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Photograph of Badminton Heath
There were smugglers' storage depots hidden in the gorsey fastness of Badminton Heath near Fawley. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: Southern England


Immediately to the west of Southampton Water the mainland forms a kind of peninsula, hemmed in on the west side by the Beaulieu river. This remote spit of land was ideal smuggling country: at its closest point, the Isle of Wight is less than two miles away, making the crossing quick and simple. And over such short distances, a signal flashed from a lantern instantly warned of danger, so that a landing could be diverted to a safer spot.

Policing this area on land was all but impossible: even within living memory the roads were little more than muddy tracks, and visits to the coastal hamlets were easier on water than by land.


Fawley is now an oil refinery off the A326. Ashlett Creek is part of the yacht-club marina (SU4603). red map button Badminton Heath or Common is at SU4501 (map 196) red map button .

Strategically situated on the west of Southampton Water, Fawley was once a den of smugglers: Ashlett Creek there was a favourite landing point. Smugglers recruited labour from the villages nearby, and this earned Sprat's Down the nickname 'Lazy Town', on account of the habits of the smuggling population, who spent all day asleep. Caves in Sprat's Down Wood were used by smugglers for storage, and a cottage in the wood was also used to conceal contraband under the stone floor [56]. There were reputedly other storage depots on Badminton Heath.


Park at Calshot SU480014 red map button and walk SW along the shore. The tower is visible through the gate, as is a heavy wooden door guarding a 60 foot tunnel reaching out from the foot of the tower towards the shore (map 196)

Smugglers bringing goods across from the Isle of Wight found their landing points on the mainland with the aid of sea markers, and at Eagleshurst, near Calshot, a folly called Lutterell's Tower was certainly used in this way. Though the reasons for building the tower are uncertain, it may also have been employed as a lookout point by the land party waiting on shore. The tower was probably built in the second quarter of the 18th century, at the behest of Temple Simon Lutterell, who died in 1803 in a French prison. Local tradition asserts that this shadowy figure was himself a smuggler, bringing in the finest brandy from France, and supplying even the Royal Family.

Watercolour painting of Beaulieu mill pond by Ernest W Haslehust
The mill pond at Beaulieu. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

Beaulieu and the River

Beaulieu is at SU3802, red map button 8m due S of Southampton; Buckler's Hard is 2m SE of Beaulieu (map 196). red map button

The western boundary of this smugglers' haven is marked by the Beaulieu river, which was itself a useful highway for shipping contraband goods far inland — without the expense of tub-carriers or carts. Contraband was landed in many places along the thickly-wooded banks, and according to one account...

"All the farms along the river were more or less concerned in the traffic...At Ginn's Farm...a gentleman rode up and said to the servant girl 'Do you ever see anything of the smugglers about here? If you can give me any information, I will give you a sovereign'. The girl was not likely to betray her friends, and replied 'Smugglers Sir! Why we be always all in bed by nine o'clock'. A few minutes later the handmaiden found her master entertaining the stranger, who was deeply interested in the contraband trade, and who had only been trying to test the girl's fidelity. He at once gave her the sovereign, not for giving information, but for withholding it"[57]

Watercolour painting of Buckler's Hard by Ernest W Haslehust
Buckler's Hard. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

Buckler's Hard on the river was a major landfall for the contraband trade: the cottage that is now a chapel was a centre of operations. In Beaulieu itself Palace House made a convenient warehouse, since it was frequently unoccupied. To discourage unnecessary interest, and ensure that the premises remained vacant, smugglers laid on a variety of stage ghost effects — clanking chains, hair-raising screams in the night, and mysterious apparitions.

The shore to the west of the Beaulieu River is lined with treacherous mud-flats which acted as allies for wily free-traders: an unwary revenue man could easily be sucked to his death when pursuing a smuggler through the unfamiliar creeks and rivulets. The local smugglers avoided the same fate by strapping planks or barrel-staves to their feet.

