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Photograph of St Peter's chapel, Bradwell

Smugglers used St Peter's chapel at Bradwell as a convenient and secluded storage depot. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: The East Coast


Not all the south Essex smugglers favoured a landing in the Thames. Those who were intrepid enough to navigate the treacherous sandbanks to the north of the Thames estuary could soon lose themselves in the network of channels around Foulness Island. The low-lying coastal land is criss-crossed with dykes, and if local legend is to be believed, these waterways once linked up, providing a navigable link between the Crouch and the Thames estuaries [228].

This area undoubtedly gained in popularity as the customs net tightened around the coast in the early years of the 19th century. 18th-century smugglers found it easy to prevail over the preventives by sheer force of numbers, but as this became less and less practical, the secrecy provided by the Essex mists and dykes looked more attractive.

Rochford and Paglesham

Rochford is 3m N of Southend at TQ8790 red map button . Paglesham is 4m E of Rochford, at TQ9293 red map button . From Rochford, follow minor roads to Great Stambridge, then signposts to Paglesham (map 178).

Smuggling was so vigorously pursued in the Rochford area that the region's reputation persisted well into the 20th century. One writer commented in 1909 that

'The whole district is honeycombed with traditions concerning smuggling...The tower of Rochford Church was used to store gin, Hollands and tea — the cavity under the pulpit was known as The Magazine' [229]

But it was a tiny hamlet outside Rochford that was the smuggling capital of the district. At Paglesham, most of the population was alleged to have been involved with the free-trade in one way or another [230]. Several locals were ship-owners, and used oyster-fishing or legitimate cross-channel transport as a cover for smuggling: in 1783 the Maldon custom house reported that William Dowsett of the village owned two vessels which he used for illegal trade, and that his brother-in-law, Emberson, also operated a small ship. Another member of the Dowsett family traded from the Big Jane, a heavily-armed lugger that was frequently in skirmishes with the King's men. The most notorious figure, though was William Blyth.

Blyth — alias King of the Smugglers or Hard Apple — was village grocer and churchwarden. Evidently he found it difficult to separate the two roles, since he often wrapped groceries in pages torn from the parish record books.

Other stories about Blyth are more exotic: in one he drank two glasses of wine in the local pub, the Punch bowl, then calmly ate the glasses. Another yarn has Blyth playing cricket on the local green with fellow smugglers Emberson and Dowsett. Though the men took off their coats for the matches, they took the sensible precaution of laying out their guns and swords ready for interruptions from the excisemen. In the course of one of these matches, there was an unscheduled break of another sort: a bull charged the team. Blyth grabbed it by the tail, and set about the animal with a cudgel. The terrified animal fled, with Blyth clinging on, vaulted over a hedge and ditch, then collapsed and died.

On one occasion Blyth's boat was captured during a run, and the cargo transferred to a revenue cutter. On board the cutter, Blyth started drinking with the crew, taking full advantage of his legendary head for alcohol. Before very long, the officers and men were fuddled by drink, and Blyth restored his cargo to its rightful home.

Another story has the smuggler in irons, captive on board a revenue cutter. The ship grounded on the Dogger Bank, and the captain appealed for help from Blyth. He replied 'might as well be drowned as hanged' but was eventually prevailed upon to get the vessel off.

The Paglesham smugglers were so well known that they seem to have practically operated a ferry service across the channel. John Harriott, a well-known writer and traveller from Stambridge, close to Paglesham, described [231] how he had acted as 'chaperon' to two ladies who needed to visit France in 1786, and wished to return home. He knew that the Paglesham men plied to Dunkirk, so he went there in search of them:

purporting to get home to Essex by the nearest passage, I took my road to this port, being pretty certain of finding smuggling vessels from that part of England, with whom I made no doubt of obtaining a ready passage to within a few miles of my house.

Harriott did indeed hitch a lift across the channel, and was dropped off less than two miles from his home. His account is made more colourful by his description of the time he spent drinking at the inn before the Paglesham smugglers arrived. While waiting he handed his pistols 'my constant travelling companions' to the landlady, and thus gave a nearby group of free-traders the impression that he too was a smuggler. They told him that the Essex men 'Emberson, Bligh (sic) or Brown' were expected imminently, and Harriott sat to drink with them. When he refused to drink a toast to the destruction of the revenue services, Harriott was assaulted by his fellow drinkers. He wagered that he could prove that the oath was a false one, and proceeded to argue that without revenue men and laws to prevent or tax imports, there would be no smugglers and they would all be poorer men. Harriott's eloquence persuaded them and the smugglers incongruously drank a toast to 'revenue laws and officers for ever'! What makes this story still more extraordinary is that Harriott was himself a local magistrate.

