SMUGGLERS and SMUGGLING - 1200 to 1833



For most people Smuggling conjures up romantic and adventurous scenes of Sussex and Cornish men bringing their illicit cargos to land upon the quiet and deserted shore havens.  Or perhaps the picture is of swarthy, furtive figures dashing like elusive fairies between the rays of the full moon into the shadowy safety of the trees!

Whatever your perception of the men who plied this trade in days gone by, you can be sure  the trade was carried out enthusiastically by persons from all walks of life and looked upon as a respectable way of earning a living.  The height of the smuggling days were in the 1500 to 1800's but began much earlier in the 1200's, not with the importation of goods into England, but with taking them out.


Further to this, the type of goods being smuggled out of England at that time had nothing to do with fine cloth, spirits, or such, but with sheep's wool.  Indeed, smuggling started in earnest in the reign of Edward I, about 1300, when a customs duty was placed on the export of wool, which was in great demand in Europe. This was the first permanent customs system established in England, and until it was set up all trade in and out of England was free.  The initial duties started quite small, but as the Hundred Years War progressed, so the tax went up, to help pay for the troops and fighting.

Initially the Customs Service was only there to collect the duties at the ports, and not to prevent smuggling. Chichester was the only port in Sussex where importing and exporting goods was allowed. However the merchants of our area found it easier to land the goods in the local Cinque Ports where there were few Customs Officials.

In 1357 a court was held in Rye to try a number of merchants who were smuggling goods through the port of Pevensey.

In 1614, the export of any wool was made illegal, and so the volumes being exported increased the smuggling of wool was known as Owling (After the owl like noises made by the smugglers to communicate with each other). As time went on and the smuggling became more profitable, so the smugglers were able to bribe more of the port officials, which in turn allowed more smuggling.

In 1661 the illegal exporting of wool was made punishable by the death sentence, this meant that the smugglers started to arm themselves, and the only way they could be stopped was by the army.  Before 1671 the collection of Customs Duties was generally let out to private individuals. During 1671 Charles II created the the Board of Customs.

The Romney Marshes became the centre of smuggling and the records show that in the 1670's 20,000 packs of wool were sent to Calais annually.  The smugglers were now building fast and armed ships to carry out their nocturnal runs.

During the 1680's the Revenue Officers were provided with Customs sloops to enable them to patrol the coasts, and catch the smugglers.

In 1698 the government decided to take action. An Act was passed stopping people within 15 miles of the sea from buying any wool, unless they guaranteed that they wouldn't sell it to anyone within 15 miles of the sea. Also any farmers within 10 miles of the sea had to account for their fleeces within 3 days of shearing. A further change was the introduction of a number of officials who were paid to prevent smuggling. The initial effect of these officers was to limit the smuggling of wool which they had sent into serious decline by 1703, but the officials became corrupt, and smuggling returned.



In 1714, the local records show that the majority of the population within the area was involved with smuggling. The main wool smugglers ( owlers ) from 1710 in the area were the Mayfield Gang , but they were stopped by their leader being arrested in 1721. By 1724, the number of wool smuggling runs was reducing , as the French could get wool from Ireland for about the same price, but with less problems.

The 1730's brought the major smugglers into the area , 1733 the Groombridge Gang started smuggling tea and brandy through the Ashdown Forest .

Between 1735 and 1749 the area was terrorised by the Hawkhurst Gang , who controlled the smuggling in a large part of the south coast. Originally known as the Holkhourst Genge, they were based in the Oak and Ivy Inn in the village of Hawkhurst on the Kent border. They roamed from Herne Bay to Poole in Dorset, but they frequented the Mermaid Inn in Rye, where they "would sit and drink with loaded pistols on the table". A further reference to the gang was in 1740, at Silver Hill in Robertsbridge where Thomas Carswell (a customs officer) was shot and killed while trying to apprehend some of the smugglers. One of the guilty smugglers George Chapman was gibbetted on the Village Green in the village of Hurst Green .

In 1784 the duty on tea and French wines was reduced by the government, removing the incentive to smuggle these items, but those for spirits and tobacco still remained.

The Napoleonic Wars 1797 - 1815 saw a number of increases in duty to try to pay for the War, but this along with the decline in the local Iron Industry provided more reasons and better incentives to smuggle.


The Aldington Gang probably formed by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars survived until 1827 when their leaders were found guilty and transported.

In 1831 the Coastguard took over the coastal policing, and from 1832-33 a number of violent events occured, culminating with a fight at Pevensey in 1833, which seemed to be the end of the smuggling in this area.

Through the years, the nature of smuggling changed and adapted according to the laws at the time and the taxes payable on the goods concerned along with the scarcity of the items. Smuggling, far from being a trade for heinous villains was looked upon by most of the population as being a fair and honest way of making ones way in the world.

Even in modern times smuggling has survived and today an illicit trade in spirits, beers, wines, tobacco and even humans operates every day.  Although it must be said that when one buys contraband today you only take away an income from the government which in turn removes the benefits of such taxation from the good of the people - provided or course your government uses it resources wisely - and on this point you may have other thoughts.

For sure, the days of smuggling being thought a respectable trade have long since ceased to be.

Rudyard Kipling from Burwash wrote a poem about the smugglers

The Smugglers Song

If You wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five-and-twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark - Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine;
Don't you shout to come and look, nor take 'em for your play;
Put the brushwood back again, - and they'll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm - don't you ask no more!

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you 'pretty maid,' and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!

Knocks and footsteps round the house - whistles after dark -
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie -
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

If you do as you've been told, likely there's a chance
You'll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood -
A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being good!

Five-and-twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Ask anyone to describe a British smuggler from the 19th century, and they’ll probably tell you he is a Sussex or Cornish man dressed in long boots and a striped jersey. He rolls a dozen kegs up a moonlit beach, hides them in a cave, then hawks the brandy round the village.  Everybody knows him as Tom the Smuggler, and his neighbours take it in turns to distract the revenue man at the front door while Tom rolls his barrels out the back.

But how accurate is this picture of the smuggler? It is misleading because it omits important and unsavoury details about the smuggling trade. In some ways, it's hopelessly romanticised.  Nevertheless, this thumbnail sketch contains a few grains of truth, and it successfully evokes the extraordinary circumstances which permitted a vast expansion of illegal imports.

This "free trade" mushroomed in the 18th century.  Small-scale evasion of duty turned into a major industry, siphoning money abroad, and channelling huge volumes of contraband in the other direction.

Even by modern standards, the smugglers imported goods in extraordinary quantities. 80 percent of all tea drunk in England had not paid duty; a single smuggling trip could bring in 3,000 gallons of spirits; illegally imported gin was so cheap that it was used for cleaning windows.

Whole communities connived in the trade. A large cargo sometimes drained all available cash from the area where it landed, and there are numerous instances of villages uniting to fight the customs men and reclaim cargoes they had seized.



The interesting story and history of smuggling in the south west of England


Visit the towns, villages, resorts, bays, coves and caves that tell the story of men who pit their wits and seamanship against the Commissioners of His/Her Majesty's Customs, the revenue men, pirates and privateers.  Adults will find the history interesting, Children will be exited with the tales, caves, haunts  and locations.  


The trail covers the coast of the south west of England, UK commencing at Weston-super-Mare to the north (near Bristol), along the Bristol Channel coast line to Lands End and then along the south coast line to Poole. You will travel through Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.





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