At East Boldre, some 2m west of Buckler's Hard a persistent story relates how, when a tub of brandy fell from a horse and smashed on a rock, the whole party took off their shoes, and drank their fill using these as improvised cups! [58]

Beaulieu River to Lymington

Leaving Buckler's Hard going south towards Lymington, Sowley Pond is some 3 miles away at SZ3796 red map button. Pitt's Deep is at the end of a turning off to the left of the same road some ½ mile further on, at SZ372958 red map button. Pylewell House and Home farm are 2 miles due east of Lymington at SZ3595 red map button. (Map 196)

Safe landings on this coast are few and far between, but there was one at Pitt's Deep: a winding creek that cuts through the mud-flats. Here a jetty, Pitts Deep Hard, provided a berth for even quite large ships. The deepest part of the trench cut by the brook flowing into the sea at this point was used for sinking tubs when danger loomed — and won the nickname Brandy Hole. Pylewell Home farm nearby was also used as a storage place by smugglers, and Tanner's Lane in the same area was a popular route inland, '...owing to being near the forest' [59]

Sowley Pond was once overlooked by an inn, the Forge Hammer, which boasted numerous hiding places. However, when contraband overflowed into the regular cellars, ingenuity was needed to prevent discovery. A raid by the coastguard caused vigorous activity in the bowels of the pub, and the landlady was despatched to divert the coastguards while the tubs were moved from their hiding place in the chimney to the safety of a nearby copse of trees...

'The landlady advanced upon them. Singling out one of the officers who owed her a score for...liquid refreshment, she abused him roundly for not paying his debts...'

When the contraband was safe, the landlady admitted the coastguard, who found nothing, and were once more abused for interfering with the business of honest citizens. [60]


SZ3295 15m E of Bournemouth. red map button The Angel Inn is on St Thomas' Street (the principal road up the hill in the town), and the Nag's Head is now shops at number 34 almost opposite the Angel (map 196).

The inhabitants of this town were so busy smuggling when Daniel Defoe visited that he noted:

I do not find they have any foreign commerce, except it be what we call smuggling, and roguing, which I may say, is the reigning commerce of all this part of the English coast [61]

If the number of smuggling yarns circulating about a town is any reflection of the importance of the place in the free-trade, then Lymington would have been the centre for the whole of Hampshire. In fact, there's probably no such correlation, and some of the yarns told of Lymington recur in very similar forms all over the country. One local tale bears a remarkable resemblance to stories related in the vicinity of Helston in Cornwall, and at Lowestoft...

A ship moored at Lymington; and weeping passengers and downcast crew came ashore with the sad news that the captain had expired during the voyage. A doctor was called, and he duly certified the captain as deceased, and called the undertakers. Soon a sombre procession (including the local customs men) headed up the main street. To drown their sorrows, the mourners called at the Angel Inn, where the King's men were especially well treated. The cortège continued, in a slightly less dignified manner, but as soon as there was a clear road, the hearse sped off at a pace that was far from funereal, and the coffin and its contents of contraband were spirited away to a safer spot, no doubt to the benefit of undertakers, doctor and all of the mourners.

There's good reason to believe that this ruse would have been successful even if the customs men had not had their brains fuddled by drink: the vicar was in league with the smugglers, and allowed the tower of St Thomas' church to be used for storage. [62] The Angel Inn features strongly not only in this tale, but in other local legends. According to one, a tunnel from the shore led up the hill to the Angel, and from there to the Nag's Head. This legend possibly has its origins in the existence of storm drains: the course of the tunnel would have been a logical one for a rainwater or flood drain, so perhaps the smugglers simply made enterprising use of existing facilities.

Denton Curtis wrote to me in 2005:

(The tunnel) is no legend as I have seen it. About 1975 when I lived in Lymington & an adjacent old building not far up from "The Angel" was demolished a cellar was revealed down steps from the main floor level with an old iron swing hinge fixed to the wall. The tunnel is about 5.5ft high & about 2ft wide in the shape of a functional & somewhat elaborate brick arch, the top being less than 10ft below the current Street level but it has been blocked with sand [presumeably latterly by the revenue when smuggling came to an end. [I currently work in the Water Industry it is not in the shape of a drain]. I recovered oyster dishes & ale pottery & an old onion shaped wine bottle from the old building. It originally had a cobbled rear courtyard which must date from about 1815 as I detected & removed a silver shilling of that date in the cobbles.

Close to Lymington, a cave called Ambrose Hole was used as a storage depot by a gang of thugs who dabbled in smuggling, but who were best known for brutality and murder. When troops were called in to put down the gang...

