Talk Report: 2018-11-14

Report on talk: Smuggling tales and trails by Rob Curtis

On Wednesday 14th November Rob Curtis came to talk to members of Wells U3A. He began his talk by telling us that he felt a happy affinity with our city because his father studied at Wells Theological College and eventually married his landlady’s daughter who lived with her mother in Vicars’ Close.

It was something of an irony that Bob had this ecclesiastical background yet was here to talk to us about the illicit world of smugglers and smuggling. He explained that smuggling - ‘the evasion of levies on selected goods’ - began as early as Saxon times. From those early days, taxes were imposed on exported wool, and this was much resented. But the authorities found these tariffs an excellent source of income and by Tudor times both outgoing and incoming goods often had punitive taxes applied.

Tobacco arrived from the newly discovered Americas and in 1597 taxes on this rose from two pence to eight shillings (40p in our money) for each the pound - a huge sum in those days. Tea and all spirits were equally heavily taxed and this was universally resented. It meant that the smuggling trade was generally regarded not a crime but as a happy way of distributing cheap goods to the deserving poor!

It was said that 60% of the inhabitants of Dorset were involved in the smuggling trade and it is a fact that by now every level of society had to do with it in one way or another. Even the clergy were involved: the much-revered Parson Woodford wrote in his dairy of 1777 “Andrews the smuggler brought us tea…. I paid him and gave him a drink of Geneva (gin.)” Obviously, smuggling was considered to be quite a respectable trade and the vicar felt that Andrews had necessary the work of a mason or joiner.

From the beginning authorities endeavoured to stop these illegal activities. But the customs men were few and far between and badly paid whilst the many smugglers were wily, well organised and experienced, with rich rewards for their activities. We were shown fascinating paintings of the various stages of smuggling ventures. The boats laden with cargo were sometimes rowed but were usually small, agile sailing vessels known as luggers. These approached land guided by lights from the awaiting conspirators on shore. Everything was carefully planned to avoid apprehension so men would only gather on the beach just before the goods were to arrive. Barrels and packets were swiftly handed over to the ‘landers’ whose job was distribution. Fat ladies became even fatter; ingenious carrying packs were used and all sorts of devices and ruses were involved in hiding the precious goods in transit.

There were equally ingenious methods of hiding the goods as they awaited distribution to the happily awaiting customers. The novelist Thomas Hardy described a tree planted in a barrel which was placed over a deep hiding hole in the ground; a church tower in Dorset shows the mark of the ropes that were uses to hoist the barrels up from ground level to their hiding place and it is known that the very tombs were often put to use. Barrels were floated down underground drains and there were many hidden cellars and secret rooms in houses and inns. Spirits were imported at undiluted strength, diluted and decanted into locally made receptacles - the incriminating barrels burnt.
When smugglers met men of the Law things could get rough and ‘tubmen’, chosen for their strength and local knowledge, were employed to escort the landers. These tubmen carried sticks or bludgeons because there was a mandatory death penalty for a murder with knife or gun. Contrasted with the grinding poverty of the working man, the wages of these occupations were generous and the risks worth taking. Other necessary members of the operation were ‘clerks’ for the accounting: in an age of illiteracy these had to be educated men, often a parish clerk (or member of the clergy!) There had to be agents on the continent to acquire the goods in the first place, and finally the essential financial backer who funded the whole group’s activities. This might even be, and probably was, a gentleman of irreproachable virtue held in high esteem by all….

Rob told us tales that emphasised that loyalties and sympathy virtually always lay with the smugglers and not the Arm of the Law. When brought up before a judge, the jury often found the prisoner not guilty. A good story was of a French smuggler - Pierre Tour, known as French Pete. French Pete regularly frequented a certain Inn on the Dorset coast. One Summer evening he entered the inn unaware that a ‘landguard’ (excise man) had previously climbed up into the chimney to secrete himself and await any suspected law breakers. The landlord, knowing this, offered Pete some gin, which he knew Pete never drank. Quickly picking up on what was happening, the wily Pete said “But I am shivering with cold in your English Summer. Can you not light the fire?” Which they did at once and with the ensuing smoke the poor landguard had to come jumping down out of the chimney. In this case they apparently consoled him with a glass of best brandy.

Often tales did not end so well as in the nineteenth century smuggling became increasingly difficult and dangerous. Too much revenue was being lost (£800,000 lost in a single year! A huge sum in 1825.) The heat was on to foil and entrap the smugglers. The under resourced landguards and waterguards were joined by the Royal Navy and troopers with swift vessels and effective fire power. Moreover, the government sensibly decided to lower the number of prohibitively taxed imports: 450 items were removed and almost overnight the ‘trade’ became less economical. The end was insight and by the end of the 19th century attitudes had changed, taxes became more generally accepted and smuggling passed into often romanticised history.

Bob touched briefly on the ‘smuggling’ which continues today and is seen by all with no sympathy but as anti-social, unpleasant and worrying. Law enforcement officers now battle with the import of illegal and dangerous drugs and the ‘smuggling in’ of illegal immigrants. We had been shown a great number of exciting and interesting images and been given a mass of information. Rob was thanked very much for his talk.