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Engraving of Hadleigh Castle in Essex
Continental ports such as Flushing in Holland were geared up to supply the smugglers with the goods they needed in small quantities that one man could lift and carry. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


Once finance for a smuggling trip had been arranged, a representative appointed by the entrepreneur of the smuggling trip often travelled with the outgoing ship to the continent to purchase the contraband. However, this was not always considered necessary, and the purchase might have been entrusted to the ship's master. A common arrangement was to have agents abroad, who could strike a bargain with the suppliers, and have a cargo stacked ready for loading on the quayside when the tide brought the vessel into port. Another option was for a representative to cross the channel alone by some legitimate vessel such as a postal packet, and then on arrival to charter a French or Dutch boat and crew.

Engraving of a pile of contrabandFinding transport wasn't difficult: at the height of the smuggling era, in the middle and late 18th century, some continental ports reaped vast profits from the smuggling trade, and an enormous industry grew up in supplying the goods demanded by the British market, and shipping them over. The most important suppliers were based in Flushing (now Vlissingen in the Netherlands), and Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, Dunkirk, Nante, Lorient and Le Havre in France.

It's no coincidence that some of these are now familiar destinations for cross-channel travellers — then as now, the ports were conveniently situated for a short crossing, and had fine harbours. To a certain extent, each served a different part of England, with Calais and Boulogne supplying Kent and Sussex, and Cherbourg stocking the West Country. The Channel Islands enjoyed unrestricted trade, and was used as a staging post until 1767 when the British government imposed restrictions. At this the French responded by developing Roscoff into a major depot for the supply of the Devon and Cornwall, and...

Roscoff, till then an unknown and unfrequented port, the resort only of a few fishermen, rapidly grew into importance, so that from small hovels it soon possessed commodious houses and large stores, occupied by English, Scots, Irish and Guernsey merchants. These on the one hand gave every incentive to the British smugglers to resort there, and on the other hand, the French government afforded encouragement to the merchants. [2]

Engraving of Calais docks
Calais was one of the principal ports used by the smugglers. This view of its dockside shows the vast size of the barrels used for legally transported goods. Compare them with the tiny tubs carried by the smuggler in this picture. Click picture to enlarge

Man-size packaging

This cooperation is hardly surprising, because smugglers and their agents were big spenders. For example, one day in 1766 an enterprising smuggler bought at a Nantes warehouses 229,282 livres of tea — that's nearly 110 tons. [3] Furthermore, it cannot be said that the French and Dutch supplied goods in all innocence, because the smugglers' needs were quite different from those of legitimate traders. An honest importer required goods in the largest possible containers, so as to make economies of scale at the dockside: the hogshead was one standard packaging, and could hold up to 140 gallons, though 54 was more usual. Large packages like these were impossible for smugglers to conceal or to land without winches, so contraband was packed in much smaller quantities. Tobacco came in bales of a convenient size for a one-man lift, and wrapped in oilskin to make a virtually watertight bundle. This approach was highly effective, and bales of tobacco tossed overboard by smuggling ships in an attempt to destroy the evidence stayed afloat in the sea for hours. People in coastal towns were quick to seize this jetsam when it was washed up, since the bundles contained a substantial core of smokeable product to which the sea-water had not penetrated.

Tubs of spirits

Tea was protected in a similar way, and spirits were packaged in small barrels or 'tubs' called half ankers, which contained a little over four gallons. Ankers, holding 81/3 gallons, were less commonly used. The coopers made both sizes of barrel with flattened sides for easier carrying, and usually supplied them slung together in pairs on ropes. This arrangement meant that 'tubmen' on the English side of the Channel could easily carry a pair of ½ ankers across their shoulders, one at the front and one at the back. When pony transport was available, the rope slings on ½ ankers fitted neatly across the beast's back. Read Thomas Hardy's description of tubs here.

To save tubs, and space in the ships, spirits were supplied just as they came out of the still: over-proof, and virtually colourless. Dilution prior to sale was — at least theoretically — a simple matter, but who would buy crystal-clear brandy? To solve this problem, the French distillers offered caramel, to be added to the kegs along with the water.

Over-proof spirits as they came out of the keg were just about drinkable, but lethal in any quantity: there are numerous stories of people opening washed up or seized barrels, and dying of the effects of drink (see Harwich for example).

Illustration of cider barrel with compartments for hiding contraband
Pushing a rod through the bung-hole 1 of a barrel would reveal a full depth of water 4 . Compartments at the ends 3  hid tobacco. Openings 2 gave access to the contraband. The illustration below shows how the wheeze fooled customs men. Cigarette card image courtesy of the Bristol Radical History Group.
Illustration of cider barrel with compartments for hiding contraband

Clever concealment

These bundles and barrels were perfectly adequate as long as the smuggling vessel was not subject to close scrutiny by the customs men, but as preventive efforts were stepped up, such security could not be guaranteed. The suppliers of contraband responded with extraordinary ingenuity, by packing their goods in disguised form. For example, tobacco was made up into ropes, and some warehouses supplied as stock items a whole range of such ropes, from thin cord right through to hawsers as thick as your arm. Innocently coiled on the deck, or tossed casually into a locker, these illicit packages aroused little suspicion. Similarly, spirits were stored in barrels with false bottoms — the tub was then topped up with drinking water, or perhaps with wine, on which lower duty was payable. When the English customs men got wise to the trick, and resorted to dipping the barrels to find the true depth, the cunning French coopers constructed the hidden compartments at either end of the barrel, tapering away from the official's stick.

High profits

A smuggler on a shopping trip was as keen as a modern day-tripper to save money, but 18th century bargains make our duty-free allowances look stingy. The profit margin varied with the prevailing rates of duty, but typically tea cost seven pence a pound (3p) on the continent, and could be sold in England for 5s (25p). Tobacco cost the same, and fetched 2/6 (12½ p) at home. A tub of gin or brandy cost £1, and found English customers at four pounds even before 'letting down' to a drinkable strength. Diluted, the profit would have been even greater.

How was all this paid for? In the early years of the 18th century smugglers paid in cash only, but as the trade assumed greater proportions and the transactions became almost routine, the merchants began to settle their accounts by cheque or bank draft. This in itself points to a sophistication not popularly associated with rough rude smugglers, and confirms that a well-oiled organisation backed up the men who got their hands dirty. Next

[2] Duncan

[3] Maritime Wales 10