Smugglers and the birth of Britain’s consumer society

They were vilified for maiming customs officials and diverting enormous sums of money from state coffers. Yet, as William J Ashworth explains, smugglers were a driving force behind the explosion of consumerism in 18th-century Britain

‘Smugglers', c1785, from ‘Adventures by sea from art of old time’ by Basil Lubbock. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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On a warm summer day in 1782 the Kent coastal town of Deal was a symphony of excited chatter, laughter and the sound of horses’ hoofs. A small army of well over 200 armed men and packhorses was gathering to remove a large shipment of contraband tea to the hamlet of Stockwell in south London. Here it would be stored in warehouses ready to be purchased by retailers and sold in and around the capital.

This well-organised trade was financed by wealthy City entrepreneurs who happily mixed their portfolios between legal and illegal ventures. The local Deal revenue officers were powerless to intervene. Only a year earlier, Lord North’s government had arranged a bold attempt, led by 100 soldiers and 900 infantrymen, to crush Deal’s smuggling activities. The mission was a dismal failure. Unperturbed, new prime minister William Pitt the Younger sent the army in again in 1784 and set fire to Deal’s armada of smuggling vessels. This time they were successful but, such was the wealth to be had in the alternative – ‘common’ – economy, the folk of Deal were soon back up to size and carrying out their unlawful activities.

Incidents like this, albeit at varying levels of scale, could be found all across the country’s coastline. Britain’s illicit economy was booming and, all but in name, a guerilla war was raging across the land.

Eighteenth-century Britain has been described as experiencing a ‘consumer revolution’ and an ‘industrial enlightenment’ that provided the foundations for the industrial revolution. Yet, every bit as much as these things, it was the heyday of smuggling.

Between 1689 and 1815, Britain was at war, primarily with France, for well-over 50 years. To make this possible required the taxation of people like never before. By the late 1720s indirect taxes – customs and especially excises – were the fundamental sources of revenue. This allowed the state to develop the necessary tax base and credibility to obtain long-term loans to finance expensive war. However, it also generated an alternative economy for such taxed and prohibited items.

The heart of this world were the counties of Kent and Sussex – the result of geographical proximity to both the continent and the population of London. This huge economy, rivalling and even surpassing its licit counterparts in certain items, played a major role in introducing and extending the supply of new goods to an ever eager and growing population.

For the 18th-century philosopher, economic commentator and Scottish customs commissioner, Adam Smith, smuggling was not a crime of ‘natural justice’. A person who violated smuggling laws often “would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so”.

These sentiments, however, would not have been of much comfort to the large numbers of smugglers decaying in the gaols littered around the country and awaiting either the noose, impressment into the Royal Navy, or transportation to North America. Nor was it a pleasant experience for the revenue officer who fell into the hands of the smuggler. While it was true that many officers were deeply immersed in the pilfering and smuggling activities taking place along the coast, it was also the case that numerous others were forcibly imprisoned, beaten, and murdered by the more organised groups of smugglers.

In 1721 a customs officer was captured by brandy smugglers and forced to drink as much of the liquid as it took before becoming unconscious. They then inserted a funnel into his mouth and poured a further “two quarts and a pint” down. The officer was then tied to a horse and set loose. In another case the crew of a navy cutter were ambushed, resulting in one of the officers being “carried to a Pond” and thrown to the ground. Here they “stamped on him dragged him through and very nearly drowned him, after which they beat and made him run the gauntlet from the north to the south end of the town”.

Between 1723 and 1730 more than 250 officers were injured and at least six murdered. Like the state, smugglers had their own ‘bloody code’. The idol and sanctity of property had entered the sinews of the illicit as well as licit economy. Smith was not being controversial when he claimed that the smuggler believed he was pursuing an innocent trade supported by the greater public – “he is frequently disposed to defend with violence, what he has been accustomed to regard as his just property”.

