.
The site of the pond is a matter of fierce...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.