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Longburgh House door
At Burgh by Sands, Longburgh House was built on the profits of smuggling. The arrow shows a window reputed to have been used for signalling. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: Wales & Northwest England


The Isle of Man had a thoroughly deserved reputation for smuggling. For three centuries it was a private domain, outside of the control of the crown, and even today the island maintains a degree of autonomy that is unparalleled on the British mainland.

Henry IV granted trade freedom for the island to Sir John Stanley in 1405, and the status of the Isle of Man was theoretically that of a kingdom quite separate from the rest of England (or Britain, after the Act of Union incorporated Scotland in 1707). The ruler of the island was for centuries known as King of Man.

The Isle of Man operated a free-trade policy, and its people regarded the English customs duties as protectionist. Smuggling on the island in the early eighteenth century took the form of merchants importing goods from mainland Britain, and claiming the 'drawback' — a refund of import duty paid. The now uncustomed goods were then shipped back to England. This system grew rapidly, and eventually ocean-going ships began to sell direct to the Manx — a simple drawback fraud had become wholesale smuggling.
Port Erin on the IOM
Port Erin on the Isle of Man

A major industry of the island was brewing: the brewers on the Isle of Man bought malt in England, and brewed strong beer for sale to ships sailing to the New World. Much of their production, of course, found its way back to the English and Scottish mainlands. Scots customs officials complained about the loss of revenue this caused: since the Manx brewers bought raw barley, they didn't pay malting duty — neither did they pay duty on the beer they brewed. At one stage it was estimated that 40% of all British beer was brewed in the Isle of Man, though this estimate should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. [215]

A letter in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1751 rained abuse on the island, calling it 'the great STOREHOUSE or MAGAZINE for the French'. In the same letter the correspondent lists as the principal contraband wine, brandy, coffee, tea and 'other India goods' and the sources as Denmark, Holland and France.

Manx apologists for the trade point to the fact that the local parliament, the Tynwald, took steps to stop illegal trading, and that it was not Manx themselves were guilty — it was bad folks from the mainland, especially Liverpool merchants, and 'Irish bankrupts and fugitives' who were the bad apples.

In all fairness, the English customs vessels did not endear themselves to the Manx, and there are various accounts of how customs cruisers harassed legitimate merchants going about their honest business. In one instance the customs men swarmed aboard a wherry that had brushed against her side, and, finding no cargo, stripped the crew of their clothes, and robbed a passenger of 25 guineas. This incident caused a near riot, and could not have engendered much sympathy for the crown.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the smugglers were made quite welcome by the Manx, and they certainly got a warm reception on the mainland. The Scottish customs authorities complained that...

their correspondence with the common people of these coasts...on the South and North sides of the Solway Firth is so well established, that the least appearance of danger from thence is conveyed to them by signals which, at the same time, inform them to what parts they may with safety steer.

The Manxmen continued to take advantage of unrestricted (and uncustomed) trade through until 1765. In that year the crown finally regained control.

The sale of the island back to the English crown was not a popular move, and was carried out in some secrecy. In the short term it led to a rise in the cost, and a fall in the standard of living for the islanders; considerable emigration, and a drop in land values

Not all Manx smugglers made a fortune. Myles Crowe was once a schoolteacher, but was persuaded to invest his savings in a smuggling enterprise. He was successful for a while in his trade with the Solway, but an informer revealed his 'cog-hole' to the customs authorities, and Myles was a ruined man. He spent some time living in Kirkcudbright and working as an assistant to more fortunate free-traders. He returned annually to Man, to collect the rent from some small property he owned there, investing the income in contraband. These enterprises were hardly more successful: on one occasion his breeches, stuffed with tea, burst as he was boarding a ship in Douglas Harbour; and on another trip, he was overcome by the narcotic effect of tobacco wrapped round his body next to the skin!

In old age the smuggler manqué became an assistant ferryman, plying from Kirkcudbright to Castelsod, and died a miserable end at the hands of a poisoner who sold his corpse for dissection.

Engraving of Liverpool
The port of Liverpool in the 19th century. Click picture to enlarge


According to a revealing customs report dated 1750...

