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Engraving of a smuggler laden with barrels
Though this German engraving is romantically embellished, it correctly illustrates the small barrels tied in pairs for carrying over the shoulders. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


Methods of moving smuggled goods from the coast to the customers inland varied with the vigilance of the revenue men. If there was little opposition, a chain of armed horsemen — sometimes 150 men and twice as many horses — prevailed by sheer force of numbers. However, in the early 19th century when the tide turned Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick of barrelagainst the free-traders, more caution was called for. Distribution took place in the dead of night, and consignments might be split up to spread the risk. In the south of England, smugglers followed roads and tracks to villages on the outskirts of London, where they arranged rendezvous with city merchants in what amounts to a thriving wholesale market. In south London, Stockwell was the base, and elsewhere, the heaths and woodlands which are now part of, or hemmed in by, the greater London sprawl provided effective cover: Hounslow Heath and Epping Forest were depots to the west and east. In the home counties, similar markets took place on land that still retains much of its 18th-century character, such as Tiptree Heath, and Daws Heath near Hadleigh in Essex. These areas were notorious as the haunts of vagabonds and villains, and smugglers were able to melt easily into the general criminal milieu.
Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick of smuggler being paid
Paying for the goods.

Preparing for sale

The contraband was now nearing the end of its journey, and the final stage prior to retail was to convert the smuggled goods into a form that could not be distinguished from the legitimate article. With tobacco this meant processing into a smokeable form, and to achieve this aim the bales would have been mixed in with leaf from a legitimate source. Tea simply had to be broken down into smaller packings, but was often adulterated with rose leaves to bulk it up and increase profits still further. Spirits were usually smuggled over-proof, so they had to be diluted to bring them to a strength that was both profitable, and would not sear the throats of drinkers. One writer who was peripherally involved in the free-trade described how as boy he learned his 'first lesson in hydrostatics' by doing just this:

I can well recollect large quantities [of over-proof spirits] being put into an earthenware pan, and diluted with water till reduced to the proper strength which was shown by floating glass beads properly numbered; it was my part to watch them and see when the properly numbered one came to the surface [6]

This process of 'letting down' to drinking strength could be fraught with difficulties. The smugglers themselves generally spurned the extra profit to be made in dilution, on the grounds that they would have to collect extra tubs to hold the increased volume, so the spirit arrived at the capital in concentrated form. The water added to reduce the strength came from London's over-stretched wells, and frequently all manner of unpleasant substances flowed into the brandy along with the water. Some drinkers were permanently sick as a result.

Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick of a draper's shop
"Do you have any cheaper silks ... under the counter, by any chance?"


In London, final retail and distribution of the smuggled goods was sometimes via apparently reputable dealers who, through offering smuggled goods were able to undercut the competition. At other times, the goods would be hawked round the public bars, or sold through the many gin houses.

In rural areas final distribution of spirits was sometimes carried out by concealing a pig's bladder full of the stuff under a woman's clothing — pregnancy explained away a particularly large swelling. In the event of capture, a quick stab with a knife was all that was need to dispose of the contraband, albeit with a soaking into the bargain. The 'clome pitcher' was another way of moving small quantities of liquor around. A false bottom contained the spirits, and water or milk poured in on top hid the secret below.


[6] Banks, John, 1871