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Photograph of pebbles on Chesil Beach
Smugglers coming ashore on Chesil Beach could judge their position by picking up a handful of shingle. This picture shows cobbles from Portland on the pea-shingle beach at Abbotsbury. Sizes vary gradually from one extreme to the other. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: Southern England


Weymouth was the centre of preventive operations for the area, but from custom house correspondence it would seem that the smugglers were not strongly opposed: at the end of the 17th century, the collector of customs at Weymouth was described in an official report in terms far from glowing. He had...'a debauched life and conversation, seldom sober, and hardly ever goes to bed till three or four a clock in the morning and many times not all night.' The customs officers of Portland were little help: of one was said he 'never did any service, but rather the contrary'. Other staff seem to have included the halt and the lame: an official appointed in 1719 was 'an old man...[who] cannot see anything at a distance'.

The failings and corruption of the Weymouth officials had historic origins: even in the early 16th century the ironically named George Whelplay had difficulty making any progress against concerted local support for smuggling. He was originally a London Haberdasher, but he contrived to make considerable sums of money by becoming a public informer. As such he was entitled to half of the fine levied on people caught as a result of his actions. Since smuggling amounted to a national passtime, this did not make him a popular man. He overstepped the mark in 1538, incurring the wrath not only of the crooked merchants, but also of the customs officials themselves.

He had uncovered a plan to illegally export horses to France, and had intercepted the cargo. However, he was also aware that 3 French ships were at anchor in Weymouth harbour, ready to set sail with contraband on board. Whelplay had tried to enlist the help of local officials in rounding up the three French boats, but far from assisting, the controller, searcher and deputy customer joined a gang of merchants to set about the informer.

It appears he didn't learn his lessons easily — soon afterwards he tried again to intercept 200 horses bound for France. This time he was beaten with bills, swords and staves, again by customs officials among others.

photograph of smuggler's grave at Wyke Regis
Smuggler's tombstone at Wyke Regis.Click picture to enlarge

Weymouth and Portland

The Black Dog is in St Mary Street, Weymouth (Next to Marks and Spencers). The smuggler's grave is in All Saints Church Wyke Regis on the B3157, close to the junction with the A354 red map button Enter the churchyard via the lych gate, and immediately turn right, to walk parallel with the graveyard wall. The stone faces the 9th buttress on the wall. (Map 194)

With such a history of incompetence and dishonest staff, and a determined band of local smugglers, it was inevitable that the Weymouth customs authorities would have problems, sometimes with tragic consequences. In June 1770 a large run of contraband was expected on the coast near Weymouth, and the tide-surveyor took a boat out to intercept the smugglers. According to stories related after the incident, the custom-house boat and its five crew was run down by a smuggling cutter (allegedly a Folkestone vessel). The witness to this event claimed that...

he saw a cutter run down the King's boat...taking her upon the larboard quarter, and that he particularly saw Mr. John Bishop the tide surveyor take hold of the Bowsprit shroud or Jibb jack in order to save himself, and on that, the people on board the cutter let go the shroud...

However, it has to be said that the witness was 'much in Liquor' when reporting the drowning. In another incident a customs house officer was murdered at the 16th century Black Dog Inn in the town, while trying to arrest a smuggler who had taken refuge there.

The battle between the revenue men and smugglers wasn't entirely one-sided, as a tombstone on the outskirts of Weymouth testifies. In its shadow lies the body of a smuggler cut down by a shot from a smuggling schooner. His bitter wife had this epitaph carved on the stone [99]:

Of life bereft, by fell design
I mingle with my fellow clay
On God's Protection I recline
To save me on the Judgment Day
There shall each blood-stained soul appear
Repent, all, ere it be too late
Or else a dreadful doom you'll hear,
For God will soon avenge my fate.

Engraving of Weymouth
Customs officials with reponsibility for Weymouth and the surrounding area were notoriously corrupt: the smuggling mayor of Melcombe kept Weymouth officers sweet with gifts of sugar and sherry. Click picture to enlarge

Chesil Beach

W of Weymouth. Access to the beach from the Portland end via the carpark at SY668754 red map button (map 194)

Weymouth smugglers had the unique advantage of Chesil Beach, and the Fleet — the lagoon behind. This extraordinary bank of shingle stretches unbroken nearly 17 miles, from Burton Bradstock to Portland. Smugglers landing on the beach in the pitch black of a moonless night were able to judge their position to within a mile or two by simply picking up a handful of shingle, and gauging the average size of the stones. At the Portland end, the pebbles are the size of potatoes, and then progressively slim down to pea-shingle on the beach at Burton Bradstock.

Tubs landed here were humped over Chesil Beach, and sunk in the quiet waters of the Fleet for collection at a more convenient time. Landing, though, was not always straightforward, because in stormy weather a ferocious sea pounds Chesil Beach, often reducing vessels to matchwood, and on one memorable occasion lifting a 500-ton ship clean over the beach and into the Fleet. In 1762 a winter storm destroyed a Cornish ship, killing the crew and scattering the cargo to drift with the tide to Portland. There custom house officers were determined to seize the contraband spirits, and 150 local people were equally determined that they should not. After five hours argument and battle, the fracas ended at 4 am with a score of Revenue: 26 tubs, Locals: 10. The 10 that got away were tossed back into the sea and collected the following day. This opposition from the Portlanders came as no surprise to the customs authorities, who were reluctant to visit the island 'for fear of being struck in the head by a volley of stones.'

