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 the Purbeck Marble quarries
The Purbeck "marble" workings provided smugglers with a warren of tunnels for concealing and moving their goods in secret. Click picture to enlarge

Smugglers Britain logo

Guide-Book: Southern England


To the west of Poole harbour lies the Isle of Purbeck, famous for its marble workings. The Purbeck marble quarries were a gift for the local free-trading population: much of the marble was extracted by sea, so there was constant activity all along the coast, and an extra ship or two berthing alongside the stone ships passed almost unnoticed. The workings themselves formed a maze of passages and trenches, and a smuggler pursued could dart down a tunnel and soon be hidden behind a pile of rubble, or a slab waiting to be dressed. The quarrymen were doubtless amply rewarded for assisting the smugglers and co-operation was the rule on the island.

Watercolour of Studland Bay by Ernest W Haslehust
Studland Bay's sandy bottom made it a favourite spot for smugglers to sink tubs awaiting later collection. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

Locally contraband was landed from large fishing boats, and from luggers of 20-40 tons: the main imports in the early 18th century were tobacco and spirits, though tea became more popular in the later part of the century. When the revenue men were abroad, tubs were sunk in Swanage, Studland and Kimmeridge Bays. Studland bay was particularly popular, because it had a safe, sandy bottom, and because Studland itself was very isolated. Goods landed there were concealed in seaweed or bracken, then taken inland, and shipped across the harbour in ones and twos, using the Poole dragger boats,

Though the Purbeck smugglers landed goods on the island, this was often only a temporary resting place. The larger markets for their goods lay to the east, in Poole and beyond. From Purbeck, the kegs and bundles made their way by sea to Parkstone, Hamworthy, Lytchett Bay, West Holton, Keysworth, and the rivers Trent and Piddle. Transport inland then continued by cart. The simpler option of shipping goods directly overland was too risky, since the land routes off the island were carefully guarded. [91]


8m S of Poole at SZ0379 red map button (map 195)

Purbeck harbours the usual compliment of smuggling yarns, and though the following story of a Swanage smuggler is totally impossible to verify, it is worth repeating anyway. The story [92] concerns a smuggler quarryman who lived in Station Road, Swanage. This man had the misfortune to have for a neighbour 'a zealous Customs House Officer'; not an unusual situation in a small town. The smuggler worked his quarry with the aid of an old and faithful nag, and the horse had been trained to find its own way home, with a cargo of tubs across its broad back. On reaching the smuggler's house, the horse would wait patiently in the porch until the door was opened, and some kind soul unloaded the night's goods. One particular night, the horse was perhaps affected by the rich aroma wafting up from the tubs, and turned into the wrong porch. Hearing a clatter of hooves, the customs officer got up from his chair and discovered a windfall seizure waiting on the doorstep. The horse, relieved of his burden and doubtless horrified by the mistake he'd made, crept back to the correct house hanging his head.

Engraving of Old Harry rock, Purbeck
Smugglers moored at the foot of the cliffs near Old Harry rock, and hauled their contraband up the cliff. Click picture to enlarge

Durlstone Bay

SZ0377 red map button 1m SE of Swanage centre (map 195).

The sea bed at Durlstone bay was covered in soft silt, making tubs difficult to recover if they were sunken in the usual way, and the technique used there was to attach the tubs to a plank, which was weighted so that it floated some six feet off the bottom. This kept the tubs clear of the mud. To mark the position of the tubs, the Purbeck smugglers used a bottle-cork tied to a piece of cord — pulling on the cord would bring to the surface a stouter line attached to the string of tubs. Lobster-fishing provided the cover for recovering tubs, and the smugglers took care that their floats were indistinguishable from the markers used for lobster pots.

This habit had on occasion dire consequences: a local yarn tells how a well-bred lady was travelling to Poole in the market boat, and noticed the bobbing corks. She asked the captain what they were for, and on learning that they marked lobster pots, She exclaimed that, although she had eaten lobster, she'd be fascinated to see how they were caught. When the obliging captain hauled in the pot to satisfy the woman's curiosity, he was dismayed (but perhaps not surprised) to find a couple of kegs attached. As ill-fortune would have it, one of the other passengers was a custom house officer from Swanage, who promptly chalked a broad arrow on each keg, and resolved the following morning to keep a weather eye on the lobster fishermen. He was not disappointed, and had the perverse pleasure of seeing the astonishment on one man's face as he hauled in tubs marked as seized by HM government. On returning to the shore, a reception committee was waiting for the unfortunate fisherman.

Open landings

When the coast was clear, the local men preferred to land goods directly, rather than risk a storm washing away their cargoes. Frequently they would moor at the very foot of the cliff, from Old Harry to Pondfield, and haul the tubs up the cliff. From Ballard Down a signal fire or flash could be seen out at sea miles away, so the risk of detection was slight. Goods brought up the cliff made their way across the down then off to the west via Jenny Gould's Gate.

