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Photograph of Blackgang Chine statue, Isle of Wight
Blackgang Chine, once a notorious landing spot for Isle of Wight contraband, became Britain's first theme park in 1843. Mercifully most other smuggling locations on the island are unspoiled. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: Southern England


SZ58. All of the Isle of Wight is on map 196. Bembridge windmill is ½m S of Bembridge at SZ639874 red map button

Engraving of Shanklin Chine
Bembridge windmill

In Hampshire, the smuggler's job was made especially easy by the proximity of the Isle of Wight. The island had a well-developed trade in wool exports, and until the late 18th century, its coasts were only lightly guarded against the attentions of free-traders: any ship's master with sufficient navigational ability would have been able to slip into one of the island's bays or creeks with little risk of losing a cargo to the land-based forces.

A chase at sea was perhaps more of a risk, but in the early 18th century, the smugglers relied on their superior seamanship to evade the preventive forces. The south-east side of the island is fringed with treacherous rock platforms, notably Rocken End, and the risk of a wreck was not something that the master of a revenue cutter contemplated with pleasure. Any smuggler who knew a way through the rocks, and was prepared to ride out the ferocious south-westerly winds that batter this part of the coast was unlikely to be followed too far. [50]

There seem to have been no large gangs on the island, and the free-trade apparently enjoyed the support of many of the inhabitants. To a certain extent this may reflect the fact that many local people despised rule from the mainland — until the end of the 13th century Wight had been an independent principality, and even at this early date, export smuggling of wool was already taking place on the island and the mainland [51]. Little wonder that the islanders and were disrespectful of the customs authorities!

Smuggling yarns are widespread on Wight: Rookley, situated at the epicentre of the island, claims the crown as smuggling capital. Chale on the south coast was the home of a notorious smuggling family called the Wheelers, who lived in Box Cottage, and Chale churchyard had a reputation for other-wordly happenings that were probably deliberate scare tactics to keep nosey locals away from stored tubs. Bembridge was famous for its small boats that crossed to Cherbourg and Harfleur, and the Bembridge windmill, which still stands above the village, served as a useful marker for incoming vessels.

Engraving of Shanklin Chine
Shanklin Chine in 1820 Click picture to enlarge

The Chines

Coastal erosion has truncated many of the chines at the seaward end, and modern development has dissipated the essential character of others. However, the wooded slopes of Shankline Chine at SZ585812 red map button retain much of their original atmosphere, despite the tarmac path and entrance fee.

When the chance of detection was slight, most free-traders preferred to land goods on the south-west coast of the island. Here there are a few more accessible landing points than the south-east, and they were all pushed into use: notable landing points were Blackgang Chine, Walpan, Ladder, Branes, Grange, Chilton, Brook, Shippard's and Compton Chines, Freshwater Bay and Scratchell's Bay. The chines in particular were valuable points of entry, because most featured a safe beach on the coast, and a secure path inland, hidden from view by dense brushwood and small trees.

Engraving of Blackgang Chine
The high cliffs at Blackgang Chine gave the land party a fine view of approaching smuggling craft. Click picture to enlarge


Brook Chine SZ385835, red map button S of the A3055 5m E of Freshwater is less spoiled than most.

A favoured way to get contraband up the cliffs here was to haul the tubs up on ropes, and a local story [52] tells how a group of smugglers were caught red-handed doing exactly this. The local riding officer spent much of his time patrolling the coast on a white horse, and the yarn tells of a Brook man who enjoyed similar excursions on his black mount. Anxious to avoid being confused with the hated customs officer, (and thus risking a bump on the head from his smuggling pals) the Brook man had developed an elaborate code. On reaching a hill, he would gallop up, and walk down. So when the smugglers were hauling tubs up the cliff face, they saw no danger at the approach of a man on a black horse who galloped uphill and walked down. Only when the riding officer was close enough to be recognized did the lookout realize his mistake — and by then it was too late. Most of the gang were at the top of the cliff, and got clean away; but the man loading tubs at the bottom spent a year in prison for this unfortunate error.

