The (futile) war on smuggling: Accounts from the archives

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant.

In the archive, there is a report from 1806 (Add Mss 2610) which its author endorsed as “a most stupid, bombast report drawn by me for Captn. Lepper touching Smuggling.” It’s author, Job Gipps, was the Commander of the “Hawk” Revenue Cutter moored at Littlehampton. Gipps spent his days patrolling the waters off the coast of the town, responsible for carrying out work for HM Customs and Excise. In 1806, he was ordered to provide a description of the smuggling that was rife along the South Coast. This was much to his consternation, as you can establish from his less-than-favourable endorsement. Fighting this blight to the government was often extremely difficult and, for Job Gipps, probably felt like a never-ending battle.

By 1806, the date of Gipps’ report, smuggling had been an acute problem for the government for nearly a century. Eye-watering customs taxes were placed on day-to-day goods such as tea, coffee, spirits, textiles, and candles which only drove demand for clandestine products. The south coast was riddled with both amateur and professional smuggling gangs; they provided a little income on the side for a few, or supported the families of whole communities. Particularly notorious gangs, such as those originating in Hawkhurst in Kent and Alfriston in East Sussex, monopolised operations throughout East and West Sussex, utilising the myriad of rural landing points along the coast.

Article from the Sussex Advertiser, May 1751, reporting of the smuggling of soap and candles from Ireland. Items that were necessary, but incurred heavy customs charges.

Far from the romantic image we have of smuggling today, the practice of transporting illicit goods from ports in Holland (a common route) to the south coast of England, usually via the Isle of Wight or Alderney, was perilous and fraught with risks at the best of times, and fatal at the worst. The successful transportation and sale of contraband relied heavily on actuate timings, and consequentially on a ship’s master. If a ship wasn’t at the right place at the right time, the jig was up.

A View from Freshwater Cave in the Isle of Wight, late 18th century. From the British Library.

The impression we have from what scattered records we find is that many smuggling operations were highly organised. Trustworthy men (and their families) were first and foremost the key to a successful enterprise. In addition, hiring skilled ship’s masters and skippers were crucial to landing in tight and rocky spots, often in squally weather. Finally, merchants and agents well versed in amoral business deals would, discreetly, acquire goods for the best price.

However, the task of smuggling goods ashore was altogether a more covert and nail-biting experience, as described in Job’s report –

Members of the on-shore gang would be alerted of a ship’s arrival “by signal or some other means to those on shore which on the follow night is answered either by fire on the hills, or lights or rockets thrown up in the air”.

Goods were often unloaded whilst still at sea, “from alongside the Vessel… this is done in Dark boisterous Nights when the Officers on board the Revenue Cutter are unable to discover the smugglers”.

There are numerous records in the archives which tell of incidences and altercations of smuggling.

Add Mss 1476 is a lengthy record of smuggling offences between 1826 and 1827. In the year that this document covers, it lists around 30 accounts of apprehensions. An example illustrates the vast quantities of goods that were sometimes concealed:

“22 July, 1826
Information of William Wilson, Customs Officer, preferred against Thomas Kent, seaman, for unshipping 35 gallons of brandy and 33 gallons of geneva [Dutch gin] at Felpham. Arrested by Robert Cawley Brown.”

Other fascinating documents include:

Goodwood Mss 154 – Notes, in the hand of the Duke of Richmond, regarding tea running by armed smugglers near Elmer Sluice in Middleton in April 1745.

Add Mss 3208 – Customs Officers’ valuation for the purpose of public disposal of 93 casks of foreign brandy, found near Chichester (within 3 miles of the shore) and intended to be smuggled into the country, 1764.

Goodwood Mss 156 – Notes regarding the murder, at the hands of smugglers, of Michael Bath, a dragoon guard, near Sea Place in Goring, in January 1743.

(Oral History) OH 3 – Hannah Burchell’s reminiscences of life in Bury village, including tales of the days when goods were smuggled from Chichester Harbour and Selsey, and details of the way in which the smuggling trade was organised in inland parishes. Recorded in 1978. Highlights from her recording include:

008: Tales of smuggling in Bury told by her grandfather. The smuggling of goods from Chichester Harbour and Selsey to Bury and West Burton. The role of the Lord of the Manor and the manor house. The old cave in the manor grounds used by the smugglers.
042: A smuggling tale. The smugglers hiding from the Excise men in the church and storing their booty in an empty grave. Rewards given to the vicar and the parish clerk by the smugglers.
060: The role of her grandfather in the smuggling. Entertaining the village policeman while the smugglers were at work. Concealing the bottle of brandy from the eye of the authority.
083: The range of goods smuggled into the village.
092: The methods used by the smugglers to allay suspicion and protect their nocturnal activities

Finally, a particularly intense story from the Sussex Advertiser reporting on the (fatal) apprehension of smugglers in Worthing in 1832 –


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