If cargoes could not be shipped inland from the Purbeck coast directly, they were easily concealed in the stone quarries. The quarry at Durlstone Bay was particularly useful for this purpose on account of its size: from about 1700 the stone was worked from shafts or lanes that sloped steeply downwards, and at Durlstone the lanes continued a long way inland. Many of the passages were interconnected, so that the knowledgeable smuggler could disappear down one shaft, and emerge some distance away. At times there were 14 gangs of quarrymen working there, and with the crews of the stone boats milling around, it was impossible for the customs officers to keep an eye on what was happening, as they frequently complained:

One mile from Swanage Bay is Durlstone. Here goods are very frequently landed and immediately concealed in the stone quarries where from their great number and extent it is wholly impossible to discover them.

Watercolour of  Tilly Whim Caves by Ernest W Haslehust
The entrance to Tilly Whim Caves was just wide enough for a small boat loaded with contraband. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

Small quantities of contraband could be removed in the rush baskets which the quarrymen carried to work and back each day. Larger cargoes were frequently stored at the quarry until the coast was clear. A particularly effective hiding place was inside a hollowed-out block of stone: the small entrance was concealed by a pile of loose rocks. Customs men, ignorant of the intricacies of quarrying, were told that the rock was unsaleable, because there was no longer any demand for that kind of marble. Other hiding places included a small cave near Durlstone Head, concealed with a thin block that could be slid aside. This hiding-place was unfortunately sniffed out by a coastguard's dog. Other caves were pressed into service, too — one near Tilly Whim caves had a narrow sea entrance just big enough for a small boat, but ample space inside for several burly smugglers.

Dancing Ledge

2m SW of Swanage at SY995768 red map button (map 195).

To reach Dancing Ledge, approaching from Swanage, turn left in Langton Matravers down Durnford Drove immediately after passing the C of E church. There is free National Trust Parking once inside the field at the end of Durnford Drove (thanks to David Heath of Westcliff on Sea for this update). The ledge is 3/4 m S. This extraordinary rock platform is aptly named — it really is flat enough to dance on — and was a popular landing point. Goods were taken up over the hill to Spyways Farm for temporary storage (on occasions guarded by a bull) and from there to the church at Langton Matravers, where tubs were stored in a void above the ceiling in the church roof. A local story tells that on one memorable Sunday the choir were singing from a psalm the words 'And Thy paths drop fatness', when the roof collapsed, bombarding the congregation with kegs.

Asked whether there was any truth in the smuggling connection with Spyways Barn, one local wryly observed 'I reckon as how it must be true, 'cos it's the only reason why a sane person would put a house on top of a hill where it catches all the wind'.


SY977761 red map button 3m W of Swanage. Drive to Worth Matravers, park then walk the 1m S to the cove (map 195). Chapman's Pool is ¼miles NW. This was another popular landing site: a sheltered valley leads up from the sea there to Worth Matravers.

Cargoes continued to be landed here and at Chapman's Pool until the smugglers overstepped the mark, binding and gagging the unfortunate coastguard who found them at work, then staking him to the ground before beating the man to within an inch of his life. After this incident, a permanent guard was stationed at the bay.

West Purbeck

Kimmeridge Bay is at SY9078 red map button 8 miles W of Swanage, close to Kimmeridge via a toll road (map 195). Arish Mell, 2 miles E of West Lulworth at SY855803 red map button is now part of an army firing range, and therefore closed to the public on weekdays, and four or five weekends a year. A recorded message at the range office can give details: ring 01929-404819. Approach from East Lulworth (map 194).

To the west of the marble workings of Purbeck, every point where there was direct access to the sea was pressed into service at one time or another. Tubs were sunk on the sandy bottom of Kimmeridge Bay, and landed at Brandy Bay to the east, though when it was clear what was going on, the revenue men began to use Clavel's Tower, overlooking Kimmeridge bay, as an observation post. Worbarrow Bay was a popular landing spot, with Arish Mell beach in the middle especially convenient: one run there in 1719 was of spectacular proportions, with five luggers unloading together, and...

A perfect fair on the waterside, some buying of goods, and others loading of horses... there was an army of people, armed and in disguise, as many in number as... at Dorchester fair.

Nearly sixty years later, a local newspaper reported that...

A Dunkirk schooner landed... upwards of twenty tons of tea, in sight of and in defiance of the Custom House officers as they were mounted twenty four-pounders, which they brought to bear on the beach. The smugglers on shore carried it off in three waggons and on horses, except twelve hundredweight, which the officers seized, and carried to a public house at West Lulworth... but thirty or forty of the schooner's people, well armed, followed after, and broke into the house, beating and cutting the people they found there in a cruel manner, and carried off the tea.

