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Sailing boats off Dover
Most contraband crossed the channel in small ships similar to these fishing boats, pictures off Dover. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


With contraband safely bought and stowed, the smugglers awaited the tide for the return trip to Britain. In the harbour, the ship would rub shoulders with all manner of other smuggling vessels, from tiny deckless boats with a small sail, right up to large, well-armed cutters.

These smuggling craft had one thing in common: they were all fore-and-aft rigged. That's to say, they had sails like today's yachts. This form of rigging originated in Holland in the sixteenth century, and gradually superseded the square rig for coastal traffic all over Europe in the next three centuries. The difference between the two forms of rigging is not just of academic interest to naval historians: without the development of the fore-and-aft rig, it's fair to say that smuggling could never have developed on the scale that it did.

Fore-and-aft rigging

A vessel with square sails has to have the wind coming from behind to make any progress — it cannot move across the wind or into it. By contrast, a fore-and-aft rigged vessel travels most quickly across the wind, and can move into the wind by tacking. This is a process of sailing across and slightly up-wind, then turning and heading diagonally in the opposite direction, but again slightly upwind. The ship thus progresses in a zig-zag manner.

Clearly, a square-rigged vessel that enters a creek with the breeze behind it cannot get out until the wind changes; trapped in the falling tide, such a vessel would be easily seized. A fore-and-aft rigged vessel, on the other hand, can sail nimbly up the same creek, discharge the cargo, and then scoot away on the same tide.

In the early 18th century when prevention was mainly land-based, small smuggling vessels were popular because they were highly manoeuvrable, and because losing one of several small ships was less damaging than losing a solitary large one. The vessels were commonly less than 50 tons, and were simple luggers, or gaff-rigged luggers. A lugger had the mast positioned close to the bows, and a sail hung from a diagonal spar fixed about 1/3 of the way along to the mast. The gaff rig adds a second triangular sail in front of the mast, and the spar that supports the lug sail is joined at one end to the mast.

Smuggling cutters

Later in the century smugglers began to use larger vessels, which could travel faster and carry greater burdens. They chose wherries and cutters, which were gaff-rigged but with the addition of an extra sail on a longer mast above the main lug-sail, and another one at the bows, attached to a spar that extended straight forward from the bows — the bowsprit. A long bowsprit gave a cutter great speed, and at one time only revenue vessels were permitted to use this spar.

As prevention developed, ships were custom-made for the trade. To get maximum possible speed, they were carvel-built: each board of the hull was lapped up against the adjacent one, giving very smooth lines that slipped easily through the water. By contrast, the revenue men more often had slower, clinker-built vessels constructed with each board overlapping the one below. This form of construction increased the ship's resistance and slowed it down.

The purpose-made smuggling vessels were extremely cheap to manufacture, and were made from fir. Compared to building in traditional English oak this not only saved money, but weight as well, which gave the vessels that much more of a competitive edge in eluding the King's men. To weight the dice still further in their favour, the smugglers armed the ships with carriage guns and smaller swivel guns.

Skilled seamen

Crossing the Channel in these large sea-going vessels was not exactly routine, but at least relatively safe. The same could not be said of sailing for England in one of the smaller ships in use in the early part of the century. The smugglers performed amazing feats of seamanship in bringing deckless ships as small as 9 tons across from France in atrocious weather, and in every season of the year. If anything, smugglers favoured bad weather, since it reduced the risk of detection, and in winter vessels sometimes arrived with the rigging festooned with and partly disabled by ice. [4]

There were other dangers besides the weather and the sea. As the century progressed, and preventive service developed, more and more customs cutters appeared on the scene. Small unarmed smuggling ships could do little when approached by a speeding government sloop, which by 1760 averaged around 50 tons, and had a modest complement of carriage guns [5]. For the larger smugglers, though, such a challenge could be, and was, dismissed with a wave of the arm.

A revenue cruiser chases a smuggling lugger. From a painting by Charles Dixon
A revenue cruiser chases a smuggling lugger. From a painting by Charles Dixon that appeared in Chatterton's King's Cutters & Smugglers. Click picture to enlarge

Outrunning customs ships

Military superiority partly accounted for this casual attitude. Smuggling ships of 80 tons were commonplace late in the century, and they easily outsailed and outgunned their opponents. However, there were other reasons why the smugglers often made light of the customs and excise ships. The King's crews were frequently second rate in every respect: the commanders were timid and often poor seamen, and the other crew-members may have been the dregs of the navy, or serving the King against their will. By contrast, the smugglers were highly motivated, highly skilled at handling their vessels, and spoiling for a fight. It's therefore not surprising that there were many instances of the hound turning tail and being chased by the hare.

In all fairness to the revenue sloops, there were, it's true, some fearless crews who terrorised the smugglers they pursued and caught; and when pay was good and the ships well equipped, the government had no difficulty in securing a better class of sailor. However, until the end of the Napoleonic wars, the smugglers ruled the waves more often than the revenue vessels. Next

[4] Maritime Wales 10

[5] Smith, Graham