It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,
so much as for the right.

Henry David Thoreau


Smuggling 3: The Lingo

Every profession develops its own language—terms and usages that delineate its specific practices—and smuggling, though scarcely recognised as an occupation, is no different. From its practitioners to the forces intended to eradicate it, the words used to describe all aspects of the trade and its prohibition carry a weight of historical significance.
     Prevention of illicit trade in the British Isles began not with the import of goods, but with export. Owlers were men who illegally shipped wool out of the country to supply foreign demand in the seventeenth century, and their enterprise led to the appointment of riding officers, men hired by the Board of Customs to disrupt these activities along the coasts. Once the levying of duties (a form of taxation similar to tariffs today) on imported goods became prevalent in the eighteenth century, 
A revenue cutter chasing a suspected smuggler (ca. 1803). From an article, ‘Hm Customs and Excise’ on

the riding officers’ responsibilities expanded to include efforts to stop the illicit importation of goods (smuggling) aimed at evading the payment of duties. 

         Riding officers were always overworked and too few in number, charged with impossible demands to fight organised gangs of smugglers largely single-handed. Sometimes the officers were augmented with dragoons, mounted soldiers in a domestic force raised by county militias (not part of the regular army), but these ill-trained forces were still often outnumbered and outwitted.

         In an attempt to prevent smuggling before it reached the shores, in 1809 a Waterguard was formed—a seagoing patrol fleet—at which point the riding officers were categorised as the Landguard. There had been some limited offshore enforcement efforts before that date, in the form of patrols by Revenue cruisers. But as late as 1797 Customs’ fleet numbered only thirty-three cutters to police the entire coastline of England. (Cutters were small to medium-size vessels, single-masted, gaff-rigged, with two or more headsails and a long bowsprit for speed.)

         Attempts to control the passage of goods from overseas fell under the purview of Customs, while the Excise levied taxes on domestic products at the time of their manufacture. The delineation of the two departments’ activities, however, was frequently unclear and their officers often worked co-operatively. Because the Customs officers focused their activities principally on the coasts, the Excise would often take over enforcement attempts inland, chasing down goods that made it past the shore—hence the activities of the exciseman in Coldharbour Gentlemen.  Excisemen were more functionary than fighting man, however, unlike the armed riding officers, so to have any impact they needed dragoons at their back.

         So much for the legal side of the business; now we come to the smugglers. The preferred sailing vessel for transport of goods across the English Channel was the lugger, a two-masted boat with square sails and a shallow draught, suitable for pulling up onto a beach or taking upriver. They were carvel-built for speed and sometimes mounted with cannons. Luggers were custom-built for the smugglers, mainly in the coastal village of Deal, near Dover, with false floors and other adaptations, and could outrun most revenue cutters.

         Once pulled up on shore, specialised crews would unload the goods. Tubmen could carry two small kegs (half-ankers) at a time of distilled, overproof spirits such as Geneva (also called Hollands, both a type of gin) or arrack (a liquor most often made from coconut water and imported by the East India Company), or even rum or wines, depending on the source of supply. Larger kegs, ankers, contained 8.5 gallons of liquid and were transported on pack animals or carts after being derricked (hauled by ropes and winches) up the cliffs from the shore. Dried tobacco leaves also frequently avoided the Customs office, and could be plaited into ropes and concealed under real ropes on the deck of a lugger.

         Most spirits came from the Continent, but arrack as well as other merchandise was purchased from trading ships. East India Company vessels would anchor offshore on their way to England and wait for small-scale smugglers to sail or row out and trade with them. Most often this was a friendly transaction, with the trading vessel selling as much as a quarter of its load before docking and paying duty on the remainder; but sometimes the smugglers seized the cargo by force. Goods obtained from the trading ships could be anything from tea and bolts of cloth to watches, thread to spices, hats to soap to weaponry.

         Once ashore, transport was usually by pack train, though in a few places river transport was possible. Batmen were strong folk armed in some fashion, be it club or pitchfork or pistol, who guarded the shipment and were prepared to do battle with any who interfered. Along the way, the goods were concealed in every hiding place from barns to false hayricks to the hidden cellars of inns to church towers, usually with the willing (and compensated) collaboration of the property owner. The pack trains travelled mostly in darkness on nights with little moon, but they had two types of lantern for use when needed: (1) the close lantern was shaped like an ordinary lantern but had solid panels covering the sides that could be opened singly for controlled illumination; and (2) the spout lantern was shaped like a watering-pot with a long spout that sent a narrow beam of light in the direction it was pointed.

Spout lantern used by smugglers.

         Goods were sold by prior arrangement to innkeepers and shopkeepers along the way, but the destination for most of the illicit supply was an underground market at Stockwell, outside London. There the concentrated spirits would be let down—diluted to a non-toxic level of alcohol—and tinted with burnt sugar to a familiar colour. Tobacco would be processed into snuff or cigars; imported tea would often be adulterated with dried hedgerow leaves or even dung before sale. Ultimately, the goods found their way into shops and drinking establishments in the Metropolis and all over the country, at prices that undercut legally imported products.

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).

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