Lulworth Cove

SY8279 red map button 10m SE of Dorchester close to the village of West Lulworth. Mupe Bay is a mile to the E. (Map 194)

This picturesque spot makes a neat full stop at the western end of the isle of Purbeck. The cove has been described as the most beautiful in Britain, and makes an almost perfect circle, surrounded on all sides by cliffs. This extremely sheltered bay could therefore be used in virtually all weathers, and was of course the ideal spot to sink tubs. One, a hogshead of French red, bobbed up in 1717, and was promptly seized, though it proved to be 'poor thin stuff that will not keep'.

A couple of years later nearly a dozen smugglers were stopped near the cove as they tried to run wine and brandy in the early hours of a summer's morning. They fought like demons with flails, swords and clubs, and when it looked like they'd lose the cargo, the smugglers staved in some of the barrels, and made off with the remainder. The battle between smugglers and revenue men went on for some twelve hours, and attracted people from four parishes, who ran off with the abandoned barrels.

In the early years of the 18th century the local venturer at Lulworth was one Charles Weeks, who lived at Winfrith, and who had developed a particularly shrewd way of defrauding the revenue. He would buy seized goods at legitimate auctions, and mix in the smuggled article for onward shipment, often to London. When an officer challenged Weeks to produce receipts showing that duty had been paid, Weeks could often do so. When he couldn't, he would threaten the officer with litigation; on the pittance paid by the government, no customs officer could afford a legal action, so the smuggler escaped.

Smugglers are said to have stored contraband in a cave at the most easterly point of Mupe Bay. In 1906 it could be reached following the coast from Lulworth, and by descending the cliff the moment the bay is reached. The cave is at the foot of the precipice, at a spot where a little channel has been cleared between the boulders for a boat to land. [93]

The Lulworth men evidently took no chances of being identified by the local customs authorities: on a tombstone in Weymouth's Bury Street cemetery there is the following incription:

Sacred to the memory of Lieut Thos Edward Knight, RN, of Folkestone, Kent, Aged 42, who in the execution of his duty as Chief Officer of the Coastguard was wantonly attacked by a body of smugglers near Lulworth on the night of 28th of June 1832, by whom after being unmercifully beaten he was thrown over the cliff near Durdle Door from the effects of which he died the following day. [94]


SY8486 red map button 10m E of Dorchester (map 194)

The route that contraband followed inland from Lulworth went directly through the village of Wool, where in the 1820s the landlord of the Ship Inn, Tom Lucas, supervised onward shipment and storage. He was a formidable man, and his associates were notorious for their violence. Little wonder, then, that when the Bow Street Runners were called in to arrest Lucas, they took no chances. They arrived in large numbers, heavily armed, in the early hours of the morning. To gain entry to the inn, they chose the softly-softly approach. One of them knocked gently on the door, and when Lucas asked 'Who's there?', the officer replied in a child's high, squeaky voice 'It's only me, Mr Lucas, Mrs Smith's little girl. I want a little drop of brandy for mother, for she is bad in her bowels'.

The subterfuge worked, and Lucas opened the door, only to be arrested by several burly sergeants, and hustled to prison — he was later acquitted, perhaps by a jury fearful of the consequences of a guilty verdict.


In charge of one of the overland haulage companies moving goods from the Dorset coast was Roger Ridout, who has since achieved legendary status in north Dorset. He lived at Okeford Fitzpaine , a small village near Blandford Forum, and in an 1895 account of his activities, a local writer commented...

[my] father stated that when a boy, in or about 1794, he had, when riding...late at night seen the string of horses in the narrow road between Okeford Fitzpaine and Fiddleford with the kegs and other contraband goods on the horses. One or two men, armed, generally were in front and then ten or twelve horses connected by ropes or halters followed at a hard trot, and two or three men brought up the rear. This cavalcade did not stop for any person, and it was very difficult to get out of their way, as the roads, until the turnpikes were made in 1724, would only allow for one carriage, except in certain places. The contraband goods were principally brought from Lulworth and the coast through Whiteparish and Okeford Fitzpaine, through the paths in the woods to Fiddleford, and thus distributed.[95]

The author of this piece was the grandson of a Sturminster Newton JP who was reportedly bribed by Ridout.

From baptism registers, it appears that Roger Ridout was borne in Shroton (the parish of Iwerne Courtney) in 1736. He inherited a house in Fiddleford when he was 10, and married when he was 20. He earned a living as a miller, died in 1811, and was buried in Okeford Fitzpaine graveyard.

