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Stained glass window at the Parrot & Punchbowl Inn, Aldringham
Smugglers were caught red-handed at the Parrot & Punchbowl in Aldringham. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: The East Coast


The major centre for smuggling in Suffolk was perhaps surprisingly not on the coast, but some 40 miles inland: the charming market town of Hadleigh gave its name to one of Suffolk's most successful smuggling gangs. At full strength, the gang numbered 100 men, each turning out with two horses. Such a force would have been almost unstoppable, even when the customs authorities had military support. Certainly, the precise descriptions of the gang's activities recorded in the custom house letters suggests that the authorities could do little more than watch and count the horses:

20 May 70 horses with dry goods landed at Sizewell
27 May 27 horses with wet goods and 36 loaded with tea landed at Sizewell
11 June 60 horses most with brandy, 53 with tea
2 July 83 horses with tea, 9 waggon loads wet goods
12 July 50 horses tea
17 Sept 120 horses — 100 smugglers
10 Nov 50 horses dry goods, 1 cart w/wet goods
23 Nov at least 40 horses, mostly dry goods

Bear in mind that this list is far from comprehensive — it's likely that an equal amount of contraband was landed unobserved.

The gang frequently clashed with the preventive forces, but the biggest battle took place in 1735. The gang's store-house at Seymor (Semer) had been discovered, and the customs authorities, backed up by the military, took the cache to the George Inn in Hadleigh, for overnight storage. This was an outrage that the gang could not take lying down, and 20 or so smugglers soon presented themselves at the inn to demand the return of their goods. In the battle that followed a dragoon was shot dead, and others injured; the gang rode off into the night with their prize.

The authorities recognized 17 of the smugglers, and two were hanged for firing pistols in the battle. This did not deter the rest, though, and 12 years on the leader of the gang, John Harvey, was committed to Newgate prison, and eventually transported for seven years. Even this setback was temporary — the following year the gang broke open the King's Warehouse in Ipswich to rescue their goods.


8m W of Ipswich TM0242 red map button (map 155)

Some of the places associated with the Hadleigh gang are still in existence. You can visit the George Inn, on the main road through Hadleigh, and Pond Hall (TM0541) on the Hadleigh to Duke Street Road, was home of gang leader John Harvey.

The Ipswich area

Levington is 6m SE of Ipswich at TM2339. To reach Pin Mill, (TM206379) red map button leave Ipswich on the B1456 Shotley Road; in Chelmondiston turn left after the Forester's Arms. Pin Mill is reached by a single track road. Parking may be difficult on summer weekends. (map 169)

The principal urban market for contraband in Suffolk was Ipswich, which can be conveniently reached by the Orwell, or — when that was being watched — by a short overland hop from the river Deben. The banks of the Orwell are punctuated by smuggling legends and associations that act as reminders of the illegal traffic between Ipswich and the coast: at Levington the Ship Inn had a cupboard under the eaves that was used as a place of concealment, and ...'at Pin Mill, the riverside portion of the parish of Chelmondiston, the Butt and Oyster Inn is said to have been a favourite resort of smugglers...' [248]

Woodbridge area

Woodbridge is at TM2749 red map button 8m E of Ipswich. The tide mill is open to the public, and the wheel can be seen in operation at times dictated by the tide. To reach Martlesham Creek take the A12 from Ipswich towards Lowestoft. In the Martlesham area, watch for a turning on the R signposted 'Sandy Lane'. Continue along this minor road for a few hundred yards, then park by the signpost indicating a footpath to the creek. (map 169)

The River Deben that laps at the doorstep of Woodbridge was well-used by the smuggling fraternity, though not always with complete success: at Woodbridge Haven in 1739 a smuggler's cutter was stranded by the tide and the preventive services were able to seize brandy and tea. With extraordinary cheek, the smugglers not only raised affidavits for the recovery of their goods, but also contrived to have the master of the grounded cutter that they were using to ferry in the goods press-ganged into serving on HMS Boyne. This of course prevented him testifying against the smugglers.

Today Woodbridge's most notable feature is its tide mill — the last British example in working order. It dates from the 12th century, ceased commercial working in 1957 and was fully restored in 1982.

Martlesham Creek, just a couple of mile away From Woodbridge, was used as a waterway for transport of small boat-loads of contraband. Phillip Meadows, rector of Great Bealings, was reputed to have cooperated with the smugglers [249] by leaving his stables unlocked, with the chaise and harness ready. Since the owner of the chaise was so well respected locally — and effectively above suspicion — the smugglers were thus able to travel around the district quite freely, and used the chaise to collect cargoes ferried up Martlesham Creek.

