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Martello tower
Defences against a French invasion, such as this Martello tower, helped bring an end to smuggling in south-east England. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


In the absence of really effective opposition, it was inevitable that wholesale evasion of duty would expand. The process was accelerated in the early years of the 18th century by widespread support for the Jacobite cause. Smuggling was seen not just as a business transaction, but also as an act of rebellion and support for the Old Pretender. Some of the smuggling gangs openly supported the Jacobites and drank their health. Jacobite sympathies manifested themselves in more tangible ways, too. Jacobites travelled secretly between France and England on smuggling boats, and some smugglers are known to have acted as spies and double agents for the cause.

Smugglers clampdown

Customs men saw a smuggler's ship in half. Illustration by Jack Matthew

Customs men saw a smuggler's ship in half. Illustration by Jack Matthew. Click picture to enlarge

The government responded to the widespread evasion with a rash of legislation, clamping down on smuggling in every imaginable way. The 1718 Hovering Act made it illegal for vessels smaller than 50 tons to wait within six miles of the shore, and brandy imported in smaller ships (under 15 tons) was also liable to seizure. Vessels involved in these offences were impounded and destroyed, usually by being sawed up, and their ropes unravelled. The divided vessels were useless at sea, but often found uses on land: Pegotty's house, of Dickens fame, was the remains of a smuggling boat.

Other legislation passed soon afterwards outlawed Kent and Essex boats with four or more oars, in an attempt to prevent contraband from being rowed across the channel. Transportation to the colonies was simultaneously introduced as a penalty for smuggling, and the scope of the act was cast to include virtually anyone carrying firearms, or wearing a mask to hinder identification.

The act of indemnity

However, it was legislation of 1736 that perhaps set the scene for the appalling violence that characterized mid-century smuggling in the south-east. A Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry investigated the free-trade, and painted a damning picture that demanded immediate action from the government. The result was the introduction of the death penalty for injuring preventive officers in the course of their duty, and heavy fines for bribery. Even an unarmed smuggler resisting arrest faced transportation. The legislation was called the Act of Indemnity, and it was indeed the indemnity clauses that perhaps most provoked smuggling violence in the subsequent decades. A smuggler who revealed the names of his collaborators was granted a free pardon, making virtually anyone involved in the free-trade who turned King's evidence a mortal threat to his companions.

Engraving of the London Customs House
The old London customs-house was burned down in 1814, and was replaced by this new building on Thames Street. Click picture to enlarge

These new laws had little effect on the level of smuggling, and three years later the outbreak of the War of Jenkins' Ear against Spain pushed the already over-stretched government resources almost to breaking point. Things got worse when the conflict became a mere sideshow to the War of the Austrian Succession, and when Jacobite sympathies exploded into full-scale rebellion. By the 1740s smuggling by large forces of armed men had reached a climax.

Tax cuts fail to quell smuggling

The threat to public order posed by the smugglers was now as much an issue as the loss of revenue, and in 1745 the tax on tea was radically reduced in an attempt to cut the profits of the smuggling gangs, and to eliminate them by economic means rather than by force. However, this move was only a partial success, since the smugglers merely turned to new forms of contraband, notably spirits, and tea duties were in any case raised again soon afterwards.

The government passed still more draconian legislation in 1746 — and once more, failed to back it up with greater resources for the preventive forces. Like the Act of Indemnity ten years earlier, these laws aimed to undermine the smugglers' power base in the countryside by providing an inducement to inform; and again, the smugglers responded with a further escalation of violence and intimidation of witnesses and jurors.wood-cut of a gibbet

The core of the 1746 act was the publication of the names of known smugglers in the London Gazette. A smuggler thus 'Gazetted' had 40 days to turn himself in, and at the end of that period he was effectively outlawed, with a bounty of £500 on his head. The death penalty was extended to cover not just smuggling, but assembling in preparation for a run, and even the harbouring of smugglers. The bodies of smugglers who killed officers were to be hung on gibbets around the coast.