As far as the excise commissioners in 1783 were concerned, there were only two solutions to stemming the tide of smuggling and port pilfering. First, the total abolition or radical reduction of duties. However, unless an alternative source of tax revenue could be found – something eventually obtained via the permanent introduction of the income tax in 1842 – this was impossible. Instead they fell back on the traditional policy of force as the only other option to fight free-trade. They wanted to see a determined enforcement of the brutal Smugglers Acts of 1736 and, especially, 1746.

Between 1723 and 1730 more than 250 custom officers were injured and at least six murdered

This latter piece of legislation had made all offences formerly punishable by transportation now a felony, without the benefit of clergy. The names of known smugglers were also published in The London Gazette and had 40 days to turn themselves in or be automatically sentenced to death. It was not uncommon to see smugglers hanging at strategic points along well-known smuggling routes; the stench and sight of their decaying, mangled bodies and twisted faces were intended to act as a deterrent.

With the stakes so high the social bond between smugglers was incredibly strong. A loose word or an untrustworthy member could be the difference between the noose and a lucrative livelihood. Such informers, awarded £500 for useful information by the authorities, were treated to a horrific and prolonged death to set an example to would-be traitors. Sentences were passed at the ‘smugglers court’ that resided in a local inn. Like the state, the common economy had its own system of justice and punishment.

The hoot of the bird

Tin from Devon and Cornwall was one of the earliest goods to be illegally exported, but this was soon eclipsed during the 17th century by the rampant illicit trading of wool – a practice known by contemporaries as ‘owling’. The most probable origins of this term was a mutation of the name given to those who processed wool, namely, ‘woolers’; although some have speculated it was because the smugglers conducted their business at night like owls and used the hoot of the bird as a means of communication.

The ‘owlers’ concentrated their activities in Kent and Sussex, and were frequently engaged in angry and bloody encounters with revenue officers throughout the century. In 1656 William Carter, an agent of the woollen manufacturers licensed with powers to arrest smugglers in Kent and Sussex, complained that these men had become so strong that no one dared challenge them. Free trade in wool became a capital offence at the Restoration (1660) but to little effect. This was for the simple reason that the wool smugglers, such as the notorious Romney Marsh men, were well-armed enough to resist capture. Large gangs would load wool during the night onto French shallops destined for Calais and Flanders.

The owling trade reached a new peak in 1698 with the main centres being Folkestone, Lydd, Rye, and Romney. The Wool Act of that year legislated that all owners of wool within ten miles of the Kent and Sussex coast must give a record of the number of fleeces and the location of their storage, while no one could sell wool unless they were registered at the Custom House. In effect this was an attempt to locate and identify all owlers, and ban the transport of wool along the Kent and Sussex coast. The waterguard was reactivated and a division of 17 land carriage men were appointed to search inns and warehouses in and around London. In addition, a group of riding officers were created to patrol the south-east coast. Soon, other commodities were eclipsing the problem of illegally exporting wool, such as Asian textiles, brandy, lace, silk, tea and tobacco.

Take the case of tobacco. To begin with, it was only lightly taxed after Sir Walter Ralegh had first exhaled the addictive delight to a curious Elizabethan court. However, by the late 17th century it had become one of the most highly taxed items, and by the 18th century one of the most popular in the illicit economy.

Bulk tobacco was carried loose in rolls rather than securely packed in hogsheads, which made it easy to pilfer and smuggle. The 1699 Bulk Tobacco Act attempted to put an end to this. It legislated that bulk tobacco would have to be stored in a hogshead, chest, or case fixed at 224lb net, with smaller packages being forfeitable. The stakes now became higher. Smuggling became far more organised, run by fewer and more ruthless men, with small armies to back their activities.

Another scam revolved around tobacco that was classified as damaged and branded unfit for the home market. Since no provision was made to destroy such tobacco, numerous merchants would bribe customs officers to declare their perfectly good tobacco as damaged and thence import it duty-free. This practice was challenged by legislation in 1713, which enforced the destruction of damaged leaf by burning it. The statute also legislated that tobacco could not claim drawback (a tax reimbursement) on re-exportation unless it was purchased in hogsheads of 300lb or more.

