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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Smuggling in Regency Kent?

When you think of smuggling in England, what comes to mind? Is it a man from Cornwall rolling a barrel into a cave off the beach? While this image isn’t wrong, it isn’t a complete picture of what smuggling looked like in Georgian England.

The Smugglers Inn, Pub Sign, Herne, Canterbury, Kent.

The lone, poverty-driven opportunist was one sort of smuggler, but there were professional smuggling gangs across England. They had access to financial backers, and treated fines and the destruction of vessels as an operating expense.

People from all walks of life purchased contraband. A shop keeper eager to save money and be part of a distribution chain. A noble lady desperate for hard-to-find fabrics. Illegal trade grew tremendously throughout the 18th century. What had been small-scale evasion of paying duties turned into an industry that directed money abroad and channeled contraband into the southern counties of England, and then throughout the nation.

Yes, Kent and Sussex were huge smuggling centers.

Government figures from 1782 estimated that a quarter of all the vessels engaged in smuggling nationwide were based in Kent and Sussex. Half the gin smuggled into England landed there. Wines and spirits, tobacco, tea and coffee, cocoa and sugar, silk and lace were all smuggled into England, especially from France and Holland.

Kentish smuggling grew from the illegal exportation of wool well before the Georgian era. Exporting wool was a source of taxable income for the government. These trade restrictions outraged wool producers. Prices in England were low and they wanted to export it instead but didn’t want to pay the export taxes. As the 17th century came to a close, illegal export of wool from England’s southern counties was rampant. According to one estimate, 150,000 packs of wool annually were smuggled out.

As restrictive laws strangled their trade and profits, Kentish wool producers–called owlers–became bolder. They pooled their resources and soon the owling smuggling venture involved hundreds of armed men.

From this illegal wool trade in the 1700s grew thriving smuggling gangs that operated through the nineteenth century. As import taxes on luxury goods were raised, the Kentish and east-coast smugglers expanded from exporting wool to importing things like tea, spirits, silk, and lace.

The proximity to Europe, good roads to London, and a poor domestic economy created ideal conditions for organized smuggling to flourish. At its height, ruthless gangs controlled the illegal trade, who did not hesitate to commit murder, violence, blackmail, and bribery. Custom officers were too afraid to perform their duties, and the magistrates themselves were equally frightened to convict smugglers. Smugglers in Kent had no qualms about operating in broad daylight. They waged a campaign of intimidation on local residents and revenue officers.

Laws had little impact on quelling smuggling and the corresponding violence. The government reduced the tax on tea to cut the profits of the smuggling gangs, and to eliminate them by economic means. However, they merely turned to alternative contraband and tea duties were raised again. Even if arrests were made, violent retaliation measures made other customs officers afraid. And the draconian punishments on the books provoked the smugglers to violence even though the government lacked the resources to police its shores, especially during the many wars of the 18th century.

The Admiralty asked commanders and captains of the Royal Navy to assist customs officers in curbing the smuggling off the English coast. The necessity of their involvement shows how formidable a problem smuggling had become. Unfortunately for the British government, and their falling revenues, their measures were still insufficient.

Throwing the cask overboard while getting boarded

It was difficult to catch smugglers in the act. They could stay out under the guise of fishing and, at night, a smaller craft would approach the ship and unload the goods. Smugglers would even sink brandy offshore and retrieve it when it needed to be sold. Locals, either from fear or from simply enjoying the lower cost of goods, would warn smugglers when arrests or seizure of goods were imminent.

With enormous quantities of tea, brandy, and other goods bypassing duties every year, the financial damage sustained by the government was severe. Smuggling cost the British government what is today millions of pounds in unpaid import duties. And during war time and with the extravagant spending of the Prince of Wales, they needed the money.

But smugglers, or “free traders” as some called themselves, thought they were benefiting everyone. After securing the financing, crossing the channel, acquiring the contraband, and making landfall back in England, smuggled goods were hidden and transported across the country. The black market pervaded all social levels. Knowingly or unknowingly, businesses and households bought contraband goods. France funneled goods into the country, but more frustrating to the government was that British people willingly paid for those goods with their own money and without paying taxes.

The real cause of the present high price of provisions, or, a view on the sea coast of England, with French agents, smuggling away supplies for France, by James Gillray 1795 National Portrait Gallery

In the short term, the Napoleonic wars made smuggling more difficult, as preparations for the expected invasion also protected the coast from the attentions of the smugglers. However, in the final years of the war, Napoleon officially sanctioned English smugglers.

He used smugglers in the war against Britain with espionage and to prop up the domestic French economy. Between 1810 and 1814, Gravelines eventually became the port that welcomed English smugglers and even housed hundreds of them in an especially constructed compound known as the ‘city of smugglers’. The smugglers arrived on the French coast with escaped French POWs, gold guineas, and English newspapers; and returned to England with French textiles, brandy, and gin. Depending on the size of the ship, the trip only took about 4-5 hours.

The Kentish coastal smugglers’ power dwindled in the years after the war. Two years after Waterloo, with more resources at its disposal, the government began a blockade of the east Kent coast and smuggling lessened significantly. Soon after they established the Coast Guard on sections of the coast where the blockade men did not patrol.

But while the volume and violence lessened, it’s not really to be supposed that the coastguard succeeded in entirely suppressing smuggling.

The growth of customs dues in the final years of the seventeenth century through the early years of the nineteenth was not to protect British industries. They grew as the needs of the government for revenue increased. Foreign wars, and the heavy duties levied to pay for them, brought about the enormous growth of smuggling, and ultimately the smugglers’ violence against the sailors, the customs officers, and the local populace.

Gavin Daly. “Napoleon and the ‘City of Smugglers’, 1810-1814.” The Historical Journal 50, no. 2 (2007): 333–52.

Bree Rosenberger. The British Smuggling Dilemma: 1698-1784. Bowling Green State University, June 2020.

E. Keble Chatterhorn. “King’s Cutters and Smuglers 1700-1855”. George Allen & Co. London. 1912.

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