Guide-Book: The East Coast
YORKSHIRE AND THE NORTH-EAST
The Yorkshire coast is some 200 miles from Holland across the windswept north sea, so it is not entirely surprising to find that Yorkshire smugglers crossed to the continent less often than those who simply had the narrow Channel to negotiate. However, in the late 17th century and the early years of the 18th there was a brisk export trade in wool and sheep, snatched from contented grazing on the lush Yorkshire Ridings. And certainly as the century wore on, the ships crossing to Holland returned loaded with tea, gin and brandy.
Yorkshire lacked the vast and concentrated market of southeast England, and much of the early 18th-century smuggling activity was piecemeal, with big, heavily-armed luggers (known locally as "coopers") hovering off-shore as floating supermarkets, to service demand from the coastal fishing villages and farming hamlets. Hull, though, was the exception. It had the considerable advantage of a large population, eager for contraband goods, and the city was at the root of a vast distribution system formed by the rivers Ouse and Trent. In terms of its importance as a port, Hull ranked behind only London and Bristol. Much of the town's trade was in coal, exported to Holland, and moved coastwise to London, and cargoes of smuggled goods slipped into the town quay in the black holds of ships returning in ballast.
Hull's involvement was nothing new: as far back as 1394 a merchant there was caught smuggling a barrel of honey and 200 oranges! Such evasion was petty, though, in contrast to later, more substantial frauds: the poundage due was just tuppence hapenny, which suggests that early smuggling was habit — merchants just didn't want the aggravation of paying duty.
Many of the coastal towns and villages to the north of Hull have stories to tell: at Hornsea the crypt of St Nicholas' Church was said to have been inhabited by a witch called 'Nanny Cankerneedle', who was made homeless, it's said, by the parish clerk who wanted to use the crypt to store barrels of brandy. He was caught out two days before Christmas in 1732 when a hurricane blew sheets of lead off the church roof, wrapping them around high trees in Hall Garth. The clerk was struck dumb by the shock of being revealed just as he was stashing away his casks, and he died just months later.
A Flamborough anecdote relates how, in 1844, a lad took a horse from Sewerby to The Rose and Crown (then called the Bending Mule) at Flamborough. The boy, Robin Jewison, met a customs officer near the mill at Croft's Hill, and the officer quizzed him about what he'd seen. 'Nothing untoward' was the boy's reply.
When he reached the pub, there was the sound of men moving kegs in the cellar, but the landlord was nowhere to be seen, and his wife explained that he was sick in bed. However, on his return, the lad met a cart with rags tied over the wheels, pulled by horse with hooves similarly muffled, and in the dark he heard the 'sick' landlord address him: 'Now then Robert, we've seen a lot o' thoo leately, an' we're alus pleased to see thi, but thoo tak oor advice, see nowt, an' hear nowt, an' some fine day thi old granfayther may find summat tiv his likin' iv his corn bin'. This prediction soon can true, and just the next day the boy's grandfather discovered in his granary at Sewerby Fields a tub of brandy.
Flamborough Head is dotted with caves that were associated with smuggling, and one of them — Rudston Church Garth — is reputedly connected by a tunnel to the church mentioned in its name. Another cave is simply called The Smugglers' Cave, though an elderly local comments that...'We called it that when I was a lad to amuse the visitors. The cave that was really used was Dovecote' (now called Pigeon-Hole.)
George 'Snooker' Fagg dominated Scarborough smuggling in the 1770s. His schooner, the Kent, was armed to the teeth, with 16 four-pounder guns, and a dozen swivels. The local revenue cruisers were no match for this sailing fortress, and hesitated to engage the ship, even when it was clear that smuggled goods were being openly sold.
Fagg was so cock-sure that he invited the revenue men aboard the Kent one summer's day in 1777 when trading with the massed ships in Bridlington Bay. Fagg had sent a message across to the revenue cruiser to enquire how they were fixed for provisions. Hearing that stocks were low, the cheeky smuggler entertained several of the revenue men on board the Kent, sending them back with a free half-anker sample of gin.