Leiston area

TM445643 red map button 4m E of Saxmundham. Many of the places described can be located on a map, in particular the White Horse Inn, Leiston Common Farm just E of Leiston, at TM456632 red map button , and the Parrot and Punchbowl pub at Aldringham, TM445610 red map button (map 156).

From the account of the activities of the Hadleigh gang, it's clear that the coast near Leiston was the focal point for smuggling in Suffolk: many of the traditional anecdotes and yarns feature the village, and even in verifiable accounts of smuggling incidents some of the action takes place in the area. Leiston's principal advantage was the proximity of Sizewell. Today, Sizewell's only claim to fame is the nuclear power station sited on the low coastline, but two centuries ago, the landscape looked quite different. The sea was flanked by spectacular cliffs, and the most convenient route through them was via Sizewell Gap, just a couple of miles from Leiston. From the cliffs, goods would be carried inland along an ancient trackway crossing Westleton heath-lands, or hidden in Minsmere levels. [250]

The document that details the runs by the Hadleigh gang makes frequent references to Sizewell. This entry is typical: [251]

June 15th — 80 horses mostly with tea landed out of Cobby's cutter at Old Chapel about 2 miles from Sizewell: at the same time 34 horses all loaded with Tea landed out of the May Flower cutter and 20 next morning out of the same at Sizewell.

(There is a suggestion that Cobby, who owned one of the boats involved, was one of the smugglers who broke into the Poole customs house, and was ultimately hanged and his body displayed on a gibbet at Selsey Bill.)

Of the countless local tales about the free-trade, one yarn in particular is extremely vivid, and gives an unusually detailed glimpse of how the local smugglers operated. Furthermore, the details of the story have been verified by several writers.

The story is set in the summer of 1778, when a group of smugglers brought in a cargo of gin. They landed the 300 tubs undetected, shipped it a couple of miles inland in six carts, and stored the contraband in a barn at Leiston Common Farm, under the watchful eye of Crocky Fellowes, a trustworthy accomplice.

All would have been well had the cache not been found by another local of Leiston, the club-footed 'Clumpy' Bowles. Either Bowles did not have the same sympathy for the local smugglers, or he smelled a reward, because he reported the find to the local revenue man, Read. Realizing that he'd need some support if he was going to separate the spirits from their owners, Read tried to summon a pair of dragoons who were billeted at the White Horse [252] in the village. The dragoons were drunk, so Read looked elsewhere for reinforcements. He sent for two dragoons from the inn at Eastbridge, but the landlady there plied the two men with spirits before they left, so their assistance was equally useless.

Read eventually got together some help, and the party was met at the locked door of the barn by Crocky Fellowes, and two chums — Sam Newson and Quids Thornton. The three men kept Read and his party occupied while 20 of the smugglers moved the tubs through an adjoining hay-loft and onto waiting carts. When the work was complete, the three men guarding the barn unlocked the door, admitted the revenue officers...then locked them inside. The carts trundled off to Coldfair Green, a mile southwest of Leiston.

Here the smugglers had another hiding-place waiting. A dung-heap concealed a trap-door, which led to a sizeable underground vault. The tubs were bundled in and the dung moved back into position; the finishing touch was to eliminate all the cart tracks and footprints by driving a herd of sheep over them. This subterfuge seems to have been sufficient to outwit the revenue men, but the tale is not yet over.

Some time later, the gang returned to recover their cache. They shovelled the manure away from the door and opened the vault. Despite warnings from Crocky Fellowes, They didn't wait for the foul air from the dung to disperse before descending, and three of the gang were overcome by the fumes; two of them died as a result.

News of the deaths travelled fast, and eventually reached the ears of a revenue officer at Saxmundham. He guessed that the smugglers would move the tubs to Aldringham, probably to the Parrot and Punchbowl. He was right. He rode to the pub with two (sober) dragoons, and caught the smugglers red-handed.

