Smuggling in Sussex

While most books on smuggling in Sussex concentrate on the 1700s, smuggling actually started a long time before. In 1275, Edward I introduced a tax on wool exports amounting to 40s per sack. Since the price of English wool at the time was 6d a pound this amounted to a 22% tax. Understandably many merchants tried to avoid the tax by exporting their wool without paying the duty. Despite numerous attempts by the Crown, the trade in wool smuggling (‘owling’) continued more or less undiminished, even when wool exporting was banned entirely in 1660.

The wars with France led to the need to raise more money and duties for the import of various ‘luxury’ items (wine, tea, tobacco, spirits such as gin and French brandy, spices, lace and silk) were either increased or introduced. This provided a ready opportunity for the smugglers to make a profitable return journey having just unloaded their smuggled wool in Calais and Dunkirk, and avoided having to return with an empty ship.

The cargo of tea or spirits would be carried across the channel in a cutter — fast manoeuverable single-masted ships which could sail close inshore. It was then rowed ashore to the waiting ‘tubmen’. The cargo was often carried on ropes over the person’s chest and back, two tubs (each carrying about 4 gallons of spirit) per man. If horses were available then larger barrels could be smuggled (8 gallons each). To protect the tubmen from the Customs men and against piracy from other smuggling gangs (who would often try to pirate a haul if they heard of one coming ashore), would be a group of ‘batmen’ armed with long cudgels (‘bats’) prepared for a bloody fight.

Smugglers preferred to call themselves ‘free traders’ in reference to the high taxes. The profits to be made from ‘running’ contraband were immense; a four gallon tub of gin or brandy could be bought for £1 and could be sold in London for £4. The profit was such that special distilleries were founded in Calais, Dunkirk, Ostend and Gottenberg to supply the smuggling trade. Contemporary reports suggest that four million gallons (!) of gin was being smuggled into England each year, as well as great quantities of brandy and rum.

Sometimes it was not possible to bring the contraband ashore straight away so various methods were devised to anchor the tubs offshore for later collection. If cargo could only be landed when the tide was right then the Customs men’s task was made easier since they could predict when runs would be made, although the sheer number of possible landing sites along the Susses coast and the paucity of Customs men helped reduce this necessity.

Several well-organised gangs controlled the smuggling operations in Kent and Sussex. A “gang” usually consisted of a core of fulltime skilled smugglers who would recruit local labour for a particular job. The prospect of getting 10/- for a single night’s carrying would have been very tempting to a farm labourer who would normally earn 7/- for a full week in the fields and who was unemployed for a large part of the year. Up to 100 men or more might be required for a particularly large shipment so it is easy to see the profit involved in the smuggling enterprise.

The booty was not always taken ashore in bulk. Often a vessel would remain just offshore and local boatmen would row out to purchase a quantity direct from the smuggler. Alternatively, tea could be carried ashore in bags sewn into specially made underclothes: 30 lbs of tea could be carried this way, and netted a tidy profit when sold in the local town.

Most contraband was heading to merchants and distributors in London, therefore the best places to land large cargoes were those which offered rapid transport to the city. Littlehampton and Shoreham were popular places. Shoreham was the nearest channel port to London and shocking roads meant road transport was very slow so the shortest route was preferred. After 1816 the River Arun was linked to the Thames via a canal to the River Wey, making for easy onward transport up river. To the west, Bosham was also popular offering many secluded spots for landing and with direct route to London.

Smaller cargoes were landed at points in between, the whole length of coast being barely inhabited until the 19th century development of towns like Bognor, Worthing and Brighton. It is likely these smaller shipments were distributed more locally, including such worthy places as Arundel Castle and Goodwood House (despite the Second Duke of Richmond being a vocal opponent of the trade it is known that his own servants concealed tea on the premises and were selling it from Goodwood House itself!)

Clymping beach and Elmer Sluice (on the western edge of Middleton) were regular landing points, so it is almost certain that smuggled cargo found its way through Yapton. Ale houses were often used for hiding contraband until it could be distributed since it was easy to hide the smuggled tubs in their large cellars. Church rectories were another favourite spot! In return for the temporary storage of the contraband, a gift of a tub or a 10 lb ‘dollop’ of tea was often left behind when the smugglers moved on.

Although the illicit trade in the bulky wool came to an end with the commencement of war in 1793, the trade in tea, silks, tobacco and spirits continued. Tea became increasingly hard to obtain and the profit margin on silks left little profit to the smuggler. Spirits and tobacco however still gave a profitable return and their trade flourished.

To head off the expected rise in smuggling at the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815, the Coast Blockade Service was formed to counter the smugglers. Royal Navy warships with their skilled crews easily outran the smugglers’ ships and were very effective at blocking off contraband arriving by sea. However they could not stop it entirely; Coastguard records of the 1850s list numerous seizures of spirits and tobacco. Tobacco smuggling in particular continued into the 1870s and beyond.

Few records exist surrounding the practice of smuggling in our region, however this is probably not because it was rare (a very unlikely premise) but perhaps because our local smugglers were very good at it!

Geoff Westcott

p.s. see Richard Hawkins