'Booty to an enormous extent was found. The captain turned king's evidence, and confessed that he had murdered upwards of 30 people, whose bodies were found in a well down which they had been thrown.' [63]


Lymington's most famous smuggler must be Tom Johnstone. He was born here in 1772 and was brought up as a fisherman by his smuggling father. By 12 he had already developed formidable skills of seamanship, and knew the south coast of England well enough to act as a pilot virtually anywhere. By 15 he was a smuggler himself.

Descriptions of him are probably tinged with romanticism: he was said to be over six foot tall, with handsome, clear-cut features, dark curly hair and vivid blue eyes. 'Women, children, dogs and horses adored him' [64] Whatever the facts of his personal appearance, he undoubtedly had a great deal of charisma, backed with some low cunning. His life story is a long saga of dramatic escapes and successes, interspersed with spells in prison, injuries and personal disasters. He turned his coat several times, working both for the French and English governments when they were at each other's throats, playing alternately the role of smuggler and revenue man. He had an easy manner that gained him the loyalty of the roughest seamen, yet apparently enabled him to mix on equal terms with the wealthy and titled in England, France and Holland.

When he was 21 Johnstone joined the crew of a Gosport privateer to fight the French, and this led to one of his first spells in prison: he was taken prisoner by the French, and briefly languished in a French gaol. He soon negotiated release, agreeing to carry messages on board a smuggling cutter to a spy in England. However, his jubilation at being released was short-lived, for the cutter was intercepted by a naval vessel during the crossing. Though Johnstone managed to avoid arrest by handing over the package of letters, he was grabbed by the press-gang as soon as the ship docked at Southampton.

In true Boy's Own style, our hero fought free of the press gang and escaped — but was effectively an outlaw. Having nothing to lose, he returned to smuggling, initially with some success. He ran a succession of cargoes, including the export of a French double agent released from prison in England, but in 1798 was captured by a riding officer at Winchelsea along with another smuggler. Imprisoned in the New Gaol, the two of them conspired to bribe the turnkey and Tom escaped to Flushing where he lay low for a while.

Returning to England despite the price on his head, he volunteered a year later as a navy pilot in the campaign to drive the French out of Holland. His skill as a navigator to the expedition won him a cheque for £1000 — a staggering sum in those days — a free pardon, and a personal letter of gratitude from the commanding officer.

With these advantages, Tom was able to set up a fashionable household in London, and he began to lead a profligate lifestyle, running up debts of £11,000. In 1802 his creditors caught up with him, and Johnstone was thrown into the Fleet prison. No prison could hold him for long, though. This report soon appeared in a newspaper:

Johnstone, the notorious smuggler, this morning effected his escape, notwithstanding he was confined in a strongroom with a double door. At the top of each door was a pannel [65] instead of glass, By forcing out these and creeping through them, Johnstone was able to reach the gallery, and from thence the high wall that surrounds the prison. There he found a rope ladder which his friends outside had provided for him. In the evening he arrived in a chaise and four on the coast near Brighton where a lugger was in waiting for him, in which he embarked for Calais, on his way to Flushing. He had a severe wound in the thigh, which he received in the following manner. He had got on top of the last wall that separated him from the street 70 feet from the ground. A lamp was set in the wall, some distance beneath the place where he was. He let himself down, so as to fall astride the bracket supporting the lamp. In so doing, a piece of iron caught his thigh above the knee, and ripped it up almost to the top. At this moment he heard the watchman crying the hour; and had so much fortitude as to remain where he was, bleeding abundantly, till the watchman had gone his round, without perceiving him. Immediately after, he let himself down and crawled to where the post chaise was waiting in expectation of his escape.' [66]

Johnstone recovered from his wounds in France, and was persuaded to take up the guinea run, smuggling gold from England to pay Napoleon's armies. Significantly, Johnstone does not seem to have regarded this activity as unpatriotic — despite the fact that England and France were then at war. However, the Hampshire Smuggler evidently had some scruples, because he soon afterwards turned down the Emperor Napoleon himself when asked to lead the French invasion fleet to the shores of England. Johnstone's genius as a navigator had evidently reached the ears of the Emperor, who clearly believed he was in a position to make him 'an offer he couldn't refuse'. The plan was for Johnstone to have a free pardon in an England under French rule (plus a substantial fee, of course).