However, while their gin was in hiding, the gang had not been idle. They soon found out who had informed on them, and at nine one night two of them arrived at the crippled breech-maker's house on the Yoxford Road close to Leiston High Street. They dragged Clumpy from the house and took him on horseback to somewhere a little less public. There they gagged him with the bung from a beer barrel and savagely whipped him. They threw the apparently lifeless body over a hedge, but Clumpy was clearly a man of some stamina. A farm labourer found him, and took him to the Green Man at Tunstall, where a servant recognized the bung with which Clumpy's assailants had gagged him; she had lent it to a man called Tom Tippenham. Clumpy's testimony, and this corroborative evidence earned Tippenham and his accomplice to a 2-year stretch in Ipswich prison. [253]


TM4566 red map button 2 m N of Leiston (map 156)

The pub at Eastbridge, the Eel's Foot Inn, had a long-standing association with the free-trade, but also served as a billet for dragoons. This irony would certainly account for the behaviour of the landlady in the account of the Crocky Fellows above. Generally the pub seems to have managed to maintain an uneasy truce between the two opposing sides, though sometimes there were lapses. Thirty years before the Leiston deaths preventive men supported by a detachment of fusiliers had clashed with smugglers at Eastbridge in mid-December. The smugglers proved superior, and the authorities retreated to the nearby Eel's Foot. Evidently exhausted by the struggle the smugglers arrived at the same pub half an hour later to refresh themselves. Lieutenant Dunn, commanding, ordered his men out, and they fired on the smugglers who were stabling their horses in the yard, thus driving them off. Two of the smugglers were captured and sent to London for trial.

Theberton, just a mile or so west of Eastbridge, was also used as point of storage and concealment: kegs were stored under the altar-cloth of the church there, according to contemporary correspondence! [254]

Earl Soham and area

Earl Soham is at TM2363 red map button 3m W of Framlingham. Street Farm is just off the green at Earl Soham, on the road leading south. Monewden is 4m NW of Wickham Market TM3056 red map button. Rishangles is 4m N of Debenham at TM1668 red map button and Letheringham lies 2m NW of Wickham Market at TM2757 red map button (map 156).

The Roman road leading towards Stowmarket from the Suffolk coast was a convenient and well-used route for contraband heading inland. Its progress was only sporadically interrupted by the customs authorities, but nevertheless the passing carts did not go unnoticed. Earl Soham on this route was the home of William Goodwin, a surgeon. Goodwin lived at Street Farm for the second half of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, and he meticulously recorded contraband passing through from Sizewell Bay to points farther west. In summer of 1785, he noted that, in less than a week, 20 carts had passed by carrying 2,500 gallons of spirits. In February of the same year, 5 carts carrying 600 gallons passed in the course of just one morning. On the 23rd of February, though, the smugglers were not so lucky, and they lost six carts loaded with spirits to the preventive services.

The enormous quantities that were being moved along the Roman road can be partly accounted by the state of Britain's other roads. Their condition was generally appalling, and at their worst during the winter. Until major road-building programmes began in the 1790s, the Roman roads that criss-crossed the country would have been the only reliable way of transporting heavy wagons. On other roads carts often foundered in the mud. [255]

There are stories associated with other villages close to Earl Soham: at Monewden the sexton of the local church was in league with the smugglers, and in February 1790 the revenue services seized 9 tubs of spirits that he had hidden behind the ten commandments in the church. [256] The parson, sexton and clerk at Rishangles to the north were also reputed to be involved in the trade, and repairs to St Margaret's church in 1858 lend some credence to this story: under the pulpit workmen found the remains of kegs and bottles. The interior of the pulpit was accessible only from outside the church, and the clerical gang had evidently used it as a secure storage place for their contraband. The church is now a private house.

At Letheringham Mr Hart was robbed and 'cruelly beaten' at on 1 Dec 1791 by one James Marr, a smuggler of Charfield. Marr was apprehended, but hanged himself in Ipswich New Gaol while awaiting trial [257].

Aldeburgh and the Alde

TM4656 red map button 6m SE of Saxmundham. The Alde estuary stretches away to the S. (maps 156/169)

The villages and towns along the meandering Alde all saw their fair share of the free-trade: Sudbourne was the home of a particularly brazen smuggler, Richard Chaplin. On his retirement , he placed an advertisement in a local newspaper that must surely have been calculated to cock a snoot at his traditional rivals, the revenue men. It is worth reproducing in full:

