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lithograph of smugglers on the watch
Despite the stereotype of the sailor-smuggler, smuggling operations employed far more men on land than they did at sea. Click picture to enlarge


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Britain’s Smuggling History


If you've ever spent time delving into the local history of a coastal area, you'll sooner or later have come across notes to the effect that 'everybody in these parts is a smuggler' or 'every house is a smuggler's', and while many such reports were wildly exaggerated, it's probably true that, at certain times and in certain areas, everybody really was involved in smuggling in one way or another, or at least stood to benefit by its continuation. The menial farm labourer helped carry goods inland; the parson bought cheap tea and wine; the local squire lent his horses for transport; the wealthy merchant obtained cut-price supplies of silks and lace; and at the very pinnacle of society, members of the gentry conducted foreign business through intermediaries involved in smuggling.

This universal involvement in the 'free-trade', as it was euphemistically and generally known, masks the true picture: the real problem in identifying the smuggler is that the term covers all manner of people, embracing not only the mariner whose boat actually transported the goods across the water, but also the wealthy landowner who supplied the capital for the operation, and the thug who protected the cargo as it came inland. 'Smuggler', in fact, is about as specific as crook, villain, or blackguard, and the profession could potentially be minutely split up into numerous specialists.

A smuggling run. Illustration by Jack Matthew
A smuggling run. Illustration by Jack Matthew.

Sea smugglers

If we confine the question to the men who actually made the trips abroad, identification becomes much simpler. Most sea smugglers were seafaring men who had a sense of adventure or an eye for a quick profit. They were fishermen, or crewed colliers, coasters and river vessels. When times were tough, they'd look for a novel way to use their knowledge of navigation and sailing.

From what little verifiable information we have about the lives of smugglers, it seems that they slipped in and out of the trade. Jack Rattenbury, for example, started life learning fishing, but got bored and joined a privateer. This semi-piratical pursuit perhaps pushed him towards smuggling, but he plied an honest trade from time to time too, running a pub, and working as a pilot. This last employment is particularly telling, since it highlights the extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the sea that smugglers possessed, especially of localized coastal conditions.

The stereotyped sea smuggler, of course, is easy to picture. He wears enormous seaman's boots, perhaps a smock or a striped jersey, baggy trousers, a heavy overcoat, a souwester, and maybe a handkerchief round his neck. In fact, this was the traditional garb of the sailor of the 18th and 19th centuries, so while the outfit looks distinctive today, it was hardly exceptional 200 years ago.

Ogden's cigarette card of a tubman
"Tubmen" carried contraband spirits away from the coast like this: in small oval barrels called half-ankers, tied together in pairs. Image courtesy of the Bristol Radical History Group

Foreign smugglers

Surprisingly, perhaps, the smuggler had a good chance of being a foreigner. After all, smuggling was only an illegal form of the import/export business, and wasn't restricted to English citizens. In times of peace, the market-places of coastal towns rang with many different foreign accents, and a French or Dutch smuggler taking orders for his next trip could easily merge with the crew of a legitimate vessel out getting drunk on the local strong ale. In times of war (and these were frequent) a little more caution was in order, but it wasn't usually difficult to arrange for a school of small English boats to meet a larger vessel from the (nominally) enemy power, a few miles off-shore.

Dry-land smugglers

The sea-going men were just one side of the story, though. Face away from the sea, and the land party comes in to view: a group of shadowy figures who skulk around the coast waiting to land the cargo, and protect it on the journey inland. These people were usually labourers who would supplement their paltry agricultural wages with a little fetching and carrying, to make ends meet. Only 20% of the 18th century population lived in towns and cities, and a quarter of the rural population was made up of landless labourers, many of whom lived in a condition that we would today describe as grinding poverty. According to one estimate [1], a fifth of the population occasionally received parish relief — the equivalent of today's social security benefit.

Working hours were long — typically 12 or 13 hours a day, Saturdays included, and though wages may have been sufficient to buy food, they often didn't pay for cooking it: vast tracts of woodland had been cut to build ships, and as fuel for the emergent industries of glass and steel manufacture. As a result, firewood was scarce, and transport — except by water — was very costly, so coal was not yet an economical substitute for wood. The poor commonly ate food such as cheese, that did not require cooking.

For these people, acting as tub carriers and batsmen — the thugs who made sure that the King's men didn't interfere — must have seemed like an easy way to cook the chicken. For those who could get it, a week's work on the fields paid seven or eight shillings (35-40p), but a successful 'run' of a smuggled cargo could bring between 5 shillings and 7/6 (20p-37.5p) for a night's exertion. For those turned out of work — for example by the contraction of iron-smelting in the Kentish weald — smuggling may have been the only source of income besides the parish.

The definition of smuggling, though, extended even to people who distributed the contraband inland, and these included not only landless labourers, but a broader section of the working classes including skilled trades-people. A roll-call of unfortunate Dorset land smugglers whose cases came up in Lyme Regis court makes an A-to-Z of trades:

Anthony, John


Bagwell, Maria


Charles, Emmanuel

  tin-plate worker

Dowall, George


Etchcock, Richard


Ford, James


Gummer, Ann


Hatton, Robert


Jerrard, John

  flax dresser

Kearley, George


Lumb, Martha


March, David

  pig jobber

Oxford, William


Powell, William


Rutledge, Levia

  twine spinner

Sceard, James

  fell-monger (hide dealer)

Trim, William


Vivian, Martha


Way, Mercy

  twine spinner

Zeally, Thomas


Significantly, 'squire' and 'parson' do not appear among the occupations listed, so it's safe to assume that the customers for the smuggled goods did not run the same risk as those supplying them! Next

[1] Gregory King, 1688, quoted in Trevelyan, 1944