Less than a month later, relations between the preventives and their adversary were less cordial. For once the revenue men were able to muster a force sizeable enough to tackle the Kent: acting on a tip-off, two revenue ships closed on the Kent off the coast near Filey. The captain of one of the cruisers ordered Fagg to 'heave to, or we will fire...' and was greeted with a cheery reply of '...fire away, you bouggers, and be damned to you!'
The ensuing battle was agonizingly prolonged because the wind has dropped to the gentlest of breezes. Out-gunned for once, the Kent attempted to flee and nearly succeeded. But just as the smugglers were drifting out of range, a naval frigate appeared, and then another. In the dying wind, Fagg resorted to desperate tactics: he put his men in small rowing boats, and ordered then to tow the badly damaged schooner. When defeat was clearly inevitable, the surviving smugglers surrendered, and were taken on board the revenue ship. The Kent was sailed into Hull by her captors, and the substantial cargo of tea and spirits unloaded into the customs warehouse.
The Yorkshire smugglers were by all account a popular lot — or to put it another way, the revenue men were as unpopular locally as they were elsewhere in the country. One of the few ways that the customs men could secure the cooperation of local people was with the aid of prize money from seizures — greasing a few palms locally quickly loosened tongues.
The widespread use of informants led indirectly to an orgy of brutality in Scarborough, and to a trial that attracted as much attention in Yorkshire as the trial of the Hawkhurst gang did in Kent.
The story started with a fairly routine seizure: acting on information from an informer, revenue officers seized a boat-load of tubs just north of Scarborough in August 1822, but the smugglers who were rowing them in from the lugger anchored off-shore escaped capture.
In the normal course of events, the story would have ended here: losing just one boat-load of gin was regarded as an acceptable risk. However, the local customs authorities weren't satisfied, and cast around for people who knew a little more about the run. Billy Mead from Burniston came forward, and implicated a wool merchant called James Law. Law was certainly a smuggler, but claimed that on this occasion he was innocent, and that Billy Mead was lying. The case eventually went to the King's Bench in London, and Law won his case against the informer — Mead was found guilty of perjury.
This caused merriment in Scarborough, but also much bitterness. The Scarborough smugglers were looking for revenge, and the target for their violence was a woodman named James Dobson, who had given evidence against Law the smuggler. Dobson visited Scarborough on market day, February 13th 1823, and was met by a mob baying for blood. He was severely beaten, breaking his ribs, rolled around in a dog kennel, then paraded through the streets tied to a ladder. He would probably have died had he not been rescued by a couple of farmers.
Law was apparently involved in the violence, and a witness at the subsequent trial gave evidence that Law kicked Dobson to the ground at the Old Globe, shouting 'damn him, kill him, he is an informing devil'. Whether this is true or not, Law had certainly been drinking in the town that day, because he and some friends rode drunkenly home on the night of the 13th, making a point of stopping outside the Burniston house of Billy Mead, the convicted informer. The drunken group hurled abuse at the dark windows, but it appears that Mead was prepared for trouble. He smashed a window of the house and fired a pistol out into the dark. The shot hit Law, who was taken severely wounded to the Dodsworth Farm in Harewood Vale.
This fanned the flames of public anger. The following day, a mob several hundred strong attacked one of Billy Mead's friends who had given evidence at Law's trial for smuggling, and practically killed him. In a separate incident, a group laid siege to the house of a local customs man.
When Law died, Billy Mead was put on trial for murder. For obvious reasons the trial polarized local opinion, and created a great deal of interest. The jury heard that a Burniston girl had warned Mead that his Law was after his blood, and, perhaps swayed by this evidence, they took less than half an hour to find the man guilty of manslaughter. Mead served just two years for the crime, and was wise enough to leave the area when released. He subsequently pursued a profitable career as a confidence trickster in Leeds.
Today, The Three Mariners inn is closed. It once had four entrances, including a tunnel that led away from the cellars. There is an abundance of low-ceilinged corridors and concealed cupboards, and the front windows provide a perfect view of the harbour entrance, despite the fact that buildings crowd in around the tiny house.