Cowes and the north coast

Cowes is at SZ5096 at the northernmost tip of the island. red map button

The south of the island had the advantage of being ill-policed, but the landing places there were really suitable only for small craft. Bigger ships had to travel round to the north side to unload. Here smuggling sometimes took a different form: East Indiamen would anchor in the Yarmouth Roads and openly do business with small boats that rowed out. By the 1780s, the smugglers had become quite brazen, and were ready to unload cargoes within sight of the preventive forces: they even formed convoys of small vessels guarded by a well-armed cutters and luggers (2-300 tons). Frequently two or three hundred men met the boats to unload the goods.

Such open flaunting of the law could not be tolerated forever, and the preventive effort was stepped up. Cowes was the centre for the operation, and in September 1777 William Arnold took up the post of collector of customs there. He was extremely diligent and devoted to the cause of stamping out smuggling, but his pleas for more help in the war against the smugglers fell on deaf ears in London. Undaunted by this, Arnold resolved to rent, fit out and crew a boat at his own expense. He chose the Swan, but this was soon wrecked in a ferocious storm. It was replaced by more ships — this time supplied by the Admiralty — which had a impressive effect on smuggling in the area. A succession of battles at sea proved successful for the preventives, and before long the large and well-armed smuggling craft had moved to less well protected areas, or to ports where the customs officials were easier to bribe.

Smaller craft were more difficult to deal with, particularly on the rocky south coast, and when Arnold reinforced the land-guard in these areas subterfuge became the rule. The smugglers hid their goods under legitimate cargoes, and landed them in the north coast ports.

In common with other parts of the south coast of England, tubs were also sunk off-shore, though this was practical only in the Solent, since surf on the south of the island would soon set tubs adrift. Recovering sunken barrels was unlikely to arouse suspicion: crabbing and lobster fishing were major industries on the Isle of Wight, and 'creeping' for tubs could easily be passed off as the baiting of pots, or checking the catch. [53]


SZ5076 at the Southernmost point of the island red map button

Of Niton...

'The whole population here are smugglers. Everyone has an ostensible occupation, but nobody gets his money by it, or cares to work in it. Here are fishermen who never fish, but always have pockets full of money, and farmers whose farming consists in ploughing the deep by night, and whose daily time is spent standing like herons on lookout posts.' [54]

This 19th century writer also commented that the men of the village had a variety of pseudonyms, a characteristic shared by smugglers elsewhere in the country.


SZ4083 4m SE of Freshwater red map button

At Mottistone a large tomb, excavated for the bodies of seven sailors washed ashore from a wreck, was used for storing contraband (a theme that recurs in every part of Britain). The tower of the church was probably also used as a landmark and lookout point, and the local gang used caves in the cliffs above the beach for storage; cottages looking out to sea reputedly have small windows to carry lanterns for signalling. The manor at Mottistone was pressed into service, too: tubs were stored in the large loft...'and although the revenue men often looked in at the clap door, they did not dare venture up the rotten ladder.' [55]


The Church of the Holy Cross, Binstead is at SZ575928 red map button down Church Road, which is a turning on the right of the A3054 about 1½ miles W of Ryde. The grave is on the right, about 10 yards from the path leading to the church door (corrected directions 7/11)

Today most of the smuggling landmarks on the Island are topographical features or buildings, but at Binstead is the grave of suspected smuggler Thomas Sivell. He was a Solent ferryman who was shot by the preventive forces in 1785. According to some stories he was innocent of smuggling, but others relate that he was shot while being chased in his smuggling vessel, and that he tossed nearly seventy barrels of spirits overboard to evade capture, along with a considerable quantity of tea! His epitaph tells the smuggler's side of the story:

All you that pass pray look and see
How soon my life was took from me
By those officers as you hear
They spilt my blood that was so dear
But God is good, is just and true
And will reward to each their due

[50] Dowling, RFW, 1978

[51] Dowling

[52] Mew, 1986

[53] Dowling

[54] Dobell, 1860

[55] Mew