Violence escalates

The new laws sparked bestial violence by gangs who aimed to obtain silence from witnesses either by intimidation or — if necessary — by murder, but if anything, the terrorism that followed was counter productive. There was widespread revulsion at the activities of the gangs, particularly after the trial of Hawkhurst gang members revealed every gory detail of tortures and executions. By mid-century the largest smuggling gangs had lost much of the local support they once enjoyed and indeed needed, and had been broken up.

Engraving of Millbank Prison
Convicted smugglers awaiting deportation were lucky to be housed in London's Millbank prison. The unlucky ones rotted in prison hulks on the Thames. Click picture to enlarge

Smuggling continued, however, and further conflicts abroad over the next three decades both provided a periodic distraction from the problems posed by the smugglers, and exacerbated the loss of revenue caused by the free-trade. For example, the cost to the exchequer of the Seven-Years war which started in 1756 was considerable, because 200,000 troops were being paid. Land Tax had been a shilling in the pound in the 1740s, but had quadrupled by the end of the war. The government was forced to borrow £60 million to finance the conflict, but they also looked to import duties pay for the war: duties on tea that had been cut in 1745 from 4s9p a pound to 1s, were in 1759 raised again. This of course created a renewed surge in demand for contraband tea, which the smugglers were only too happy to satisfy.

Troop shortages

The outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1776 had a similar effect, as troops that had been assigned to guarding the coast in peacetime were again whisked away to fight abroad. By 1782, shortage of manpower induced the government to take a softer line on smugglers in an attempt to woo them into the service of the crown: the Act of Oblivion allowed a smuggler to wipe the slate clean by volunteering for the armed forces. Smugglers' skills as seamen were especially prized, and even their most vigorous opponents in the revenue services occasionally felt honour-bound to express admiration for the men's ability.

The effectiveness of this new law was, however, reduced by a clause that allowed substitution. A smuggler who could find two others willing to take his place would be released from a previously-imposed penalty up to £500, and four men were sufficient to repay any smuggling crime except the killing of a revenue officer. Substitution particularly affected rich smugglers such as Isaac Gulliver who could afford to buy the services of others, and people even placed advertisements offering themselves as substitutes on payment of a fee.

Underfunded prevention

By the 1780s, the free-trade had once more reached alarming levels, with smugglers trading unhindered on the continent. The revenue cutters put up a spirited defence at sea, but the wages of crews had fallen behind that paid on merchant ships, and the quality of seamen attracted to the service was lower as a consequence. Once goods had been landed in England, the run inland took place virtually unhindered, and smuggling gangs had once more sprung up to defy the authorities.

In response to this crisis, the government set up yet another committee of enquiry in the early 1780s, which came up with the blindingly obvious conclusion that the prevalence of smuggling could be attributed to high duties. William Pitt took note of the committee's report, and in 1784 slashed the duty on tea from 129% to 12.5%, and thus, at a stroke, rendered tea an unprofitable cargo. As in the past, though, this simply caused a shift into other forms of contraband, and the trade went on largely unabated.

Financing revolution

The turn of the century was marked by still more conflict with Britain's European neighbours: the French Revolutionary war began in 1792, and continued until 1803, and there was then a one year lull before fighting started in the Napoleonic war, which continued until 1815. The wars once more drew preventive forces away from Britain's coasts, and again proved a financial drain. And as in other conflicts, smugglers played a role that was at best ambiguous, and often downright treacherous.

Smuggling ships traded freely with French ports through the wars, and often took reports of English conditions over to the enemy, returning with letters to spies in Britain. A flourishing export trade in smuggled gold grew up, as Napoleon struggled to pay his mercenaries while the economy collapsed around him. In the so-called "guinea run" vast galleys, rowed by dozens of men, propelled the gold across the channel at speeds that would look respectable to a modern day-tripper. In all fairness, though, some of the smugglers probably also acted as double agents, and some certainly remained loyal to the Crown, bringing back to England intelligence about French shipping.

