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Engraving of Kingsgate, Thanet
Mobility gave smugglers a huge advantage over those who opposed them. By picking one beach from dozens of possible landing places they could openly load contraband into waiting carts and get clean away before preventive forces arrived. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


A description of a smuggling run draws together elements that might have been separated in time or geography, and gives no sense of how smuggling methods evolved in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So it's worth now turning briefly to look at how changing patterns of taxation and prevention shaped smuggling practice.

Obviously, smuggling as a business proposition requires something to smuggle — contraband that on crossing a border, is taxed, or levied, subject to a duty — or even banned and impounded. Broadly speaking, then, smuggling is the evasion of a levy imposed, or the movement of prohibited goods. English society prior to the 12th century was substantially self-supporting, and cross-border trade so insignificant that it did not attract the attention of the administrators of the day. Since trade was unregulated, the smuggler as a character didn't really exist.

The growth of trade with Europe brought an end to this import/export idyll, and provided the smuggler with his first opportunity. There had always been a small-scale cross-channel trade, largely in luxuries such as wine that could not be produced satisfactorily in England. However, with a growing rural population, and improved methods of agriculture, England began to develop an agricultural surplus that could fill the returning French and Dutch boats. The biggest export was wool.
Engraving of owlers at work by Paul Hardy
The owlers spirited the Kentish wool away at night. Illustration by Paul Hardy. Click picture to enlarge

Wool: the first contraband

The English climate and topography are particularly well-suited to the sheep, and traditionally, the animal has fed and clothed most of the nation. Flax certainly grew in Ireland, and in parts of England and Wales, but common people were clothed in wool and leather. Wool production gathered momentum throughout the 1200s, and by the century's end, exports amounted to 30,000 sacks a year. Some large English estates specialized in wool production: abbey flocks at Crowland in Lincolnshire numbered in excess of 4,000 sheep.

English wool was highly valued abroad: it was tough, and the fibres were long, making them easier to spin. English fleeces made for good fabric, and the surpluses found ready buyers among the merchants of Flanders and Italy. Fleeces were transported to the ‘staple’— the only place where they could be legitimately traded with foreigners — and there they were taxed and sold. The staple was often moved from place to place, but in 1347 Calais became a British possession and remained the staple for over 160 years; when the port fell to the French, the staple moved to Middelburg, and then to Bruges. Though much wool was exported through the staple as fleeces, there was a small but expanding domestic fabric industry: water-powered mills were speeding production, and by 1300 there were important wool-manufacturing centres in the south-west and south, and in Yorkshire and Cumbria.

Locally-produced wool cloth was of a poor standard, and those who were wealthy enough imported foreign wool fabric to make up into fine garments. The best cloth came from the low countries, so in the mid-14th century Edward III encouraged immigration by skilled weavers from these areas, and thus provided a much-needed stimulus for the domestic wool processing industry. The weavers were given considerable protection — both physically, from their xenophobic English neighbours, and more important, in business, from foreign competition [7].

Illustration of owlers by Jack Mathew

Labour shortage

The plague of 1349 further stimulated wool production. The Black Death reduced the population of England from about 4 million to 2.5 million in little more than a year, and landowners looked for a form of agriculture less labour-intensive than the manorial system that had prevailed earlier. They found it in sheep-farming: the land that had been open to all was ditched and hedged, and herds of sheep put to graze where serfs had once sweated. Wool production rose dramatically, and with it, the potential tax revenue to the crown.

This lucrative source of income had been spotted long before the wool trade expanded in 14th century England: wool was the first product on which export duties were levied as far back as 1275. In that year Edward I taxed wool exports to raise revenue for a hard-pressed crown. The charge amounted to half a mark, or 6s 8p on a 26 stone sack. The same charge was levied on each 300 wool-fells (wool still on sheep skins) and 13s 4p on 'each last of 200 hides'.

The first customs men

At the same time as imposing the duty, the King also recruited the first customs staff to collect the dues. This small full-time staff was simply involved in collecting the revenue: they didn't have the time nor the resources to make sure everyone paid up. Within a few years of the imposition of the duty, it was quite clear that there was a considerable amount of evasion going on. This had serious consequences for the king, who needed the income from the duty to finance a succession of wars in Europe.

This connection between duties and wars is a reprise that is played with monotonous frequency down the centuries: when Britain embarked on the Hundred Years War with France in 1337. Edward III taxed imports and exports to pay for the costly campaign. The king imposed a tax on wine — called 'tunnage' — at 3s4p per barrel to fund the navy's defence of the trade fleet, since the war with France was partly to protect England's exports of wool to Flanders. Other duties imposed at the same time covered the export of wool cloth. Many goods were taxed by value, at 5%.