'Richard Chaplin, Sudbourne, Suffolk, near Orford, begs to acquaint his friends and the public in general That he has some time back declined the branch of smuggling and returns thanks for all their past favours. To be SOLD on Monday August 6th at the dwelling house of Samuel Bathers, Sudbourn, the property of Richard Chaplin aforesaid. A very useful Cart fit for a maltster, ashman or smuggler — it will carry 80 half ankers or tubs — one small ditto that will carry 40 tubs; also very good loaden Saddles, three Pads, Straps, Bridles, Girths, Horse-cloth, Corn-bin, very good Vault and many articles that are useful to a smuggler.' [258]

Aldeburgh itself was deeply implicated in the free-trade: Lord Orford once commented that the only man in Orford who was not a smuggler was the parson. And though there is little to directly connect Snape with smuggling, it was nevertheless the scene of at least one unfortunate clash between the smugglers and the preventives: when Jeremiah Gardener came across a gang of desperate smugglers near to Snape in 1727 he made the mistake of challenging them, despite the fact that he was heavily outnumbered. The smugglers fired on him, so he drew his sword, but this proved no deterrent: his assailants cut off his nose, and if he hadn't crawled off and hidden behind a hedge, poor Jeremiah would not have escaped alive.

The remoteness of Orford made it a valuable spot for landing goods unobserved. The port was controlled by a customer and searcher from Aldeburgh, and these officials visited Orford just a couple of times a week. As late as 1856 one local ship's master observed that by timing the visit carefully, any would-be smuggler could spend two days in Orford harbour unloading an incoming cargo — perhaps wine — and loading a new one for export to the continent. The King's Head at Orford was used as a storehouse for goods run at Hollesley Bay.

Engraving of Weymouth
Illustration by Jack Matthews. Click picture to enlarge

The River Blyth

The Blyth enters the sea at Southwold, 8m E of Halesworth at TM5076 red map button . Blythburgh is on the A12 where it crosses the Blyth, at TM453753 red map button Blyford is 2 Miles from Blythburgh on the Halesworth road TM424765 red map button (map 156).

Waterways of all descriptions provided routes for smuggled cargoes to move inland, and the Blyth served the purpose well. Dunwich, close to the river's mouth, was a popular landing spot, and at Blythburgh in the roof of the White Hart there is a small window looking across the marsh [259] — a convenient place to put a light as a signal to the string of small boats ferrying goods onward to their customers. A couple of miles upstream Blyford made a convenient stopping-off point for the kegs of brandy as they moved onwards: the Queen's Head was noted for many smuggling associations, and contraband was stored in a recess above the fireplace [260]. Another hiding place in the village was the church across the road, where the pews and altar were used for concealment, but St Andrew's Church at Westhall some three miles to the north provided an even better-kept secret: kegs were hidden in the valley roof, between the two ridges.


TM4290 red map button 8m W of Lowestoft (maps 156/134)

The Landlord of the Queen's Head at Blyford (see above) in the mid 18th century was John Key, and as he became more and more deeply involved in the smuggling trade so his business as a publican must have looked increasingly like small beer. Eventually he gave up the licensed trade altogether, moving to Beccles where he took a house at Swines Green on Smuggler's Lane near St Anne's Road, 'Where five crossways meet'. The house was adjacent to a large barn, and both buildings had numerous places for hiding contraband. The buildings were standing in 1931, but described as being in dilapidated condition. Smugglers' Lane was an artery along which contraband moved into the town from the coast and from landing points at Barnby and Worlingham on the River Waveney [261] — and perhaps Key took a fancy to the house when helping to move cargoes landed at Dunwich. Contraband also came in along the road from Covehithe, and possibly Benacre, which was a favourite landing spot for the Hadleigh gang.

Key played a prominent part in Beccles smuggling, and left behind a number of anecdotes. in one of them [262], revenue officers met up with Key at Brampton Church six mile from his home, as he was returning from a run. Key spurred his horse onward, but near the Duke of Malborough Inn, Weston, one of the officers shot John's horse (which he had borrowed for the occasion) from under him. Key completed the journey on foot, arriving just before the King's men. To his delight, he found a horse very similar to the one he'd been riding grazing contentedly near his home, so he hurriedly locked it into the stable, and donned his nightclothes on top of his working garments. When he heard the inevitable knock on the door, he was able to lean out the window and shout innocently enough 'Wha' d' ye want?'. When the revenue men replied 'where's your horse...didn't we shoot him less than half an hour ago?' John directed them to the stable, thus providing himself with an apparently waterproof alibi.

Despite his ingenuity (or perhaps because of it) Key's stay in Beccles ended badly: for in 1745, smugglers dragged him from his bed, believing that he had informed on them. They stripped and beat him, then tied him naked to a horse and rode off. A reward of £50 for information elicited no response, and the man was never seen again [263].