Paglesham is still largely unspoiled, with a row of weather-boarded white houses. You can still see the pub were Blyth ate his wine glances, and wander round the Norman church of St Peter where contraband was hidden in the vestry [232]. Three pollarded elms at Pound Pond near East Hall were also used as a hiding place — £200 worth of silk was concealed in the trees at any one time. Many footpaths criss-cross the flat fertile fairyland around, and the place and pub names are reminders of the intimate associations with the sea: The Anchor, The Ferry Inn, Seafarmer.

The Crouch to the Blackwater

The narrow isthmus of land between the Crouch and the Blackwater is isolated even today. There are many shallow inlets and vast tracts of low marshland and saltings would have made evasion a simple matter. The coastline is desolate and isolated, and the ditches treacherous — especially at night — to all except those local folk who knew the routes inland from the shore. The east-facing shore between Bradwell and Holliwell point remained a favourite landing place right up until the middle of the 19th century.

Most land lies below the 20m contour, and on a clear night a lantern on a high point could be seen many miles off. A few local high points still carry names that suggest their former function: Beacon Hill at Saint Lawrence was used by smugglers for signalling to Salcott-cum-Virley, and possibly also to Tiptree Heath.

North Fambridge

Turn S off B1012 at Cold Norton, some 4.5 miles E of South Woodham Ferrers. After passing the N Fambridge station continue straight on where the road bears R to reach the Ferryboat Inn at TQ854968 red map button (map 168).

This small village was once linked by ferry to its namesake on the opposite bank of the Crouch, and 18th and 19th century Essex smugglers would have regularly used the short-cut to avoid a long detour to the nearest bridging point much farther up the river. Today the only reminder of the link between the two villages is name of the Ferryboat Inn. The white-painted 15th-century Inn is haunted by the ferryman's ghost [233], and smuggler's tunnels used to run to Blue Farm and Smugglers' cottage nearby.

Engraving of The Green Man at Bradwell by Charles G Harper
The Green Man at Bradwell


At the Mouth of the Blackwater Estuary TM00. Take the B1021 from Burnham, and continue to its end to reach Bradwell Quay. To get to St Peter's Chapel (TM031084 red map button ) turn off the B1021 to the right (signposted). At the next T junction turn right into Bradwell-on-Sea, then left along a road by the church. Continue for about 1.5 miles. and park at a farm (signposted). The chapel is about 600yd away along a firm path. Parking at Bradwell Quay is restricted during weekends and bank holidays in summer season only (map 168).

There are still a few reminders of the age of smuggling in this desolate and wind-swept peninsula: the simple chapel of St Peter at Bradwell was frequently used as a storage place for smuggled goods, and the tower made a handy high-point for a beacon. Ironically, these and other secular uses of the chapel probably ensured its survival: it is founded on the remains of the Roman fort of Othona, and a chapel has existed on the site since the seventh century.

Bradwell Quay is a pleasure marina now, but two centuries ago the hustle and bustle of the working quayside there drew smugglers to the spot. They met in the Green Man, and planned their illicit crossings to Holland there. Nearby Pewit Island was sometimes used for storing contraband.

Bradwell was notorious for smuggling even before illegal imports began. As early as 1361 local residents were accused of smuggling out wool (they were eventually acquitted) and nearly two centuries later a return of 'abettors and assisters of pirates' and 'receivers or conveyors of pirate goods' named five local men who were said to have landed goods illicitly at Bradwell, Stansgate and Ramsey Stone. And as late as 1930 there were people living in Bradwell who could still remember Hezekiah Staines, a local constable, who was reputed to have been a kind of smuggling double-agent — special constable by day, smuggler by night. [234]

[228] Morgan, Glyn H, 1963, The Romance of Essex Inns.

[229] Burrows

[230] Benton

[231] Harriott, John; Struggles through Life; 1815

[232] Church brochure

[233] Thornton, David, 1977 Plough and Sail

[234] Rev. Herbert Brown of St Lawrence 1929; History of Bradwell on Sea