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Engraving of smugglers landing contraband at Arched Rock on the Isle of Wight
Where the water was too shallow for larger ships to come close to land, smugglers ferried contraband ashore in rowing boats. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


A skilled master of a free-trade ship was expected not only to bring the cargo to English shores, but to do it to a timetable that would make even the Swiss look unpunctual. The success of a smuggling trip hinged on bringing together the contraband and a large band of men to carry it, at a spot where there would be no significant opposition. This was possible only if the time of arrival of the ship was known with some precision.

If the estimated time of arrival was fixed, the landing point certainly wasn't. Careful observation could establish the routine movements of land-based preventive men, but there was always a chance that an eager young officer would appear on the scene at an inconvenient moment. To prepare for this eventuality, smugglers invariably arranged several possible landing points spaced at intervals along the shore. When the ship appeared off the coast, accomplices on land could make a last-minute check on the opposition, then finalise the landing point.

Landing on the safe side

As long as the preventive forces were stationed on land, this system worked well. A smuggling vessel could travel very much faster along the coast than a mounted officer could on shore, and by taking advantage of any coastal feature, smugglers made sure that it was a very uneven match, as at Aberthaw. A typical trick was to bring the ship in to the mouth of an estuary, establish which side was most heavily protected, then land on the other side. Since the lowest bridging point was usually a long way upstream, the contraband was nowhere to be seen by the time the hapless custom house officer arrived on the spot.

Responsibility for bringing the ship in to the right section of coast lay with the spotsman. He had an intimate knowledge of every creek and beach on his patch of the coast, and could instinctively make out features inland on even the darkest night. The spotsman would guide the vessel into a position from where all the pre-arranged landing points — or a signal from some high-point — could be seen.

Signalling and communications

As the vessel approached the shore, communication with the land party became vital. Smuggling ships were frequently painted black, with dark sails to hinder identification at night, and without a moon they were all but invisible. To indicate that they were off-shore, the spotsman showed a light. On a clear night, a spark from a tinder-box would be enough to alert the men on the beach, but another popular signalling method was a 'flash' — a flint-lock pistol without a barrel. Charging the pan with powder and the pulling the trigger produced a distinctive blue light that was unmistakeable on shore.

An answering flash from the land party indicated that the coast was clear (a phrase that significantly is still used in a wider context), and indicated which beach or cove had been chosen for the landing. This signal was at first given openly by waving a lantern, but as stiff penalties were imposed for signalling to ships at sea, a degree of cunning was brought to bear on the problem. Houses were built with small windows high in the roof, as at Herne, where a lamp could be placed and seen only from the sea. Similarly, a lantern in a cave was invisible from the land. Technology came to the rescue, too, in the form of the spout lantern. As the name suggests, this had a long spout in front of the flame, sometimes with a bull's-eye of glass to focus the beam. An even more distinctive lantern used a primitive rotating shutter to produced a regularly flashing light.

Lighting beacons

If there was a risk of discovery, the land party might fire a furze beacon to warn the vessel off. This too was forbidden by law, and smugglers resorted to desperate measures to circumvent the regulations. At least one cliff-top house nearly burned down when the occupant stuffed the grate with enough tinder to send flames from the chimney as a signal that the preventives were about.

Daylight landings were not unknown, especially in remote areas, and by day, fire from beacons was invisible. However, the smoke wasn't: wet gorse or bracken thrown on the flames formed conspicuous plumes. In some parts of the country a bed-sheet stretched over a peat stack or across a thatched roof confirmed plans for the landing. Other methods were more devious — you can read here how a farmer at Looe either rode or led his horse along the shore to indicate the state of alertness of the revenue men.

Once the crew of the vessel knew they were 'on the spot' (another phrase that's passed into the vernacular) they put on all sail, and headed for the coast. When they reached the shore, responsibility passed to the waiting lander. He had the job of mustering the muscle to get the goods out of the hold, and inland as far as a place of safety. The lander organised ponies, horses and carts for transport, or in particularly difficult areas, tub carriers to hump the barrels and bales quickly away from the sea.

Landing the cargo

The size of the vessel and the characteristics of the chosen spot dictated the nature of the landing. Small ships could be just run against the beach, and the contraband thrown overboard onto the shingle. In other places the tubmen might have to wade through the surf to reach the ship. Larger vessels moored a little way off-shore, and an army of tub-boats shuttled to-and-fro to pick up the cargo.

In very isolated spots, all this urgency would have seemed out of place. At some locations on the east coast the sea ebbs for miles, and smugglers simply moored in the shallow water, and waited until the flat-bottomed ship settled into the sand. Then kelp carts came out from the villages nearby, loaded up with tubs, and concealed them under a superficial layer of seaweed.

Carrying goods inland

In most places on the south coast, though, time was of the essence, and no sooner was the contraband on the beach than it was whisked away into the hinterland. The real beasts of burden were the tubmen, who carried two kegs each weighing about 45lbs, one on the chest, and one on the back. This was no simple task, and the combined pressure of the two tubs apparently made breathing difficult and caused permanent injury to some of the tubmen. Nevertheless, these athletic figures were capable of moving their 90lb burden at a pace described as a very brisk walk for ten miles or more.