Leaves of walnut trees, hops, and sycamore were strictly prohibited if exported under pretence of being tobacco – although such techniques of adulteration continued to flourish.

Adam Smith particularly disliked drawbacks and bounties, claiming they “have given occasion to many frauds, and to a species of smuggling more destructive of the publick revenue than any other”. Following the policies of the first British prime minister, Robert Walpole (served 1721–42), and numerous others earlier in the century, Smith advocated, partly as a solution to drawbacks, that a system of bonded (tax-free) warehouses should be greatly extended to all sorts of goods.

One major destination used to store Britain’s re-exported tobacco was the European continent. From the free port of Dunkirk alone, it was estimated that eight or nine sloops or other vessels from 30 to 60 tons, all involved in illicit trade, went to Ireland three or four times a year. From here tobacco and other contraband would be illegally landed back in Britain.

Other infamous continental ports involved in the British smuggling economy included Roscoff, Ostend and Flushing. The latter was also populated by English shipbuilders specialising in the construction of smuggling vessels tailor-made to suit customers’ needs.

Yet not all smugglers relished shipping tobacco to and from continental Europe. This meant negotiating the English Channel’s notoriously difficult waters – a voyage that could add two weeks to their cargo’s journey. It was for this very reason that Scotland was to become a hot spot for the illicit trade.

The sparsely populated Scottish coastline was even more difficult to police than the English coast, and thus was a perfect area for the smuggler to land contraband goods at leisure. Above all, an alliance of fraud between merchants and customs officers had become almost systematic in the activities of the port of Glasgow – an accusation fiercely denied by the collector and controller of the local customs house. Walpole, however, was unimpressed, and the Scottish customs service was brought under the direct supervision of London in 1722.

Another widely and profitably smuggled good in the 18th century was tea. Its high duty coupled with its elevated value in proportion to its bulk made it a favourite with free traders. It was reported in 1732 that great quantities of tea were landed along the coasts of Sussex, Kent, Essex, and Suffolk. The success of tea smuggling during the century affected the free trade of other commodities. For example bulky goods, such as brandy, were often employed as ballast in ships mainly used for the rich traffic in tea.

The most important route and method of smuggling tax-free tea into Britain was from the continent—especially France, Holland, Sweden, and Denmark, and occasionally Portugal and Spain. With the exception of Holland, most of these countries depended on the smuggling trade to dispose of their imported tea, which, unlike tea in Britain, was not weighed down with import taxes. The problem was made worse by the fact that continental traders also had larger ships and comparatively low freight and other charges. Indeed such was the importance of the British market for continental tea traders that something like one-half of all their tea cargo was targeted to the British shores.

The end of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) represents a turning point in the fortunes of both the legal and illegal trade in tea. With the return of peace there was a sudden and rapid rise in the activities of European trade. Within less than a decade, trade with China had almost doubled, and the bulk of this expansion was primarily targeted at Britain – radically raising the quantities of tea available to smuggle. Large well-armed smuggling vessels now appeared along the British coast, as opposed to the traditional small, unarmed boats. Some of these ships were as massive as 230–300 tons, with 20–24 guns, carrying 50–80 men. It was estimated that there were some 250 ships regularly involved in the illicit trade of tea.

By the 1770s the illicit tea trade had reached an unprecedented level of organisation. It now had large-scale importers and wholesale distributors whose operations soon expanded in the direction of monopoly, enabling them to import and distribute far larger quantities of smuggled tea than was previously possible.

These distributors were based in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Each had its own distinct structure. In London there were well-established facilities for credit and for the sale and distribution of tea. Here the organisation followed the pattern of the legal trade and remained in the hands of wealthy entrepreneurs, while in Scotland it swayed toward combination such as the three companies that operated and dominated the west coast. They stored their contraband tea in large farms that were enclosed by high walls and gates (much like bonded warehouses), within which cleverly designed concealments were built – some of which were under land planted with corn.

