Men did not have all the fun. Because it was illegal to search a woman, they were often used for transport. Lovey Warne of the Bournemouth area would board ships in Christchurch Harbour, undress in the captain’s cabin, and wrap smuggled silks around her body before emerging, re-dressed but suspiciously fatter (Briggs, Smugglers’ Britain, p. 78). She also paraded across the hilltops dressed in a red cloak when the smugglers’ boats needed to be warned away because of Revenue officers patrolling the area.
The illicit nature of the smugglers’ enterprises invited secrecy, which led to a proliferation of colourful nicknames. Cursemother Jack, Nasty Face, Old Joll, One-Eye, Will the Fiddler, Towzer, Old Oatmeal, Smoker Mills, French Peter, Pouncer, Battling Billy—I borrowed a few known monikers for the rogues inhabiting the pages of Coldharbour Gentlemen. Despite the mystery surrounding most of the smuggling fraternity, a few can be identified, having penned memoirs or been immortalised in accounts written by local observers.
One whose exploits are fairly well documented—though it can be difficult to disentangle fact from embroidery—was Isaac Gulliver, born 1745 in Wiltshire, whose operations were centred on Bournemouth. He married into a smuggling family and enthusiastically embraced the calling. Like many entrepreneurial free-traders, he had a cover operation, that of innkeeper, with a pub that just happened to be situated conveniently close to a well-known distribution centre for run goods. His regular crew of forty to fifty men wore a simulacrum of livery and powdered their hair; if a crowd gathered whilst they were unloading the cargo from a lugger, they would open a few casks and offer free liquor to keep the bystanders happily occupied. As his enterprises both legitimate and illicit prospered, he purchased a hill overlooking the sea and planted a grove of trees on its crest to serve as a guide for smuggling vessels looking for safe harbour. (Revenue men chopped the trees down.) Once when officers came to search his house, he rubbed chalk on his face and lay down in a coffin pretending to be dead (a recurrent motif in smugglers’ escape tales).
Although most smugglers were merely labouring men bent on earning a little extra for the sustenance of their families, some rose to become wealthy men of property. A lucky few amassed astonishing fortunes: William Baldock of Seasalter, conveniently situated at the mouth of the Thames, was able to leave a legacy of one million pounds after his death in 1812.
A few smugglers were born into the middle class and viewed the trade as simply a business opportunity. A wealthy merchant’s son from the northern shore of Devon, Thomas Benson, had a prosperous seagoing trade with the American colonies, importing tobacco and exporting convicts who had been sentenced to transportation. He brought in the tobacco legally and paid his duties on the cargo. But then he re-exported it, supposedly overseas (but in reality only as far as an offshore island he had leased), which allowed him to reclaim the duties paid. On the island, the convicts—who had been supposed to go to the Americas but had in fact been disembarked there—processed the tobacco, which was then brought back to the mainland clandestinely for sale.
Success required extraordinary resiliency, as well as the moral flexibility to take advantage of changing circumstances. Tom Johnstone of Hampshire was notorious for shifting his loyalties to suit the occasion. Born in 1772, he was an able fisherman and navigator—skills that made him a leader of a smuggling crew by age fifteen. By twenty-one he was serving on a privateer when he was arrested in France. He obtained his release by promising to transport information to a French spy in England; but on his way there, the British navy intercepted his vessel. He escaped punishment by handing over the messages he was carrying. In 1798 he was imprisoned in England but bribed his gaoler and escaped to France. Returning to England in 1799, he volunteered to serve as a pilot for the navy, receiving a pardon and a large reward. And so it went, trading his loyalties back and forth as the exigencies of the moment demanded, till he retired in his forties with a navy pension.
If such deceptions failed, those tasked with supporting law and order were often co-opted into collaboration. In the town of Deal near Dover, a place entirely given over to the illicit trade, after the Waterguard staged a raid on an illegal shipment, the mayor ordered the Revenue men who took part arrested on a charge of assault against the smugglers! In the Welsh village of Amlwch, fourteen townspeople had shares in a large sloop that plied the waters between Wales and Ireland, illegally importing soap and other products. One of the investors was the Customs officer.
Whole villages were given over to the trade, and there are accounts by visitors of virtual ghost towns, with farmers who left their fields fallow and fishermen who never fished. This absence of ordinary economic activity presented a difficulty for the local clergymen, who could not raise tithes on goods not produced. Some merely adapted their demands, allowing space in the church’s vault, belfry, or tombs to be used for storage of run goods and claiming a tithe on the cargo.
To those leading lives of constricted propriety, the exploits of those who stepped outside the law for profit and adventure must have been the stuff of envious fantasy. Small wonder a boy like Coldharbour Gentlemen’s Harry Steer was seduced!
Coming up in part 3: Smuggling lingo.
1 September 2021
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).