If the landing took place at the foot of a cliff, the tubmen might additionally have to negotiate several hundred feet of swaying rope ladder before making off into the dark — a challenge that most of us would decline even in daylight without a load.

Batsmen stood by to defend the contraband when smugglers made a landing. Engraving by Paul Hardy
Batsmen stood by to defend the contraband when smugglers made a landing. Engraving by Paul Hardy. Click picture to enlarge

Protection racket

Clearly, effective self defence is not a practical proposition for a man burdened with two barrels of gin, so batsmen defended the tub carriers. These hired thugs equipped themselves with a variety of weapons — typically a stout oak club, a flail, or hand guns, and when called upon didn't hesitate to use them. When opposition was expected, two rows of batsmen stood back-to-back a couple of yards apart to form a corridor stretching inland away from the beach, so that the tubmen could run unhindered for safety.

Violent clashes with the revenue forces were inevitable and numerous, and there was loss of life on both sides. The customs men were most of the time greatly outnumbered, and when a patrol of two or three chanced upon a smuggling run in full flow, there was little they could do except signal for assistance and then watch and wait. Often even this was not tolerated, and revenue men were constantly threatened with physical violence and death. Some of the pluckiest preventives refused to be intimidated, and took on gangs of smugglers against quite overwhelming odds. Frequently these brave (some would say foolhardy) young men paid a high price — read here how Sydenham Snow died opposing a run at Herne Bay.

Harsh laws against smuggling if anything made the revenue man's task more dangerous; until the late 17th century the penalty for smuggling — as for many petty crimes — was death, so a smuggler caught in the act tended to deal out violence on a wholesale basis. Whether he killed his opponent or not hardly mattered, since if convicted of either smuggling or murder the result in court would be the same.

Smuggling gangs

Force of numbers was the best defense against capture, and in any case to unload a large cargo required an army of helpers. When smuggling reached its zenith in the middle of the 18th century, some gangs, such as the Blues of Kent were capable of mustering hundreds of labourers in a couple of hours. This involved considerable organization, and the most successful gangs of land smugglers all had at their heads individuals with a flair for what could be loosely called management. George Ransley of Aldington was one such figure who came to dominate Kentish smuggling in the 1820s; and 80 years earlier, Arthur Gray organised another Kentish gang, based in Hawkhurst, with similar, though more ruthless, skill.

These men and others like them precisely synchronized shipping movements and large bodies of labour, but they also had access to professional skills. At a time when illiteracy was almost universal among the poor, the pen-pushers who kept accounts and wrote letters for the smugglers would be drawn from the ranks of the lower clerks, and often from the clergy — a surprising number of vicars feature in smuggling yarns. Some gangs even maintained a surgeon, as at Brooklands in Kent, and solicitors for defense in court.

Transport logistics

Personnel management wasn't the only task, though: transport inland was a good deal easier using ponies, horses and wagons. A few smuggling gangs maintained large numbers of horses specifically for the purposes of transport, using a legitimate trade as a cover. For example, the north Kent Seasalter company loaded contraband onto horses that were legally used by day for shifting timber in the nearby Forest of Blean — probably to supply oak bark to the many tanneries in the area. Other gangs simply dispersed horses and ponies across the misty marshes; grazing in twos and threes, the beasts attracted little attention, but mustered together, they formed a caravan sometimes 200 strong.

There are countless stories about the smugglers' horses, and their intelligence, training and ingenuity. The tale that occurs most frequently is of the caravan of ponies being ambushed, and the nags with their burden of tubs are released and whipped away into the darkness. When the exhausted owner arrives home at dawn, he finds his four-legged friend standing dutifully by the door. Interesting and amusing variations on this tale crop up in Scotland and on the Isle of Purbeck.

Smugglers, we're told, shaved their nags, and soaped them or oiled them to make capture more difficult; they muffled the hooves and the wagon wheels with rags for silent progress through the dark. Many a smuggler trained his horse to stop on the command 'Gee-up', and to bolt when told 'Whoah'. Under instruction from a suspicious revenue man, the smugglers could then pull in the reins and innocently call 'Whoa' to provoke a headlong and apparently spontaneous dash into the night.

“Borrowing” horses

Extra transport could also be 'borrowed' from farmers and landowners. Farmers close to the coast knew that a meaningful wink from one of his fisherman friends indicated that the stable doors should be left unlocked, or the key under a milk-churn. In the morning, the horses would be back in the stall, muddy and exhausted, but there would be a keg of the best brandy in the corn bin.

This arrangement sounds like a cosy bargain, but horses and other facilities were not always willingly loaned. A winded horse was worthless for ploughing, and an exhausted farm hand of little more value. Farmers who refused the smugglers their horses and labourers for transport and their barns for storage were kept in line by systematic intimidation resembling today's protection rackets. Sheep would fall unaccountably ill; a hayrick would catch fire; or, returning late from the market, the farmer might ride at speed into a strong black cord stretched between two trees. Before long, the free-traders extracted the grudging cooperation they needed to operate. Next