All too often the laws of man, crafted with one idea in mind, lead to consequences far removed from their original intent. This may be said of the British government’s attempts, during the years of war with France that started in the 1790s, to raise revenue in support of the war effort. At the time there was no income tax; the government’s principal idea for funding its activities was to tax the things people used. No system was in place to collect taxes at the point of sale, so other methods had to be devised to assess and collect. One relatively easy way to do this was to survey a man’s possessions—which led to property taxes and taxes on luxuries such as windows. And another was for Customs agents to make an accounting of goods being imported into the country and to charge duty on their value—which led to trouble.
As an island nation, Britain has thousands of miles of coastline. But in the 1790s, the ports of entry that allowed for the docking of large trading ships were relatively few in number, while many coastal villages and small towns had large populations of seagoing men in possession of smaller vessels. It was easy enough, for those inclined to evade the payment of duties, to avoid the large ports and find alternative markets for their goods. As a revenue-raising strategy, import duties were doomed to fail; and the higher they rose, the more spectacularly they failed.
Smuggling operations ranged from small-scale and ad-hoc to massive organisations that dominated the economy of entire regions. Holland and France imported tea almost solely for the smuggling trade and entire towns in those countries were devoted to the supply of smuggling vessels. At the low end, ships transporting goods from overseas could drop anchor just offshore and wait for local fishermen to row out and buy a portion of the cargo. Higher up the scale, merchants placed orders with smugglers—dressmakers for silks or Indian cottons, innkeepers for brandy or gin, and so on—to be obtained at low cost from French ports. A regular nocturnal smugglers’ market developed in the London suburb of Stockwell, where run goods were sold to the shopkeepers of the metropolis. Many of these goods were imported by the organised smuggling gangs of Kent and Sussex. The Channel Islands also played a major role: they had no effective laws against smuggling before 1805, so a low-risk means of importing duty-free goods was to unload them there and then transfer them legally to the mainland.
After the French Revolution of 1789, smuggling became big business, driven by powerful and wealthy men. Not only did the British government ramp up its extortionate import duties on nearly every commodity brought into the country in order to support the war effort, but France faced a crisis: its currency collapsed, and the government was unable to pay its soldiers. During the course of the 1790s, as France expanded its military and Napoleon rose to power (he became First Consul in 1799), the nation’s demand for gold to pay the army was enormous. Bankers in the City of London saw an opportunity. Guineas, worth twenty-one shillings in England, were worth thirty shillings in France; so a steady stream of gold flowed out of England throughout the war. It may fairly be said that London bankers financed both sides of the conflict, and enriched themselves thereby.
This type of currency trade required significant capital investment, far beyond the means of local smugglers. It was inevitable during wartime that a trade in secrets would also develop. Napoleon is said to have regularly received British newspapers (not to mention more sensitive intelligence) from a smuggler; and spies on both sides took advantage of this back door for entering and leaving the country surreptitiously. Bands of smugglers earned a supplemental income by playing both sides of the conflict: on the one hand, they forcibly liberated French soldiers from prison hulks in British ports and repatriated them, and on the other, they profited from helping French aristocrats to escape the guillotine.
Smugglers often used violence and intimidation to ensure that they could operate with impunity. Farmers who would not allow them to store goods in their outbuildings or lend their horses for transport often found their livestock killed and their property put to the torch. People who laid information against the smugglers risked torture or death in retaliation. In a nation that had not yet developed an effective police force, it was easier to cooperate or turn a blind eye. By law, any smuggler who confessed and identified his confederates would receive a full pardon and monetary reward, but few took advantage of the opportunity.
Despite (or perhaps because of?) the aura of lawlessness and danger that surrounded them, smugglers became folk heroes. Their exploits were detailed on broadsheets and sung about in popular ballads. They became symbols of freedom from an oppressive government. The essayist Elia (Charles Lamb) once called the smuggler an ‘honest thief. He robs nothing but the revenue,—an abstraction I never greatly cared about.’ The Customs duties being widely regarded as unjust laws, those who evaded them were seen as engaged in a form of civil disobedience: hence the common name for smugglers, free-traders.
In collapsing rural economies, farm labourers could earn in a week only a couple of shillings—enough for food perhaps but not enough even for the fuel to cook it. Smuggling work, which earned them a week’s salary in a single night, was much more attractive, despite the risks. Repeated crop failures during the 1790s, coupled with artificially high prices for grain and flour (along with the diversion of many food staples from the domestic market to the military’s supply lines), led many to resent the government’s policies, which made even necessities too scarce or expensive for the common man to afford. In this context, the free-trade was widely perceived as a solution to society’s problems.
Coming up in part 2: Anecdotes from the smuggling trade.
3 May 2019
An Alphabetical Abridgment of the Laws for the Prevention of Smuggling (1816).
E. Keble Chatterton, The Fine Art of Smuggling: King’s Cutters vs. Smugglers, 1700–1855 (Fireship Press, 2008).
Trevor May, Smuggling (Shire Publications, 2014).
Richard Platt, The Ordnance Survey Guide to Smugglers’ Britain (Cassell, 1991).
Mary Waugh, Smuggling in Kent and Sussex, 1700–1840 (Countryside Books, 1985).