Declining the offer led to another spell in a French gaol, and this time it was nine months before he escaped. He managed to hitch a ride to New Orleans on an American ship, but by 1806 had secured yet another pardon from the English, and was working for the admiralty once more, with the American inventor Robert Fulton. The project was the development of limpet mines, and an attempt in 1806 to blow up the French fleet in Brest using these devices was a failure in spite of Johnstone's leadership. However, three years later a successful attack on Flushing harbour earned the smuggler a pension of £100 a year.

The final phase of Johnstone's career was to bring him the lifelong hatred of his fellow smugglers: he became the commander of the revenue cutter HMS Fox, pursuing his former comrades with all the vigilance of a poacher turned gamekeeper. He eventually retired with a navy pension at the age of 44, but his retirement was not entirely without incident. He dabbled with submarines (another Fulton invention) and almost drowned during a demonstration of the first practical model, the Nautilus. He was also approached by the French to rescue Napoleon from St Helena, again using the submarine. Johnstone died — remarkably peacefully, after such an active life — at the age of 67.

Engraving of Hurst Castle
Built in 1544 from the stones of Beaulieu Abbey, Hurst Castle was a smuggling stronghold for most of the 18th century. Click picture to enlarge

Hurst Castle

SZ3189 3m SW of Lymington red map button (map 196). The castle is reached on foot from Milford on Sea (2m), or by ferry from Keyhaven.

Standing far out in the Solent at the end of Hurst Beach, Hurst Castle was at one time a centre for the contraband trade, despite the fact that it was a stronghold of the crown, complete with a garrison. It seems, though, that the smugglers had reached an accommodation with the officers stationed there, because William Arnold, Collector of Customs at Cowes, considered it necessary in 1783 to request...

a King's cutter also in Hurst Road ... to keep off the large cutters from landing their goods for three or four days at a time ... to ruin the Trade, because the expense of keeping a large number of men and horses collected together waiting the arrival of goods must materially diminish the profits arising from their sale. [67]

Specifically, Arnold suspected a Christchurch smuggler by the name of John Streeter. According to information supplied to Arnold, Streeter was using the castle as a rendezvous — a clearing-house visited by smaller vessels from Christchurch itself. This is highly probable, for Streeter reappears in various guises at Mudeford and Christchurch.

Watercolour painting of Boldre by Ernest W Haslehust
The church was used as a hiding place here at Boldre. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

Milford on Sea to Christchurch

Chewton Bunny is at SZ218932 red map button (map 195).

'Bunnies' or ravines between these two towns were used to bring contraband up from the sea: Milford Bunny, Becton Bunny and Chewton Bunny were all used. Milford Bunny runs past Milford Church, which was used for storage and for observation by the smugglers, but Chewton Bunny had several special attractions. It featured a heavily wooded path leading from the coast; and at its foot was an area of quicksand — all but the most knowledgeable locals therefore kept away from the area at night. Naish Farm is said to be linked to Chewton Bunny by a tunnel.

Boldre and St Austins

Boldre Church is 2m N of Lymington at SZ324983 red map button. St Austins is to the W of the A337 some 2m N of Lymington, at SZ312980 red map button (map 196)

The route taken by contraband moving inland from Lymington was probably via the Lymington River. This was formerly navigable for a much greater length of its course, and along its banks there is a tradition of smuggled goods being stored in all manner of places. At Boldre, the church was used for storage, as was one of the table tombs in the churchyard.

At St Austins there are stories of a tunnel leading down from the ruined monastery chapel to the waterside. Unlike many tales of smuggling tunnels, there is some evidence for the St Austin's story: in dry summer weather, the meadow grass changes colour in a strip that marks the route of the tunnel. (Sceptics suggest that the line shows where the monks spread gravel to form a path).

[56] Morley

[57] Hampshire Notes and Queries v9, p104-5

[58] Hampshire Notes and Queries v9

[59] Milford on Sea Record Society 1912

[60] Hampshire Notes and Queries

[61] Tour of England, 1724

[62] Hampshire The Magazine, v26 No 1

[63] Hampshire Notes and Queries quoting Wise, New Forest

[64] Hampshire, the County Magazine v8

[65] Sic

[66] The Gentleman's Magazine, for Monday November 29th

[67] Foster, Rear-Admiral D Arnold, 1938