Smuggled cargoes of this period frequently included French fugitives: during the revolutionary war, aristocrats fleeing the tumbrils sought refuge in England, often choosing a passage on a smuggling ship as the route least open to discovery. In the Napoleonic wars, the traffic flowed in the opposite direction, with escaped French prisoners fleeing from the north Kent coast, leaving behind the prospect of lingering death on a rotting prison hulk.

Ogden's cigarette card of Martello tower
A chain of Martello towers, shown here on a cigarette card from the 1930s, protected the southeast coast of England. Image courtesy of the Bristol Radical History Group

Towers and canals

In the short term, the Napoleonic war made smuggling considerably more difficult, because preparations for the expected invasion also protected the coast from the attentions of the free-traders. This was most marked in the south-east, where in 1806, the construction of Martello towers provided purpose-made look-outs for the forces of law and order. In Kent, the Royal Military Canal effectively cut off Romney Marsh from its hinterland, so that Kentish smugglers no longer had easy access to the beaches they had traditionally favoured.

A reorganization of the preventive services also made life difficult for the free-traders. In 1809 the Preventive Waterguard was established. This brought the cutters and small rowing boats of the customs service under more central control, and provided greater co-ordination. Pay was improved to a level superior to that of comparable posts in the navy.

These changes improved morale in the service and a gradual decline in free-trade activity began. However, when the battle of Waterloo in 1815 brought the Napoleonic wars to an end, the decline in smuggling was halted as enormous numbers of military personnel returned to a civilian life that must have seemed dull by comparison with the excitement of battle. Many of these men were skilled seamen, and Britain's fishing and merchant fleets couldn't hope to absorb such an influx of labour. Smuggling seemed like an attractive option.

Cunning replaces force

This new breed of free-trader nevertheless faced highly organized opposition, and smuggling methods began gradually to change in response to the stepping up of preventive efforts. Concealment took the place of force. On the simplest level, smugglers would hide the illegal imports under a legitimate cargo such as coal, timber or stone. But human ingenuity knows no bounds, and as the customs men got wise to the smugglers' tricks, so the hiding places became more difficult to find. Masts and spars were hollowed out and stuffed with contraband; some vessels even had double hulls, with space for contraband between the two skins. The old days of smuggling runs succeeding by sheer force were well and truly over.

Two years after Waterloo, the preventive effort was stepped up yet again, with the introduction of the 'Coast Blockade' between North and South Foreland on the east Kent coast. The blockade was a force of land patrols commanded by Captain 'Flogging' Joe McCulloch, and though it was an effective deterrent, the blockademen had little enthusiasm for their task. They were frequently involved in skirmishes with smugglers, and were considered fair game for bribery in cash or contraband. The blockademen were stationed in the Martello towers, and in watch houses a few miles apart, and the blockade was soon extended to Seaford, and then round to Chichester.

Coastguard on the watch. Illustration by Jack Matthew
Coastguard on the watch. Illustration by Jack Matthew. Click picture to enlarge

The end of the “Free-Trade”

Almost simultaneously, the Coast Guard was established on sections of the coast where the blockademen did not patrol, and by the end of the 1820s the effectiveness of the two forces was beginning to bite. In 1831 the coastguard service replaced the blockade all the way round the coast, and thus laid the foundations of the preventive force that we know today. You can find a comprehensive history of the customs service at the Waterguard website. Click here to visit it.(Opens in a new tab)

The coastguards and blockademen drove the smugglers underground, (or more accurately underwater, since the sinking of tubs became the standard method of concealment) but it was economics that finally signalled the end of the great smuggling era. In the 1840s Britain adopted a free-trade policy that slashed import duties to realistic levels. Within ten years large-scale smuggling was just a memory.