OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

In the Days of the Smugglers

Pages: <1>

When we think of the bold bad smuggler, we usually have in mind the typical smuggler of the eighteenth century, who risked life or liberty in the illegal importation of goods, chiefly spirits, tea, tobacco and silk. He was a man not lightly to be intercepted in his nocturnal business, for he would not hesitate at violence.

But, historically, the first smugglers were the export smugglers of wool. From the thirteenth to the opening years of the nineteenth centuries there were, according to times and circumstances, heavy export duties charged on the export of wool, or sometimes a total prohibition. Generally speaking, the clothworking trade of this country, after the Elizabethan era, kept the old duties and prohibitions in being by attempting thus to deprive the textile trades of the Continent of their raw material.

Side by side with this illegal exporting of wool, chiefly by the "owlers" of Romney Marsh, in Kent, there gradually developed the midnight doings of the import smugglers of spirits, tea and tobacco. These men would by no means allow that they were law breakers or engaged in any criminal act, although the repressive measures taken against them drove them to violent deeds. They always described themselves as "free-traders" and repudiated the term "smuggler," claiming to be engaged in no dishonest acts and really the friend? of the poor man, whose comforts were withheld by oppressive and extortionate governments in taxing his necessaries up to a point at which he could not afford to buy them.

The smugglers threw the odium of the dark deeds incidental to their being opposed to the authorities upon the authorities themselves, who, they always most passionately declared, had no moral right to levy these charges. That, of course, was what the lawyers would style "special pleading." The smuggling of wines and spirits has been especially condemned by writers not fully instructed, but it should here be said, in spite of what moralists have objected about the traffic in spirits that probably more lives were lost in these affrays between the armed Revenue officers and the smugglers engaged in the smuggling of tea than ever were sacrificed in the cause of spirits.

Even "Great Anna, whom three realms obey," felt the refining influence of tea, which had been introduced in 1660, and soon became popular. But Queen Anne probably drank a good deal of tea that had not rendered to her revenue. For early in its history the Government had clapped a heavy duty on it. Early in the eighteenth century, when Continental wars of magnitude and great duration were in progress, the list of dutiable articles began quickly to grow and the tariffs were continually being increased. The time came when every article of daily use was taxed heavily, often far above its ordinary trading value; and an absurd and indeed a desperate condition of affairs had been reached in which people of all ranks were faced with the degrading dilemma of being unable to afford many articles generally consumed by persons in their station of life, or of procuring them from the smugglers, often at one-third of their cost if duty-paid. Extraordinarily repressive steps were taken, in Acts of Parliament and by the executive, to suppress this smuggling, but without avail; and in 1733 the Commissioners of Customs reported to the Treasury that immense smuggling operations were being conducted in Essex, Kent, Suffolk and Sussex. In twelve months 54,000 lb. of tea and 123,000 gallons of brandy had been seized, and still, in spite of these tremendous losses, the spirit of the smugglers was not broken. Indeed, the smugglers reckoned that it they made one successful run out of three they did pretty well: so great were their profits.

The Dragoons were employed, in addition to the riding-officers of the Customs, in these efforts to suppress smuggling. In June 1733 the Customs men, attempting to seize ten horses laden with tea at Cuckmere, Sussex, were opposed by thirty smugglers, who were armed with pistols and blunderbusses, and took them prisoners and so kept them until the goods were safely carried off. A fatal affray, in which several were killed and wounded on either side, took place at Bulverhythe, between Hastings and Bexhill, March 1737. From this it was established that the smuggling business already was in the hands of master-men, capitalists in London for the most part, who employed seagoing smugglers and local men ashore to enlist the gangs, who came down to the beach of nights at appointed trysting-places, when a "run" - that is to say, a landing - was to be attempted. These gangs usually were sturdy fellows recruited from the farm labourers. Armed with long poles, called "bats," they were marched down to the agreed point, under some directing hand, and when the bales of tea or tobacco or tubs of spirits were put ashore from boats, some of them formed up in two lines, to protect the contraband from any likely onrush of Revenue men, while others carried the goods to hiding-places or loaded them on to horses.

