‘Like setting elephants to catch eels’

Smuggler's Cottage in Ferring
Smuggler's Cottage in Ferring

The imposition of high taxes on spirits, silks, laces, tea, coffee and other goods by the English government provided an opportunity for smugglers to import contraband on the southern coast; especially Sussex and Kent.

The high season for smuggling lasted about a century – up to 1820.

Punitive duties imposed on foreign goods made smuggling popular with the residents of England.

Thousands of people, many of them well connected and well educated, made small fortunes from “free trade”.

The ordinary resident bought the smugglers’ cargo at a fraction of the price charged by retailers.

At Schiedam alone, 4 million gallons of spirits were distilled annually for smuggling into England.

Between 5-6 million pounds of tea were imported into France for onward distribution to our coast.

It is estimated 40-50 million francs-worth of silk and other materials were smuggled across the channel.

In December, 1792, it was said that two thirds of the tobacco consumed here was smuggled in.

Although Government knew all about the illegal trade it was too involved in foreign wars to spare the manpower required to block the contraband goods.

Customs and excise officers attempting to capture the smugglers and their cargo were beaten, confined, shipped to France or murdered.

In one year, 1732, officers seized 54,000 lbs of tea and 123,000 gallons of brandy; a fraction of the total smuggled into England from France and the Channel Isles.

Troops assigned to assist customs officers in Sussex comprised 77 dragoons and 36 infantry – along 60 miles of coast.

The smugglers were paid 10/6d (55p) per journey, plus a dollop of tea (14lbs) and expenses, and provided with horses, tackle and weapons.

On Sunday, December 6, 1778, a gang rode through Henfield at 3am loaded with dry goods.

The gang numbered 191 men – plus the seven revenue officers they had captured.

Sussex residents summed up the situation: “Setting soldiers to catch smugglers is like setting elephants to catch eels”.

Despite the dangers and the difficulties, there were successful clashes between the forces of the crown and the smugglers.

In 1749/50 a dozen smugglers were captured, tried and executed in Sussex. Some swung on a rope at Chichester; the rest at East Grinstead.

While these isolated successes encouraged the revenue officers, it did little to stem the flow of illegal cargoes.

Nor did it deter local residents from consuming the illicit brandy, tea and tobacco.

In Lancing, some mounted customs officers, with a party of dragoons, were tipped off by an undercover agent and found 30 smugglers and their pack-horses loaded with tea.

Armed with broad-swords and long staves, the smugglers attacked the soldiers and customs officers, wounded several and escaped with their cargo.

On December 22, 1741, the Arundel supervisor of riding officers, Henry Blackstone, heard of a planned landing and applied for use of troops to apprehend the smugglers.

With nine soldiers, Blackstone and his servant intercepted 15 smugglers and their horses, laden with prohibited and uncustomed goods.

After shooting one of the smuggler’s horses, the soldiers ran away leaving Blackstone and his servant to be beaten within an inch of their lives.

The smugglers also seized their goods and horses.

On May 13, 1773, at around sunrise, Henry Norton, supervisor at Broadwater, along with two others and his servant, challenged a large group of smugglers near Wiston Park.

The smugglers knocked the officers from their horses and severely beat them with staves and loaded whips.

Despite threats of death if they dared to follow, Henry Norton and his group caught up with one of the smugglers and secured him, his horse and 140 lbs of tea.

The smuggler, John Downer, was taken to Horsham Gaol.

At the next assizes, despite the visible injuries to Norton and his group, including a broken jaw, the smuggler was acquitted.

In Sompting, three revenue officers seized 12 casks of Geneva in the vestry of Sompting Church.

Six revenue officers, led by Mr Hubbard, attacked a large body of smugglers between Shoreham and Lancing.

The gang had just run ashore a cargo of goods from a ship moored off Lancing beach.

The revenue officers seized eight horses laden with tea.

They had not gone far when the smugglers returned and attacked them with cutlasses and blunderbusses.

In the battle, the smugglers recaptured six of their horses and Mr Hubbard’s own horse.

The revenue chief was forced to run for his life. He escaped death by wading into the River Adur up to his neck.

When he returned home, he found two of his men had been captured by the smugglers and later shipped to France.

However, his men had taken two of the smugglers’ horses and 15 bags of tea.

In Worthing, smugglers made arrangements for landing a very large cargo of brandy, and so determined were they to carry out their purpose they engaged 30 of the boldest men known in the neighbourhood.

The landing took place in the centre of the town front, and the smugglers formed two lines, one on each side of the landing party.

Although the coastguards were on the spot, and witnessed the landing, they could only take one step, namely, to discharge their pistols as a signal for help.

The alarm brought several mounted officers and they succeeded in heading off the smugglers.

For over an hour, great uproar prevailed.

The mounted officers galloped to and fro, firing their pistols, but above the noise could be heard the cheers of the smugglers.

The battle continued as the smugglers made a run for the open countryside lying beyond the Teville stream.

William Cowerson, a stone mason employed on maintenance work at West Tarring Church, led a desperate rearguard action to allow his gang to escape.

He was shot and killed on the bridge over the Teville stream. The smugglers and their cargo escaped.