Tunnage was not the only tax imposed on wine imports. If a ship brought more than 20 tuns in, the king claimed his 'prise' of two tuns, one taken from before the mast, one from behind. Prisage was paid only by English ships; foreign vessels instead paid tax, or 'butlerage' of 2s a barrel.

Increasing duties

The pattern of spiralling taxation by successive monarchs is now probably becoming clear. The Hundred Years War continued to be a financial burden, as were similar territorial conflicts with England's continental neighbours in the centuries that followed. To pay for the wars each administration imposed ever more complex regulations and prohibitions; or they simply increased the level of existing duties.

This happened, for example, in the middle of the 16th century, when debasement of the coinage had reduced the revenue generated by import and export duties. Tunnage was increased dramatically in 1558, from 3s 4d to 53s 4d, and Queen Mary's reign saw the introduction of a new book of rates, which set out the duties payable on each item. This greatly increased the duty of 1s in the pound on many of the liable goods.

Why tax coastal trade?

But why choose the import or export of goods as the taxable activity? Why not tax the sheep themselves on the hoof at the place they were grazing, for example? The answer is simple: coastal trade is conspicuous, so the coastline was the natural place for the authorities to try and tax the trade, or to stop it altogether. As an island, the borders of Britain are graphically defined and (relatively) unshifting. Moving goods across England's borders was therefore an obvious business — the sails of a ship signalled its approach on the horizon even before the hull was visible.

Other factors also made the movement of shipping easy to see. The ebbing and flowing of the tide regulated sailing times: in these days of deep-water harbours we tend to forget that for millenia shipping had to wait for the tide before sailing, and at low water, boats simply grounded in the mud at the foot of the quay. Wind was a factor, too. The square-rigged sailing ship that dominated until the advent of fore-and-aft rigging was restricted by the wind. To leave a port, such ships needed a breeze blowing them out to sea.

All these factors meant that trade across England's coastline was easy to spot. Taxing such obvious activity therefore must have seemed a natural way to earn revenue for the crown. Unfortunately, imposing a tax and collecting it are two different matters. When Edward I created the customs service, he did little to ensure that the customs dues were actually paid: he simply provided the apparatus of collection, in the form of a custom house with a small staff at various points around the coast. This laissez-faire approach to the gathering of revenue prevailed for some considerable period, but by the early 15th century, the rudiments of enforcement were beginning to appear.

13 official ports

At this stage, legal import of goods meant using an official port — there were 13 of these, each serving one section of the coastline. Goods could be landed elsewhere, but only with the explicit permission of the authorities at the main port. Naturally it was impossible for a handful of officials to control a whole stretch of coast from a single point: the East Anglian coast, for example, was controlled from Yarmouth, but the customs authorities there were expected to keep watch on nearly 90 miles of coastline, up as far as Blakeney and right down to Woodbridge.


Chart of the customs service adapted from Anthony Hippisley Coxe's A Book About Smuggling in the West Country 1700-1850, by kind permission of the publishers, Tabb House. Coxe's definition of each official's role sometimes differs from the explanation below because practices and responsibilities changed over time.


At each of these key ports there were two principal officials responsible for the collection of the customs dues. The collector of customs was the official who had to actually do the work, but he was overseen by a controller of customs. Between them, the two men were supposed to collect the dues payable, and sign and seal the relevant receipts and other export documents. This two-part arrangement was designed to ensure the honesty of the officials, and a further precaution was that the port seal was made in two halves. Each official had half the seal — all documents had to carry both halves to be legal, and each of the two officials was separately accountable for the transactions of the port.

Corrupt officials

These customs officials were very badly paid, but they benefited from seizures of smuggled goods, and made a charge on every receipt sealed. Nevertheless, the temptation for the two men to cooperate must have been irresistible, and the sealing of blank receipts soon became a problem: signed and sealed, the merchant simply filled in whatever he chose on the piece of parchment. Blank receipts were so commonplace by 1433 that the practice was discussed in parliament. However, even the stiff penalty — 3 years in jail plus seizure of all belongings — proved little deterrent. In an attempt to enforce honesty on controllers and collectors, a third official was appointed: the surveyor of customs at each port was supposed to monitor his colleagues as they worked.

Engraving of the London docks and the Thames
The confusion of ships moored at London's bustling docks made it a simple task to avoid the customs men. Click picture to enlarge

Minor customs men

Backing up these three officials was a minor army of lesser bureaucrats: the tide waiter's task was to board incoming vessels arriving on the high tide and check that they tied up at the appointed place on the quay. The tide waiter joined London-bound boats, for example, at Greenwich, and made sure that the cargo was not unloaded on an isolated jetty out of sight of the waiting triumvirate of controller, collector and surveyor (all eyeing each other suspiciously, no doubt). To ensure the honesty of the tide waiter there was another official, the tide surveyor .

