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Engraving of Netley Abbey
According to legend, Netley Abbey was used for storing contraband. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: Southern England


Contraband crossing the Solent from the Isle of Wight was landed in Hampshire both east and west of Southampton Water. On the east side, the miles of coast between Langstone and Chichester harbours provided ample opportunity for an inconspicuous landing. Portsmouth harbour was a different matter. The long-standing naval presence there would seem at first glance to discourage smuggling, but this is really a considerable simplification. The truth was that smuggling simply took on different forms here. Naturally, the military presence prevented smugglers from organizing the classic run, with the cargo collected by hundreds of men and horses on shore.

Engraving ˙Rigging out a Smugglerđ by Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson lampooned smuggling by naval seamen in his cartoon Rigging out a Smuggler. The sailor's sweetheart hides contraband beneath her clothes. Click picture to enlarge

Instead, contraband at Portsmouth probably came in through semi-legitimate means: as the personal property of the crews on the naval vessels themselves, and on East Indiamen. The East Indiamen were generally escorted to Spithead by naval vessels, and lay at anchor there with a handful of customs officers on board to prevent the cargo from falling into the wrong hands. However, the system wasn't perfect, and there were plenty of opportunities for abuse.

Corruption in the customs and excise at Portsmouth was probably as widespread as elsewhere, and even honest officials had numerous other duties besides the suppression of smuggling. In this context, it's hardly surprising to find stories of smuggling passed down by word of mouth all over eastern Hampshire. Many yarns concern not the runs themselves, but transport and storage inland. The passage of time has erased most evidence to support these stories, and though the place names remain, the casual visitor is unlikely to find the depots, tunnels and hidey holes that the tub- and tea-carriers used for storage.

The River Meon

Cheriton is at SU5828 on the B3046 east of Winchester. Leave Brandon on the Cheriton Road. Take the first fork on the right. The farm is on the left. red map button

One smuggling transport route used to bring contraband north from the coast passed through Cheriton, where a farm called East Down was reputedly used by smugglers to keep an eye on the activities of the customs authorities.

At Medstead was a depot for storing silk, lace and brandy — in a cave, according to rumour, and in the church tower. The church can still be seen, but today the cave remains only a memory. And at Preston Candover two wells were used for the concealment of contraband. Near the mouth of one was a cave big enough to accommodate a coach and horses. Again, the wells are no longer shown on maps, and there's no trace of the storage depots on the spot.

In Southampton itself, the history of smuggling goes back a long way, but is primarily concerned with wool export. There are records of bribery and corruption of local officials, and even one story of how a Genoese merchant whose bribe had been spurned. The merchant kidnapped the incorruptible official, and dumped him on the Isle of Wight.

Engraving of Netley Castle
The Tudor castle at Netley gave smugglers a fine view towards Southampton and down towards the Solent. Click picture to enlarge

Netley and Hamble

Netley Abbey is 3m SE of Southampton centre at SU453089. red map button Hamble is 2m further SE at SU4806 (map 196) red map button

Just to the south of Southampton on the east side of Southampton water, Netley abbey and castle were rumoured to have been used by smugglers. One local story tells how a Netley smuggler who was planning a run lured the local customs officers away from the landing point by sending a second vessel up Southampton Water to unload its cargo. The unfortunate customs officer pounced near Netley, only to discover that the 'barrels' were straw replicas.

Hamble, just a little way to the east, was the home of a smuggling gang led by a man named Sturgess, who bought in 1783 a huge 20-gun cutter called the Favourite. His choice of base was understandable — contraband could be shipped cheaply and safely up the branching river Hamble. Recognizing the value of the route, the preventive forces stationed dragoons here as early as 1723.