Very soon the penal legislation against smuggling rendered these men desperate. They were outlawed, and if taken with arms were liable to capital punishment. This, and the taking of their goods, rendered them ferocious in the extreme, and attracted to their ranks the criminal classes; so that the "friends of the poor" became a terror to the country in general, ready for all manner of outrages. They grew so bold that they conveyed their contraband by day, in long processions of pack-horses, inland; and none durst look upon their faces lest the smugglers should think they were being spied upon and betrayed. In 1747, a year of many dreadful murders by smugglers, infuriated by seizure of their goods, the dreaded Hawkhurst Gang, who had committed many outrages in Kent and Sussex, grew so threatening that the people of Goudhurst formed themselves into a militia for their own protection. The gang determined to attack Goudhurst, but made the stupid mistake of sending an impudent message conveying alike the intention and the date of the proposed assault. Goudhurst, therefore, was ready. The gang duly appeared, headed by one Thomas Kingsmill, and poured a volley into the place, to which the villagers replied from the houses and roof-tops and the leads of the church-tower. George Kingsmill, a brother of the leader, was killed, together with two others, while several were wounded. The martial villagers pursued the then fleeing gang, and captured some, who were handed over to the law and duly executed.

Some of these bold and wholesale smugglers actually built warehouses for the storage of their goods. They called themselves the "Sea-cocks" and from them Seacox Heath, near Hawkhurst, is named. Thus, although such extensive natural hiding-places as St. Clement's Caves, near Hastings, were used by the smugglers, it would be a mistake to place much belief in the very common seaside tales by which almost every cave in the cliffs is said to have been a smugglers' store. As a sheer matter of fact, it would have been precisely those places which the Revenue officers, who were not wholly unintelligent, would search first; and no one ever in that own times thought the smugglers so simple as to leave their goods exactly where they might be looked for. No, it was to the farms near the coast that contraband was hurried, and thence by obscure ways inland. The churchyards and church towers, too, were favourite hiding-places; and many a clergyman found on his doorstep a keg of spirits, chalked "For our Parson," left there as a peace offering. Of course, many a country inn was stocked with spirits that had paid no duty; of these the Star at Alfriston near Cuckmere was one, and the Red Lion at Handcross another. The seaboard churchyards in the south of England will be found to contain many a mouldering tombstone bearing witness to the murderous affrays between the Revenue men and the smugglers. One at Kinson, near Bournemouth, on Robert Trotman, who was shot dead in the act of smuggling tea, reflects the views generally held by the smugglers that they were persecuted men who did no wrong. The date is 1765:

"A little Tea, one leaf I did not steal,
For Guiltless Blood shed I to GOD appeal;
Put Tea in one scale, human Blood in t'other
And think what 'tis to slay thy harmles brother."

A stone to the memory of one Daniel Scales is yet to be seen in the churchyard of Patcham, near Brighton, dated 1796. He also was a smuggler shot by a Revenue officer. This is the lament:

"Alas! swift flew the fatal lead
Which pierced through the young man's head.
He instant fell, resigned his breath,
And closed his languid eyes in death.
All you who do this stone draw near,
Oh! pray let fall the pitying tear.
From this sad instance may we all
Prepare to meet Jehovah's call."

The point already made here, that the smugglers conveyed their goods in armed bands far inland, is emphasized by the epitaph on a smuggler shot at Tandridge, in Surrey. The stone stands by the vestry door of the church there. It is to one Thomas Todman, and is dated 1781. The verse breathes a bitter indignation:

"Thou Shall do no Murder, nor Shalt thou Steal,
Are the Commands Jehovah did Reveal,
But thou o Wretch, without fear or dread
Of thy Tremendous Maker, Shot me dead
Amidst my strength - my sins forgive
As I through Boundless Mercy hope to live."

The smuggling continued to grow in spite of all the efforts of the authorities. In Cornwall, the celebrated John Carter, of Prussia Cove, between Helston and Penzance, who kept the King of Prussia inn, was, with all his family, actively engaged in the smuggling of brandy from Cherbourg, and from Roscoff in Brittany. He had the audacity to construct a battery, and opened fire on the "Fairy" revenue sloop when one day it chased a cargo of his into the Cove. A boat was landed, but the landing-party had to retreat before his fire. He seems never to have been called to account for these acts; and eventually retired on his makings. All the Carters appear to have been sincerely pious, God-fearing men.

