On Smugglers, Free Traders and other Fake Heroes...
In the early 'sixties my parents took me to see a film about smuggling. Dr Syn, alias the Scarecrow was the rousing story of a Kentish parson who led a double life as a dashing “free trader”. Of course I was terrified – no surprise there: previously another Disney film, this time the cartoon 101 Dalmatians, had given me sleepless nights for a month, (although how anyone can consider skinning puppies to make a fur coat children’s entertainment is still beyond me – but I digress). Besides a temporary mistrust of anyone who sold religion for a living, the film also left me with one major impression: that smuggling was somehow right, and the perpetrators brave, resourceful and possibly even romantic heroes who could only be admired. Taxes are, after all, inherently unfair and anyone who evades them is doing a good job, and should be encouraged.
Today most of us grudgingly accept that some degree of taxation is necessary, but the levels to which levies rose during the turn of the nineteenth century was really quite excessive. And not only were the rates high, so many seemingly random items became affected, from playing cards to hair powder; even such basic essentials as light and air, as demonstrated by the Window Tax (1696-1851), cost money to enjoy.
The revenue raised was partially used to fund a succession of wars. Some carried public support but, whether approved of or not, there was no choice when it came to paying for, or fighting them. Taxation also financed the monarchy and at a time when France was busy executing their royal family, this might have been a dangerous move. However, despite many attributes that might have made him less so, George III remained popular with Britain's tax payers. Once, on a trip to the South Coast, he was even followed by a crowd continually singing God Save the King. But with taxes so high and pretty much universal, who could blame anyone if they evaded a little duty now and then? And inevitably the folk who made such deception possible – initially fishermen looking to earn more on the side – found themselves held in high regard and even affection by the many who benefited from their exploits.
Unfortunately it did not end there. During the Golden Age of Smuggling (roughly 1750 – 1830) organised gangs, similar to that of the fictitious clergyman's, began to appear. A few might have been founded on purely altruistic lines, providing a public service at negligible gain, but most were far more greedy and quickly grew rich from the high profits available. With wealth came power and even status – the latter heightened by contact with prominent people in the local community who frequently supported smuggling, both as customers and backers.
It soon became apparent that the activity took place at little personal risk. Statistically a smuggler was more likely to be shipwrecked than caught by the impressment men while the financiers (or “venturers”, as they were known) were almost totally safe, and had the added bonus of access to a regular supply of highly taxed or unavailable items for their own use. Were a gang member captured, influence could be usually brought to bear on a magistrate, whilst few local juries would convict for fear of repercussions. Of course some were caught and convicted; a few hanged, their bodies later to be gibbeted as a stern warning, but most suffered nothing worse than a fine, while more than a few found themselves in the Navy, where they usually prospered remarkably well.
The illicit trading progressed, and soon proved to be two sided: not content with openly buying from the enemy, the smuggling gangs also began to sell. Britain's woollen trade was then an essential industry and protected by various laws (including one that levied a £5.00 fine if a corpse were not laid to rest in a woollen shroud). Consequently the export of wool was forbidden, even to Britain's few remaining allies. This restriction was seen as a business opportunity to the smuggling community and soon specialist groups, known as Owlers, began running regular trips to France, and providing the raw material that Napoleon needed to clothe his armies. That this should be done when their own country lay in imminent danger of invasion is surprising enough, but the free traders' later exploits financed the French war machine far more effectively.
From just before the turn of the nineteenth century gold attracted a high premium on the continent, leading to the creation of a special type of smuggling craft. Guinea Boats were large, oared vessels that could quickly cross the Channel, often being rowed directly into the wind to evade pursuit by sail. Quick and cheap to make, they could be abandoned after one trip; the profits achieved more than offsetting construction costs. The nett result of this activity was upwards of £10,000 a week being delivered to directly to the French, just at a time when Britain was bracing itself for defeat.
Seemingly lacking in any form of compunction, the gangs continued to grow, and soon extended their activities to land based crime, practising extortion and intimidation on a civil population already worn down by many years of conflict. Eventually there were areas of Britain where, rather than evade the law, the smugglers all but implemented it.
Poorly equipped and heavily outnumbered, the Customs and Excise services (both separate, and often competing bodies at that time) fought a desperate battle. There were successes, such as when the notorious Hawkhurst gang was finally defeated, but rather more failures, all too frequently brought about by the corruption that even infiltrated the preventive forces themselves. In fact it was not until a lasting peace with France was finally achieved, taxes reduced, and the revenue service started to be properly manned and funded, that any reasonable control could be exerted on what had become a major industry.
And as for those dashing characters who fought so bravely against the spoilsport revenue officers: the local heroes who brought wickedly expensive items into the reach of the working man – they might have appeared like latter-day Robin Hoods, but in reality were nothing more than treacherous criminals. Forget any impressions of valour or romance, few were adverse to any form of crime if it produced a profit and their activities caused untold damage to both the morale and economy of a country that was deep in the miseries of war. Smugglers might have been bold, and even enterprising, but as heroes they deserve a place slightly behind the likes of Cruella de Vil.
My new novel, Turn a Blind Eye explores the effect of smuggling on a small British community during the turn of the nineteenth century.