If they were lucky, the customs officials suffered only insults. In 1822 a storm loosened a raft of tubs, which floated free, and a race between the revenue and the tubs' owners ensued, to see who could reach the contraband first. The revenue boat was in the lead, but the smugglers raised a sail, and surged ahead. As they passed, the helmsman dropped his trousers, 'striking his posterior in derision' at the downcast revenue men.

Chickerell and Moonfleet

SY6480 red map button 2m W of Weymouth on the B3157 (map 194). The chapel is at East Fleet (SY635800) red map button

The villages behind the Fleet developed a thriving commerce in spirits, tea, tobacco and lace. The community close to Chickerell is today the best-known, since it provided the basis for J Meade Falkner's novel Moonfleet. Though fictional, the story had its foundations on the trade that flourished here: in 1717, customs officials trying to prevent a landing on Chesil Beach reported that they were met by thirty men in disguise, who drove them away with clubs and other weapons. Some of the places mentioned in the book can be seen locally. The tiny chapel is especially atmospheric: it was here that tubs bumped together in the flooded vault. [100]


SY5785 red map button 8m NW of Weymouth (map 194).

Abbotsbury boasts a dramatic chapel on the hill-top — a fine navigational marker — and the local smuggling HQ was the Ilchester Arms, once the Ship Inn. In 1737, evidence of the Abbotsbury group's activities came to light at Bexington, on the Swyre road, where 3/4 ton of tea was found under hedges, along with brandy, rum, silk, cotton, and handkerchiefs.

Burton Bradstock

Burton Bradstock is 12m NW of Weymouth at SY4989 red map button. Eggardon Hill is at SY5595 red map button about 6 miles W of Dorchester. Turn N off the A35 towards Askerswell. The hill is signposted in the village (map 194).

Smugglers used the Dove Inn at Burton Bradstock as a rendezvous, and Isaac Gulliver himself probably drank in the pub, since in 1776 [101] he bought Eggardon Hill, a prehistoric earthwork a little way inland, specifically to guide his ships to the coast. To make it more prominent...'The small enclosure [on top] was prepared for a plantation to serve as a local mark for vessels engaged in the contraband trade. [102]' (The revenue men cut them down).

The hill is impressive: it rises suddenly at the end of a long, flat plain, and a series of concentric trenches and embankments spiral around its circumference. From the top, it is possible on a clear day to look out over the sea some five miles away, and the hill gives a good view over all the surrounding countryside. In Shipston Gorge, Gulliver's Lane runs down from the Hill.


SY4292 red map button 3m W of Bridport (map 193)

The villagers of Chideock were all allegedly involved in the free-trade, and one vicar of the town commented:

The fishing interest seems to have slipped away with the dwellings at Seatown. Some say the fish have left the coast, but others ...that in the old days the fishermen lived more by smuggling than by fishing [103]

The Chideock smugglers landed goods between Charmouth and Seatown, and marked the hills above their favoured landfalls as Gulliver marked Eggardon Hill — with copses of trees. These grew at Charmouth, Seatown, Eype's Mouth and Stanton St Gabriel. The miller at Chideock hid his share of the contraband in a secret room under the floor of his living accommodation at the mill. When the revenue men found four tubs of spirits there in 1820, the cowardly miller tried to blame his servant Dido, saying the boy had told him several days earlier that the cellar was 'a really good place to hide tubs, master. The officers will never find them there'.

Lyme Regis

SY3492 red map button 20m SW of Yeovil (map 193)

The coast of Lyme Bay and the town itself were landing places for Isaac Gulliver, but he was simply following in the footsteps of many who had gone before. Lyme has an especially long history of smuggling: 16th century merchants were suspected of smuggling bullion out of Britain, and in 1576 the suspicions became so strong that one Ralph Lane was despatched to the town to investigate, carrying a warrant to search ships that were alleged to be taking part. The result was a riot — the warrant was destroyed and Lane's deputy was thrown overboard. [104]

According to legend, the principal route taken by contraband was up the river Buddle where the buildings crowd in [105] but the truth is more prosaic — most contraband was probably just sneaked in under the noses of the preventives, who were frequently understaffed, and handicapped by ludicrous local bylaws about where their jurisdiction ended: cargoes unloaded on the Cobb — the town pier — could not be inspected until they had been carried half a mile to the Cobb gate.

However, when caught red-handed, the Lyme smugglers were as resourceful as the next man. A tub carrier who ran into a senior official of the custom house reputedly exchanged warm greetings and put the tubs down at the officer's feet, telling him 'The excise man axed me to take these two tubs to you, and gied me two shillings for the job; but damn him! If I had know'd they'd be so heavy, and would ha' cut my shoulder so, I'd seed unto the devil afore I'd ha' touched o'em'. Whether or not the officer believed the story is unclear, but unable to carry the tubs himself, he eventually gave the man a further florin to carry them back to the custom house, and strode off to await their arrival while the tub carrier 'rested'. As soon as the officer rounded the corner, the man's exhaustion left him, and he effortlessly shouldered his burden and made off.

[99] Treves, 1906

[100] check

[101] Soc of Dorset men in London, 1955

[102] Warne, Charles, 1856

[103] Goddard, CV Rev, quoted in Omand, Rev WD, 1965

[104] Lloyd, Rachel, 1976

[105] Treves