decorative top bar graphic
blank spacer

Read the book! This fascinating book by award-winning author Richard Platt tells the story of British smuggling Click here to buy

Photograph of Chesil Beach and the Fleet
Chesil Beach and the lagoon behind was made famous by J Meade Faulkner's novel Moonfleet. Click picture to enlarge

Smugglers Britain logo

Guide-Book: Southern England


The South of England was not as close to the sources of smuggled goods as was Kent and Essex, but the coast here had other compensations: the Channel Islands made a very favourable staging post; there were many fine beaches and inlets for landing goods; the winds were favourable; and — at least initially — the coast was less well guarded than that of Kent or Sussex. By comparison with the benign beaches of Hampshire and Dorset, Cornish and Devon coasts were treacherous.

Sources of contraband

Contraband came in to the South principally from France, though often via Jersey and Guernsey, or the smaller Channel Islands. Some more exotic imports also arrived on ocean-going vessels heading for Southampton; the crews of East Indiamen in particular openly traded with the small boats that clustered around the vast hulls in the Solent.

Oriental luxuries were the exception, though, and in the early years of the 18th century the staples of the Hampshire and Dorset smugglers were wine and brandy, along with miscellaneous items wide in variety but small in quantity, such as playing cards and handkerchiefs. During the 1730s there was a shift away from kegs, and the principal contraband became oilskin bags of tea. In the Napoleonic war period a few of the south coast towns, notably Christchurch, exported gold, but so-called the 'guinea run' was never carried on to anything like the same extent as in Kent and Sussex.

The techniques for landing smuggled goods in the south closely paralleled those in other parts of Britain: until about 1700, bribery of customs officials was regarded almost as a simple business transaction, and was a great deal easier than landing goods at some inconvenient spot in the middle of the night. But as corruption and nepotism began to be ferretted out by diligent government officials, this approach became closed to the merchants of the south.

Open landings begin

It was replaced initially by open landings at a discrete distance from the official ports. The government of the day did not interfere: it was preoccupied with the wars in Europe, and did not have the will to deal with minor domestic problems. However, when peace returned in 1713, the preventive effort began in earnest, and the smugglers united to protect their cargoes. They prevailed by sheer force of numbers, often landing goods in full view of the customs authorities. The smugglers wore masks and other disguises to prevent identification by the officials who in small towns might well have been their next-door-neighbours.

Brute force landings like this waxed and waned: they flourished when the stakes were high enough, when the risks of capture were slight, and the punishments meted out not too severe. But when the net tightened, or declining taxation cut profits, subterfuge began: the free-traders' objective was wherever possible to sneak the goods in unobserved. Tubs were sunk from the large smuggling luggers some distance off-shore, then collected inconspicuously by small fishing boats. Where the tides were favourable, barrels could be roped together and rafted in from the open sea to the inland harbours with which the south-coast was so well supplied. This method was used to great effect at Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester harbours, and to the west at Christchurch and Poole. Dorset and Hampshire smugglers caught in the act of sneaking their goods in would destroy the evidence or simply flee if they ran the risk of the gallows or transportation.

Smugglers’ customers

Some of the contraband landed in southern England was consumed locally: tilling the rich soil a little way inland made many a farming fortune, and just as the squire demanded the best brandy, so too his daughters expected the best French lace. However, there is evidence that the smuggled imports often found their way to London: a trail of stories of smugglers' hidden depots points to a cross-country highway that channelled goods from the coast to the markets in the capital.

Amazingly, some contraband made its way to London from as far afield as West Dorset: in 1719 a merchant at Lulworth was importing cocoa beans at a time when there was a taste for drinking chocolate only among the smarter London set. Some contraband travelled long distances inland for different reasons. Cargoes of brandy landed in Dorset in the early 19th century were of such poor quality that they were virtually unfit to drink, and the kegs were carted a safe distance from the coast to undergo a further distilling process, before being sold in the town taverns.

London was not the only inland market: sophisticates in Bristol (formerly England's second port) and in the country houses of Gloucester and Worcestershire were also supplied with contraband landed on the south coast, and moved inland through Dorchester and Sherborne. Though land transport was vastly more expensive than freight over water, the inland route would have proved much less risky as preventive measures were stepped up.

Forest hideouts

Parts of the Dorset and west Hampshire coasts were flanked by untamed heath and woodland that made concealment easy and pursuit difficult. Some regions of the New Forest were effectively no-go areas, and once a cargo entered the Forest, it was usually safe from the clutches of the revenue men. Even Bourne Heath, where inoffensive Bournemouth now stands, had at one time a fearful reputation, and the dense woodland of Cranborne Chase was felled precisely because it provided a haven for smugglers and other undesirables.

Although the larger and more powerful smuggling gangs from the southeast spread their tentacles out as far west as Poole, native Hampshire and Dorset smugglers seem to have preferred persuasion to compulsion in their dealings with the local population (though not the revenue men). One figure in particular, Isaac Gulliver, had such a non-violent reputation that he was nicknamed 'the Gentle Smuggler', though in fairness, such gentleness was relative: his gang was reputedly forbidden from carrying firearms, but they probably weren't averse to swinging a weighty club when they met any of the King's men.