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Engraving of smugglers burying contraband at Folkestone
Burying contraband to hide it from the customs man was a last resort; smugglers preferred to move it rapidly inland to the major markets in London and regional centres. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


To a land smuggler, the eventuality to be avoided at all costs was to be caught in possession of the incriminating tubs, so hides and dumps for contraband near the coast were of great value. This of course is the origin of the many legendary smugglers' caves, and certainly, where coastal topography created caverns, some of these were used for short-term storage. However, few caves around the coast of Britain make really suitable warehouses: many are very shallow; others are so easily accessible that they offered inadequate security; and most fill with water at high tides, precluding their use for the storage of dry goods. Even spirits would not be completely secure in a tide-washed cave: a heavy surf could dash stored tubs against the rock walls, smashing them in minutes.

Engraving by Paul Hardy of smugglers hiding tubs in a table tomb
Smugglers hid their tubs where they believed customs men and nosey locals would be reluctant to search -- table tombs in churchyards fitted the bill nicely. Click picture to enlarge

Some caves, such as those at Samson's Bay in Devon, were certainly used for storage, but smugglers often preferred to excavate their own hides in the shifting sands that fringe so many beaches. Once the entrance to the cache had been hidden by the wind-blown dunes, only the smugglers, who had taken bearings on the spot, could find it once more. The preventive forces used long probes to search for hidden contraband in soft sand, but there were ways to avoid detection by this method: an account written in 1858 details the extraordinary precautions which the smugglers took to protect their valuable cargoes.


The excavation of these temporary stores was perhaps the seed from which the ubiquitous story about the smugglers' tunnel grew. Virtually every village within five miles of the Southern coast of England has a smugglers' tunnel, the location of which the locals will divulge over several stiff drinks about an hour after 'closing time'. Almost always, though, the entrances to the tunnels have been lost or bricked up.

Some tunnel stories turn out to be very plausible. For example, a tunnel at Hayle in Cornwall really does seem to have been built specifically for smuggling. In other instances the tunnel either doubles as a storm drain or some other functional channel, or else is an extension of a natural fissure in the rock, as at Methleigh and Porthcothan respectively.

Unfortunately true stories are in a minority, and on close inspection, most of the rest are the products of vivid imaginations. The hypothetical tunnels cut through unsuitable rock, or burrow along beneath the water table. If they were genuine, some such tunnels would be prodigious feats of engineering: one of Isaac Gulliver's shafts was rumoured to run from Kinson, now a Bournemouth suburb, to the coast some four miles away!

Most tunnel tales fail one crucial test: what did the smugglers do with the spoil? Rock doubles in volume when excavated, and even a short tunnel would yield vast quantities of rubble. Where the tunnel ends at a quarry, a cliff, or on a beach, as on Thanet, the story is plausible, because spoil would be inconspicuous. Elsewhere, though, digging a tunnel would more often attract attention than aid concealment.

Engraving showing how smugglers marked the position of sunken tubs
Smugglers at Sandwich marked the position of sunken tubs with some feathers fixed to an inflated bladder. Froth on the sea's surface disguised the floating marker, but customs officers nevertheless discovered the trick in 1823. Illustration by E Keble Chatterton.

Sinking tubs

Besides, why dig a tunnel when the an ideal hiding place was so close at hand? The sea surrenders its secrets reluctantly, and smugglers were quick to recognize that the highway that brought them over from France and Holland could also conceal their cargoes. If the revenue man appeared on the scene, tubs of spirits were tipped into the sea for later recovery. Adding a weight anchored the barrel in shallow water, and tying an inflated bladder and a bundle of feathers to the tub-rope marked the spot.

There was a risk of course: if tubs could not be recovered, the sea-water seeped through the cheaply-made barrels, rendering the spirit undrinkable. In the west country, spoiled French brandy earned the nick-name 'stinky-booze'

Photograph of a creeper, used to recover sunken tubs of contraband spirits
Smugglers used "creepers" like this one to recover sunken tubs.

Click picture to enlarge

What started as a convenient way of concealing incriminating evidence developed with time into a systematic smuggling technique. Barrels were lashed together to form a raft, weighted so that it floated just below the surface of the water; pushing the tubs into the sea was known as 'sowing a crop'. The tubs could either be collected later, or floated together to some convenient landing point. At natural harbours which filled with the tide, such as Christchurch, the flowing current would tow the raft inland under the very noses of the preventives.

Watercolour by JMW Turner: Folkestone from the Sea. In her essay, Payne references Eric SHANES, Turner's Rivers, Harbours and Coasts  (London: Book Club Associates, 1981) 28, 33, 48. The watercolours are reproduced in this book: nos. 66, 116, 44
JMW Turner's painting shows smugglers transferring tubs of gin from a French boat to a smaller boat, the crew of which sink them for later collection. Source: Humanities Web Click picture to enlarge
JMW Turner used smugglers "sowing a crop of tubs" as the subject of his painting "Folkestone from the sea", shown at left. According to an essay by Christiana Payne, Turner based the picture, and two others he made of smuggling subjects, on a visit to the port that he made in 1821 . She suggests that his paintings are so accurate that Turner may have even gone out on a run with the smugglers to make sure he got the details right. The picture's companions are "Twilight – Smugglers off Folkestone fishing up smuggled gin" (1824) and "Folkestone, Kent" (c.1822) which shows smugglers burying barrels. The latter is the painting on which the engraving shown at the top left of this page here is based.