'Smuggling into the coasts around Liverpool generally from the Isleman (sic) small boats that never appear on the coast but fall in with the land just in the dusk of the evening, that by their observations they may run in the night time into the place intended for the discharge of their goods where persons are always ready to assist and convey them to a proper place of safety...' [216]

One such place of safety was undoubtedly a Wallasey pub called Mother Redcap's , which stood 'on the promenade between Egremont and New Brighton ferries'. At that time Wallasey was wild and desolate:

Wirral up to the middle of the 18th century was a desperate region. The inhabitants were nearly all wreckers and smugglers — they ostensibly carried on the trade or calling of fishermen, farm labourers or small farmers...Then for smuggling: fine times the runners used to have in my young days. Scarcely a house in North Wirral that could not provide a guest with a good stiff glass of brandy or Hollands — Formby was a great place for smugglers. [217]

That part of Wallasey was separated from the rest of Wirral by a tidal pool, so the pub was more or less free of unwanted observers on the land side.

Mother Redcap's was riddled with storage places, and was stoutly defended against attack: the door was five inches thick, and heavily reinforced, and the windows had shutters in a similar style. A customs officer who succeeded in entering the door could be precipitated into the cellar via a trapdoor on the threshold: forcing the door released a catch that opened the trapdoor.

Opening the front door closed off the entrance to one of the rooms, so visitors unfamiliar with the layout of the pub would either walk upstairs, or into the north room, unaware of a second ground floor room to the south. Numerous other hiding places were concealed in a well and in the chimney breast.

The proprietor of the Inn, Mother Redcap herself, was said to be 'a comely, fresh-coloured Cheshire-spoken woman...a great favourite with the sailor men'. The inn was popular not only with smugglers, but also with lonely revenue men, who, to avoid suspicion, were entertained with the same hospitality as any other customer. This sometimes caused difficulties:

They were thus installed on one occasion when the smugglers were desirous of getting a cask of rum or some other merchandise away from one of the hiding places, but were prevented by the unwelcome presence of the officer. So it was arranged that one of the smugglers was to creep down to the shore from the Moor, and lie down in his clothes in the water, at the edge of the receding tide. The attention of the solitary officer at Mother Redcap's was called to the supposed body which had been washed ashore, and he made his way to it as quickly as possible. He had removed the watch, and was going through the pockets when the corpse came to life, sprang up, and laid out the surprised officer. By the time he had come to, the rum had been removed from Redcap's, and started its journey to the moss. No blame could be attached to the 'drowned man' who said he was walking along the shore, when he must have had a fit, for the next thing that he became aware of was that he was lying in the sand with his pockets being rifled. [218]

Engraving of Whitehaven in the 18th century
Customs officers at Whitehaven had other jobs besides catching smugglers: Cumbrian people were keen on collecting the windfall benefits of wrecks, which were strictly the king's property. Click picture to enlarge


At Bowness on Solway , there is a smuggler's tombstone in the churchyard red map button Approach Bowness from Carlisle along the coast road (caution, liable to flooding), and on entering Bowness, turn left at the pub to reach the church. Thomas Stowell's grave is on the right of the path, under a Yew tree. At Burgh by Sands, Longburgh House looks out over the Solway, and is reputed to have been built from the proceeds of smuggling: legend has it that the right-hand first-floor window above the front door was used as a signalling place. Today it's a blind window, backed by a hollow-sounding, unusually thick wall. To find the house at NY308589 red map button (it's not open to the public), turn left after passing through Burgh on the road from Carlisle. The junction is just before the cattle grid that separates the village from the tidal road. The house is on the right after about 300 yards.

15th century records of smuggling cover the export of wool from Cumberland, across the border to Scotland, and by sea, to Ireland. In 1423 abbot Robert of the Cisterian monastery at Furness was accused of smuggling wool out in a 200-ton vessel from Piel Fowdray to Zealand. Wool export smuggling in Cumbria continued as late as 1788, when nearly three tons were seized and sold at Carlisle.

In the early 18th century, most of the smuggling activity in Cumbria seems to have been of an amateur nature — the crews of fishing vessels and colliers who bringing in the odd barrel as a treat for the family. Persecution (or just prosecution) of those guilty of these minor tax evasions was seen in an extremely bad light by the local populace, and the price of over-zealousness was a transfer for at least one customs officer from Ellenfoot (Maryport).

Customs records provide a fairly typical picture: a mixture of success against impossible odds, mundane trivia of custom house life, and tragic battles involving brutality and loss of life. Some of the accounts make interesting reading, though. An excise cutter Badger challenged a ship close to the Isle of Man in 1791, but was no match for the crew. The commander of the preventive vessel was shot through the legs, and the smugglers swarmed aboard the Badger, throwing the small arms into the sea. As they departed, they robbed the captain and mate of everything except a shirt each, and stole the sails. When the Badger reached Douglas harbour she was described as 'a wreck'.

[215] Qualtrough

[216] Jarvis, Rupert C

[217] Stonehouse

[218] Woods, E Cuthbert

[219] Gibbon, Ronald T