But behind these bald facts lie numerous legends [96]. The Ridout of the oral tradition was a bold smuggler who brought contraband — notably brandy — from the coast, and stored it at the mill. Most of the tales tell the usual story of the exciseman outwitted, but their charm lies in the west-country flavour. For example, Ridout owned a horse called locally Ridout's Ratted (or stumped) Tail, for reasons that probably need no explanation, and as he arrived in Sturminster Bridge Street a mob of rival smugglers gathered round the horse and rider, and tried to pull Roger to the ground. Ridout leaned forward and whispered to his nag 'What'd 'ee do fer thy king?'. On hearing this, the horse reared up and kicked in the door of a nearby house.

Other stories have Ridout being lowered from the back-window of his house in a bed-sheet to escape the revenue men, and tricking them in other ways. Returning from Fiddleford brewery with a jar of balm, Ridout was met by a curious exciseman. Roger shook the bottle as the exciseman approached, and as the wily smuggler had expected, the officer asked about the contents of the bottle. Ridout led him on: 'Would 'ee like t'smell 'un' and handed it over. When the officer pulled the cork he got a faceful of balm, and the smuggler pushed him into the ditch and went on his way.

Ridout is reputed to have been employed by Isaac Gulliver, and it is certain that he spent some time in Dorchester Gaol, languishing there until he could pay the fine. The local stories tell that he was fortified behind bars by his wife, who would walk a 40 mile round trip to the gaol with a concealed bladder of brandy, equipped with a tube that she passed through the bars so that her husband could have a drop of the right stuff.

Higher Bockhampton

SY7292 red map button 2m NE of Dorchester (map 194)

Thomas Hardy was born here, and describes in his notebooks his grandfather's connections with the free-trade:

While superintending the church music (from 1801 onward to about 1805) my grandfather used to do a little smuggling, his house being a lonely one, none of the others in Higher, or Upper, Bockhampton being then built...He sometimes had as many as eighty tubs in a dark closet (afterwards destroyed in altering the staircase) — each containing four gallons. The spirits often smelt all over the house, being proof, and had to be lowered for drinking. The tubs, or little elongated barrels, were of thin staves with wooden hoops. (I remember one of them which had been turned into a bucket by knocking out one head and putting in a handle.) They were brought at night by men on horseback, 'slung' or in carts. A whiplash across the window-pane would wake my grandfather at two or three in the morning, and he would dress and go down. Not a soul was there, but a heap of tubs loomed up in front of the door. He would set to work and stow them in the dark closet aforesaid, and nothing more would happen till dusk the following evening, when groups of dark, long-bearded fellows would arrive, and carry off the tubs in twos and fours slung over their shoulders. [97]

Osmington Mills

SY7381 red map button 1m SE of Osmington, off the A353 4m from Weymouth (map 194).

West of Lulworth lie high cliffs, but there is again access to the sea at Osmington Mills, backed by a sheltered valley hidden from casual gaze. An easy landing and a safe route inland made this a valuable landfall for import smugglers, and the 13th century inn on the spot had a constant flow of visitors — both English and foreign — and smuggled liquor with which to supply them.

The landlord in the early 19th century was Emmanuel Charles , who apparently imported brandy that was so disgusting that none of the locals would drink it. The spirit therefore had to be shipped inland disguised as luggage on the local mail coaches, then redistilled before it could be sold. Charles' accomplice — the sea-borne side of the partnership — was a Frenchman called Peter Latour, or French Peter. This intrepid mariner at one time had a price on his head, and a local anecdote tells how an innocent young preventive, John Tallman, visited the inn seeking information about French Peter. The landlord plied him with brandy and stories of French Peter's brave deeds and ferocious temper. With each glass the stories became bolder, and the young preventive's eyes wider. So when French Peter's ship, the Hirondelle, dropped anchor in the bay below the pub, Tallman was not quite so anxious to make his acquaintance. He turned to the landlord for help, and Emmanuel suggested he hide up the chimney in what is now the Old World Bar. No sooner had the lad hauled himself up the flue but French Peter came in the door. Peter's greeting 'How do you fare, Manny?' wasn't met with the customary warmth. Emmanuel put his finger to his lips, rolled his eyes, and pointed at the large fireplace, then asked Peter if he'd like his usual glass of gin. The Frenchman, who drank only cognac (presumably not the stuff he imported) was quick to sense that something was not quite right, and replied 'I'm feeling a bit of a sea-chill today, Manny, perhaps I'll have a tot of brandy, and what about a warming fire in yonder grate?'

The two men set to work with damp twigs, heather and rotting leaves, and soon the choking smoke brought the unfortunate revenue man out of his hiding place, much to the amusement of the watching locals. After a further large tot, he was dusted off and sent back to Weymouth.

Learn more about Emmanuel Charles by clicking here

[91] Hardy, W.M., 1906

[92] Hardy

[93] Treves, 1906

[94] Legg, 1972

[95] Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, v XVI, pp 55-8, quoted in The Greenwood Tree

[96] Somerset and Dorset Family History Soc, v5 No2

[97] Hardy, Evelyn, 1955

[98] Guttridge and Morley differ