Illicit practices

The second report of the committee investigating illicit practices in the early 1780s usefully summarised the situation: “Trade upon the west coast is carried on chiefly by companies systematically established, and which appear to be as well known and openly avowed as the regular trading companies of the kingdom.”

Sophisticated joint-stock companies thus emerged within the alternative as well as the licit economy. The new cartels also frequently insured their substantial vessels and obtained good credit facilities from European companies and merchants.

The time had come for the legal London dealers to fight back. They formed an association to protect their trade and placed increased pressure on the directors of the East India Company to use their influence on government to take assertive action. In September 1784 the Commutation Act was passed, which radically reduced tea duties with a window tax introduced to cover the shortfall. Following this move the sales of the East India Company doubled and soon trebled, while the imports of tea by the European companies showed a comparative decline. Legal tea imports went up from 5,857,000lb in 1783 to 16,307,000lb in 1785. As a result of the Act, smuggled tea was radically reduced – at least till duties were once again massively increased during the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815).

However, the fight against Napoleonic France provided the campaign against smuggling with an unexpected boost. With the expectation that an invasion was imminent the government financed the erection of the 74 Martello Towers between Folkestone and Seaford. This not only placed a formidable barrier between France and England but also between the continent and the illicit economy – particularly around the Romney Marsh area.

After the war a coastal blockade was extended from Sheerness to Chichester. By 1824 there were some 2,784 men making patrols all along this stretch of coastline. Meanwhile the government established a national Coastguard in 1824, and this eventually took over the south-east coastal blockade in 1831. However, the real death nail to smuggling came with the dismantling of Britain’s tariffs and the arrival of free trade later in the century.

Smugglers may not be credited with a positive role in the expansion of Britain’s 18th-century economy, but they were actually a vital factor in the general commercial expansion of the country. Smugglers reached areas the legal trade did not, and therefore developed credit facilities and elaborate transport systems that helped integrate the economy and shape consumer habits. In this way, they also supplied a large number of remote communities and retailers at cheaper prices than the legal supplier.

There is no doubt that smugglers were every bit as entrepreneurial, innovative and creative as their legal counterparts. Their role in promoting both domestic and international trade, and their contribution to the 18th-century consumer revolution has yet to be told.

William J Ashworth is a lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool and the author of Customs and Excise: Trade, Production, and Consumption in England 1640-1845 (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Smuggling gangs

1

The Hawkhurst gang (1735–49)

Probably the largest and most feared of all smuggling gangs during the first half of the 18th century, with upwards of 500 members. It was named after the small village of Hawkhurst in Kent, which was strategically situated ten miles from the Romney Marsh coast, 13 miles from Rye, and on the main road to London. It was led by Arthur Gray and Thomas Kingsmill – both hanged for their activities in 1748 and 1749 respectively.

2

The Groombridge gang (1733–49)

A gang that operated from Groombridge in Kent and, like the Hawkhurst gang, operated along the Romney Marsh coast. It was led by John Bowra, who was arrested in 1737, and then by Robert Moreton, who was arrested in 1749 on the basis of information provided by an informer.

3

The Mayfield gang (1710–21)

One of the earliest known gangs in the 18th century originating in the village of Mayfield in East Sussex, which is about nine miles south of Tonbridge Wells. The group was led by Gabriel Tomkins, a bricklayer by trade, who was suspected of murdering a riding officer in 1717. The gang disbanded in 1721 but Gabriel went on to join the Hawkhurst gang in 1746 before eventually being hanged in 1750.

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4

The Hadleigh gang (18th century)

This gang lived in Suffolk and operated from the town of Hadleigh and consisted of some 100 men. Most of their contraband was landed close to the coast of Sizewell. Their most infamous member was John Harvey who was eventually transported to North America in 1748 for seven years.