Smugglers' Lane is now called Wash Lane, and leads from 'Swine's Green to the Ellough Estate, and...on past Castle Farm' [264]. Codlins or Codling Wood in Beccles, between Ellough Road and Worlingham boundary was once a dump for contraband.


TM5493 red map button 38m NE of Ipswich (maps 156/134).

Despite the relative importance of Lowestoft as a port, there are relatively few references to smuggling activity locally — and those that do exist have a familiar ring to them: one author [265] gives an account of how contraband was smuggled ashore using the subterfuge of a coffin: In 1910 a French boat encountered a watchful body of preventives, so they pretended that a British passenger on the ship had died, and wished to be buried locally. The coffin, of course, contained contraband, and when permission had been granted and the 'body' interred, it could be secretly dug up again. [266] This story may well be apocryphal, since other writers tell a very similar stories about different ports around the country, including Lymington [267].

A more credible story recalls a visit to a vessel involved in the contraband trade, and describes how those involved kept to the letter of the law, if not the spirit:

'We went together aboard one of the small trading ships belonging to that town, and as we were on shipboard we took notice of two of the seamen that were jointly lifting up a vessel out of the hold: when another seaman that stood by, clapped one of them on the shoulder, and asked him why he did not turn his face away? (for he was looking down as he would see what he and his fellow were lifting out of the hold). Upon which he turned his face away. The meaning of which we soon understood to be this: that he would be obliged to swear he saw nothing taken out of the hold; not that he took nothing out of it' [268]

[248] Dutt, W.A.; Norfolk and Suffolk Coast 1909

[249] Thompson, Leonard P, Smugglers of the Suffolk Coast, 1968

[250] Dutt

[251] East Anglian Magazine 1969 vol XIX (Jan & March). Article by Brown, A Stuart: Smuggling in Suffolk

[252] The White Horse Inn was at one stage the home of Ann Gildersleeves, a notorious smuggler, and wife of the landlord, George. She is reputed to have used a void under the platform of the local Friends Meeting House as a storage place for contraband. (Extra information supplied by a descendant, Ann Solomon, January 2014.)

[253] Chandler, L, 1960

[254] Letter from Edward FitzGearald to Charles Keene, quoted by Thompson, Leonard P, Smugglers of the Suffolk Coast, 1968

[255] East Anglian Magazine July 1953 vol XII; Fussel, GE; A Suffolk Surgeon and the Sizewell Smugglers

[256] East Anglian Magazine July 1953 vol XII

[257] East Anglian Magazine July 1953 vol XII

[258] Fussell, GE, F.R.Hist.S. Earl Soham

[259] Thompson

[260] Thompson

[261] Norwich Mercury 19/9/1931; In Smuggling Days by Lawson, Gerald H

[262] Eastern Daily Press, 16/10/1946; East Anglian Notebook by WF

[263] East Anglian Magazine, July 1956 Vol XV, Smith, C Elizabeth: Tea and the free-traders of East Anglia
More detail in Norwich Mercury 19/9/1931; In Smuggling Days by Lawson, Gerald H
A Descendant of Key, Mrs Dale Williams, wrote to me in September 2006 pointing out that ..." in the books These for Remembrance (Eliza Vaughan, 1934, page 24) and Smugglers of the Suffolk Coast (by Leonard P Thompson, page 50) an anecdote is told about John Key and his wife Martha involving their niece Mary Jane feigning scarlet fever in a ruse to put off the excise men. Mary Jane later married Samuel Edwards [who according to] the 1881 census was born at Halesworth in 1810. We might assume Mary Jane's birthdate is similar.
Assuming that the scarlet fever episode referred to in Mary Jane's childhood took place around 1815-1825 or so, it's evident that the story of John Key's abduction and presumed murder is either wrongly dated, or about someone else entirely."

[264] East Anglian Magazine Volume 35 p196; Elliot, Christopher R; Smugglers' Walks around Beccles.

[265] Dutt

[266] East Anglian Magazine 1969 vol XIX (Jan & March). Article by Brown, A Stuart: Smuggling in Suffolk

[267] Graham, Frank; Famous Smuggling Inns. However, Thompson evidently found it sufficiently credible to repeat (p40). The story is also told about Lymington.

[268] Rev William Whiston — Memoir of the life of Dr Samuel Clarke (my itals)