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Engraving of Hadleigh Castle in Essex
Smuggling gangs, such as the Essex group that used ruined Hadleigh Castle for signalling, grew so wealthy that they could afford to finance smuggling runs themselves. Most smaller gangs needed outside capital. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


Smugglers' cutomers paid for their illegally imported goods on delivery, so clearly any would-be smuggler had to find money to buy the goods abroad. There were so many ways of financing a smuggling trip that it's difficult to make any accurate generalisations about how the capital was raised. Every possible form of transaction short of credit cards was pressed into use at one time or another, but the earliest method of funding was probably simple barter. The Kentish and east-coast smugglers would ship out bales of wool to a destination in Normandy, and return packed to the gunwales with tubs of wine or bales of silks and lace. No money changed hands — it was a simple and direct arrangement.

The smugglers might themselves have bought the wool in England, but this would obviously have itself involved a considerable capital investment, beyond the means of a rough-and-ready fisherman/smuggler. More likely, the amateurs and dabblers in the free-trade acted as haulage contractors, taking cargoes of wool on trust, returning with other contraband, and either paying off the farmer when the incoming cargo had been sold, or just paying in kind, and keeping a share of the contraband as a fee for the trip.

As the trade developed, a number of new patterns started to emerge, partly because export smuggling declined in favour of a growing volume of imports. In the West Country, finance remained predominantly small-scale, with smugglers operating a sort of club scheme in the neighbourhood: everybody bought a share in the trip, each according to their means, and probably paying the organiser in currency. This system had much to recommend it: if the trip went badly wrong, no one person was ruined; and since the whole community had a stake, the risks of the game being spoilt by an informer were slight.

Ogden's cigarette card of a publican selling contraband brandy
Pubs financed smuggling runs because they could sell contraband across the bar -- sometimes quite openly. Crowlink was one of the most infamous landing spots in Sussex, and its name became a brand, guaranteeing a good drink. Image courtesy of the Bristol Radical History Group

Finance in the south-east

In the south-east of England the arrangements were somewhat different. Kent and Sussex smugglers had access to London, and the wealthy home counties. Here trips were more likely to be financed by individuals or by smaller numbers of merchants. A London draper, for example, might stock his shop from smuggled silks and gloves, and a publican with substantial cellars would be able to dispose of a cargo of wines and spirits across the bar.

These are examples, though, of natural business arrangements in which the financier was also the retailer. There is additionally a suspicion that in the later years of the 18th century smuggling was bankrolled by highly-placed figures who never actually saw the contraband — any more than one of today's speculators on the futures market ever expects to physically take delivery of a ton of pig-bellies.

Direct evidence of big business finance for import smuggling is hard to find; like the apparently legitimate businessmen who 'launder' the profits of modern crime, the people involved took care to keep their hands clean. However, Napoleon implicates city folk in his memoirs when he describes how he arranged for gold to be smuggled out of England to support the French currency...

I got bills upon Vera Cruz...the bills were discounted by merchants in London, to whom ten percent, and sometimes a premium was paid as their reward. Bills were then given by them upon different bankers in Europe for the greatest part of the amount, and the remainder in gold, which last was brought over to France by the smugglers.

Another approach was for the suppliers of the contraband on the continent to finance the venture by organising smuggling trips 'on spec'. French brandy distillers, for example, and Dutch gin manufacturers bought their own ships, and transported goods to within a few miles of the English coast, where they traded with small boats that flocked out from the fishing communities dotted along the shore.

Big business and petty smuggling

But the most common pattern of venture finance for smuggling was probably a small consortium of home-counties land smugglers, well-placed on the route from the coast to London. These individuals had sufficient capital between them to front the money for the purchase of contraband abroad, and would receive payment when the goods had been sold on the informal wholesale market that thrived on the outskirts of London. The Hawkhurst and Hadleigh gangs are examples of this method of capitalization in practice.

For every consortium bringing in vast shipments, there were thousands of petty smugglers who shipped goods across the Channel on small fishing vessels. At times when profits in the business were high, and preventive measures unsuccessful, finance was little problem. A menial deck-hand on a smuggling ship might be paid in contraband and could amass a tidy sum from a few trips — enough, perhaps, to buy his own boat, and start trading on his own account. Next