But the most astonishing of these doings was the action at sea fought April 4, 1786, between the smuggling cutter "Happy-Go-Lucky" and the sloops "Hawk" and "Lark," off Mullion Cove. The master of the "Happy-Go-Lucky," one Wellard, a noted smuggler, had sworn that in the event of an encounter he never would be taken alive. Mr. Pellew, Collector of Customs at Falmouth, went after him in the "Lark," and his brother Captain Edward Pellew, afterwards Lord Exmouth, followed in the "Hawk." They brought the smuggler to action. The fight lasted three-quarters of an hour, at the end of which time the "Happy-Go-Lucky" was badly damaged, Wellard and his chief mate killed, and twelve of his crew of thirty wounded.

Innumerable were the tricks and subterfuges in smuggling. At Devonport the fishermen's wives from those smugglers' nests, Cawsand and Kingsand, were accustomed to cross Hamoaze with bladders filled with brandy slung beneath their skirts. It pleased the humour of the Customs officials to arm themselves with sticks provided with sharp points, and slyly to prick for those bladders, so that the spirits very soon disclosed their presence.

The old system of riding-officers, backed by military patrols, was inefficient for reducing the smugglers' activities because it had no settled policy and was starved. But when the Napoleonic wars came to an end and peace brought about a vast unemployed body of ships and men of the Navy, it was seen that here was an opportunity for a strong hand with the "free-traders." A "coast blockade" was established, by which vessels of the fleet patrolled the Channel, while ashore were stationed bodies of men and officers at regular intervals. Much was done in this way, but repression was not effected without great bloodshed. The blockade was established in 1816 and lasted until 1831, when it was replaced by the "Preventive Water Guard," afterwards styled the "Coastguard." Among the bloodstained encounters of the blockade was that on a night of April, 1821, at Herne, a village inland from Herne Bay where, by the church, an old hoiise with a smuggler's peep-hole in the gable may yet be seen. A large gang of smugglers came into conflict with a blockade patrol, and one Sydney Sydenham Snow was killed. He was a midshipman, and died lamenting that his life had been wasted in such a vile midnight scuffle. His grave is still to be seen.

High duties fostered smuggling, and the cost of endeavouring to repress contraband was very high. From about 1826 it began to be seen that excessive duties were a mistaken policy. The leaven of Free Trade had begun to work, and for many years onward it resulted in successive revisions of tariffs, by which hundreds of articles liable to Tluty were entirely freed, while the rates on others were greatly reduced. The ideal was "free imports." That, however, was not ever realized. These reductions, together with the efficient Coastguard, cut the ground from under the old wholesale smuggling. The 'sixties of the nineteenth century saw the Customs dues at their lowest; but since then there has been at first a gradual increase owing to the adoption of tariffs by foreign countries, and then rapid and heavy increases due to wars bringing in huge demands for revenue; while, lastly, new and heavy tariffs have been imposed for the protection of home manufactures. From all this it follows that a new era of smuggling has opened.

The Revenue Coastguard, dating from 1831, was transferred in 1856 from the control of the Board of Customs to the Admiralty, and as a naval force it continued until recent years, and was, in fact, officially the "First Naval Reserve." Its establishment was not to exceed 10,000; and in fact it rarely numbered more than 4,200. The personnel were housed in shore barracks - those neat, white-walled buildings, the "Coastguard stations" with which every visitor to the seaside is familiar. The duties of the Coastguards were many. Although not under control of the departments of Customs and Excise, part of their duties was to watch the coasts to discourage smuggling. For long the Admiralty had objected to the annual cost of the Coastguard Service being returned in the Estimates as a purely Naval charge; and finally, in 1924, it ended as a comprehensive body and was split up into various small units.

This shortsighted policy, entered upon almost concurrently with large and important additions made to the list of dutiable imported articles and heavy increases in the amounts of duties on goods already on the list, has notoriously led to a great increase in smuggling. If we select only spirits for review here, we shall find that with the inordinate duty of seventy-two shillings and sixpence a gallon laid upon them (before the Great War 1914-18 it was fourteen shillings and ninepence) there is so great a profit awaiting the successful smuggler of brandy that many bold and adventurous men will, alike for gain and for sport, run across the English Channel in swift motor-boats carrying spirits which have not rendered to the Revenue.

Pages: <1>

Pictures for In the Days of the Smugglers

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About