When these functionaries had safely guided the boat to dock in the right place, other officials took over: the coast waiter supervised the unloading of cargoes from home ports; the land waiter watched over loading and unloading of boats from foreign ports; the land surveyor similarly kept an eye on both the land and coast waiters. At the bottom of the ladder the searcher was responsible for checking that the boat's cargo tallied with what was on the receipt; the weigher unpacked the cargo and weighed it; and the tidesman stayed with the vessel until the unloading was complete.

This hierarchy of officials had to administer a welter of complex laws that were added to the statute book over the centuries to protect the wool industry. The restoration of the monarchy added still more, and additionally jacked up the penalties for illegal export of wool. In 1660 all export of wool was forbidden, and soon afterwards further legislation ensured that those who smuggled wool out risked the gallows for their sins. Some of the measures taken seem extraordinary: a 1666 statute even obliged everyone to be buried in a shroud made of pure wool cloth!

Fleeces flee to Flanders

These restrictions outraged wool producers, who, faced with low prices in England, naturally turned to the export trade to stave off starvation. This was hardly a new situation: as early as 1390 there was a stockpile of unsold fleeces amounting to three years output. However, as the 17th century came to a close, export of wool from England's southern counties was getting seriously out of control, as fleeces fled to Flanders by the thousand almost as soon as they had been separated from the sheep's back. According to one estimate, 120,000 packs of wool annually were exported illegally.

The centre of the trade was Kent, where the wool exporters were known as 'owlers'. As restrictive laws strangled the owlers' trade, they became progressively more bold, and pooled their resources, on the grounds that there's safety in numbers. Soon an owling venture involved hundreds of armed men.

Riding Officer. Illustration by Jack Matthew.
Riding Officer. Illustration by Jack Matthew. Click picture to enlarge

Riding officers recruited

Something clearly had to be done to stop the rot. In 1671 Charles II had set up the Board of Customs, and by 1685 there were ten smacks at patrolling the coast between Yarmouth and Bristol. On land, a force of mounted customs officers — called riding officers — was established in 1690. However the riding officers could hardly be described as an effective opposition, since there were just eight of them to patrol the whole of the Kent coastline. Their burden of work was made even greater by further restrictive legislation on the wool trade. The 1698 Wool Act obliged all producers with farms within ten miles of the coast to register their annual production with the local custom house immediately after shearing. The act also controlled movement of wool close to the coast.

The riding officers not only had to contend with the owlers, but with the growing tide of smuggled imports. The most recent war — again with the French — had necessitated a further hoisting of import duties, and the smugglers now found they could make a profit on both legs of their cross-channel journey. Ships that went out loaded with wool came back groaning with foreign luxuries.

The landguard arrives

The inadequacy of the eight brave men of Kent was recognized in 1698, when the scope of the force (now called the landguard) was expanded and numbers increased to 50 and later to 300. However, the riding officers were hampered by the fact that prevention was largely land-based. Smugglers at sea had the benefit of much greater mobility, and could simply land goods at the point where the preventive effort was weakest. The sea-based preventive effort had been abandoned in 1690 with the appointment of the eight riding officers, and for the next 8 years the custom houses had relied on the navy to oppose the smugglers at sea. At the turn of the century, though, the waterguard was established, with 21 vessels stationed all the way around the coast.

Engraving of preventive post at New Gate
This 1820 engraving of the New Gate prevention post includes a crippled officer: was this a sympathetic portrait of a diligent public servant injured while doing his duty -- or was the engraver lampooning the "halt and the lame" employed by the preventive service? Click picture to enlarge

These twin forces were to be the principal opponents of the smugglers for the next century or so, and their effectiveness varied according to the calibre of the officers, their pay and conditions, and other factors. When pay was good, and the service was able to hire committed and diligent officers who could call on the military for assistance, the preventive effort could be remarkably effective. Regrettably, this seemed to be the case for only a minority of the time. The job of riding officer in particular was not well paid, and out of their £42 annual salary, the officers also had to buy and maintain a horse. The temptation to turn a blind eye to a smuggling venture in return for payment of a small fee was irresistible for some.

The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that the riding officers lived in the hearts of the communities they were supposed to be policing. If they were diligent in their efforts to prevent smuggling, they were ostracised and persecuted; the alternative was collaboration with the smugglers, an easy life, and a regular supplement to the meagre pay. The easy option must have seemed attractive indeed. Next

[7] Trevelyan, GM, 1942