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

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.

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