Smuggling and Customs Officers

Smuggling is a crime with an unusual status.

Although most crimes are abhorred by the middle classes smuggling was the exception which for reasons of economy and presumably of enjoying the thrill of taking a risk was regarded by them as the exception to their usual stance of not supporting illegal activities.

The temptation was great the excise duties were large and were levied on the goods which were an important part of the lifestyle of the well off -wine and spirits. If caught the smugglers suffered the penalties of the law. The £12,000 which Morris says Mr Bragge is to be fined sounds an enormous amount if considered in terms of today’s inflated equivalent.

The Smuggler’s trade could not have continued unless their social superiors bought from them. This they undoubtedly did as numerous diary entries testify.Those who bought the smuggled goods feared detection but it was very unlikely that they would be prosecuted in the same way as the smugglers, as is shown in the extract from Claver Morris’ diary. A further extract showed that the law could detect the perpetrators from time to time.( 26 Jan. 1726.) Thomas Turner admitted that he gave charity to a smuggler out of self interest. He feared that the Smuggler might inform the Customs that he had bought their goods.

The high Excise Duty and the accessibility of this area of Sussex from the sea made smuggling a recognised way of life. The Custom-House was at Newhaven. But at Pevensey Bay or Cuckmere Haven, a dozen miles south of East Hoathly, were good quiet beaches where the smugglers of the Alfriston area could land their contraband french brandy. It was then sent to the Forest Ridge (Mayfield, Burwash, Robertsbridge etc.) and so towards London through a chain of receiving cottages.

Dark nights were used for this business, as Horace Walpole learned to his cost. Finding travel difficult he and his friend decided to put up at the Robertsbridge Inn, but found all the beds occupied by smugglers who were posing as ‘mountybanks’. So they pushed on to Battle, which was full of Excisemen who had just shot a smuggler. Feeling very insecure they took links and lanthorns and made their way through the mud to their destination at Hurstmonceux. Smuggling in Sussex reached high periods of activity during both the seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars. The opportunities in each period were huge at the same time as the prevention resources were much depleted by the demands of the services.

Almost the whole population participated including the clergy, who were often won over by a keg of ‘Nantzy’, french brandy from Nantes . After 1830 the Preventive Service was much strengthened, and after a series of bloody battles on the beaches smuggling slowly declined. The strangest aspect of the Customs duel with the smugglers and their customers is the periodic sharing of the booty. Thomas Turner tells us of a party given by the Customs Officers. Holland when complaining that the smugglers overcharge says that he could get very good spirits for half the price at Customs House.

Smuggled goods included spirits, tea, silks, tobacco, coffee, cocoa and chocolate, as well as home products like candles, salt and soap.

Dr C Morris

15 May 1719
>”The Claret (10 dozen) John Baker driving 2 horses home, was seiz’d on, Forfeited Goods, yesterday, by the Lime [Lyme Regis] Custom House Officers.

2 1 Dec. 1721

>”Wm. Clark brought home a Hogshead of Claret, in the morning early, from Sadbury, coming from thence all night.”

4 Dec. 1721

>”Being my Daughter’s Birthday I went to her house about 5 & Carryed a Bottle of French Claret.”

“I5 Oct.1723

>”I got up to let in Amey Rodgers with 4 Gallons & 6 Pints & half of French White-Wine.”

[This late night transaction implies the wine was smuggled.]

21 Sep.1724


>”I upped to let Coggin of Somerton in about 4 a clock with one Anchor of (Brandy) which I bought of him which weight 87 lb, of which 14 lb was allowed for the caske. he brought in also 3 Anchors more & left them in my Inner Cellar.”

[No doubt this was smuggled, probably brought up from the Dorset coast.]

26 Jan.1726

>”I went to get Mr. George Mattocks to go with me to-morrow to Sadborrow from the news of Mr. Bragge being charged by the Government to pay 12000 for avoiding to pay Custom on Goods brought in his Shipps.”

[It is pretty clear that Bragge had been engaged in extensive smuggling operations, and that the wine Morris got from them was contraband.
On 18 Dec 1725 he had put the claret in the Hole in the Inner Cellar, presumably to conceal it from the Customs Officers]

#Walter Gale

Schoolmaster 1749 to 1759

>”I set out for Laughton after drinking a quartern of gin and came to Whitesmiths where was a hurley bolloo about Mr. Plummer’s (now a custom house officer) having seized a horse loaded with 3 anchors of brandy which was carried off by him and two soldiers.”

#Thomas Turner

Shopkeeper of East Hoathley

On 10 November 1757 Turner records an attempt of a father to rehabilitate his sons from a life of smuggling. Master Paris came to him and begged him to draw up a petition on behalf of his sons to ask some relief of their neighbours.

>”upon which I drawed up the following petition, viz., Whereas John and Francis Paris having formerly through mistaken notions followed that unwarrantable practice of smuggling though for a considerable time past being convinced of the mischievous consequences of such a practice…having entirely refrained from the said practice, but as they who have once ventured on such an illegal course may years after become subject to the law (as many unhappy instances too justly testify) and which is now become the case of those unhappy men who have lately been sworn against in his majesty’s court of the Exchequer for a very considerable sum. Which if the law is executed against them in the most rigorous manner they must be obliged to abandon their native country and that which is most dear to them- their family and relations, but as they have some prospect and hopes to believe the said affair may be made up for a small sum in proportion to so great a one which they are sworn against for, though still so great that they are unable to raise the same from their effects. They therefore humbly implore the assistance of their neighbours and acquaintance hoping they will commiserate their unhappy affair and yield them some relief and succour in this their day of adversity and trouble and they will ever (as in duty bound) thankfully acknowledge the favours they shall be pleased to confer on them. I gave the man 2s. 6d. for his son-not that I did it so much from principle of charity as self-interest, having formerly bought some brandy of them. I could not tell but their poverty might induce them to do that for me which another had done for them, in order to clear themselves.”

24 November 1763

>”Mr. Bannister having lately taken from the smugglers a

of brandy, entertained Mr. Carman, Mr. Fuller, and myself, in the even, with a bowl of punch at my house.”

On the 24 December 1764 he wrote

>”…Mr Bannister, our officer of excise, having lately made a seizure of some brandy, brought in 2 bottles of it to my house, and myself, Sam.Jenner, Thos. Durrant and Joseph Fuller Jr. clubbed for lemons and sugar, and we had an agreeable bowl of punch in the even, and spent the even till near 12 o’clock.”


Arriving from France

>”I had great reason to be pleased with the custom-house officers in England. These were two men whom at first glance I took for beggars: they had the appearance of persons of that station, which in England is the lowest and meanest of all. They came on board, and e most submissive manner asked permission to examine the contents of my trunk, which they opened, and retired with the utmost humility, without so much as searching my pockets, or even my linen-bag. It cost me half a crown to get my effects from the custom-house, where they had been left at my landing; but this is an old due and not an exaction of the officers: it is called the Viscounty fee.”

Compare with Sophie Van La Roche account.

#James Woodforde

14 February 1777

>”…Andrews the smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’clock a bagg of Hyson Tea 6 Pd. weight, he frightened us a little by whistling under the Parlour Window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid him for the Tea at 10/6 Per Pd.- 3.3.0.”

29 December 1786

>”Had another Tub of Gin and another of the best Coniac brandy brought me this evening abt 9. We heard a thump at the front door about that time, but did not know what it was, till I went out and found the two Tubs but nobody there.”

6 June 1788

>”…1.18.0 for a Tub of Coniac Brandy of four gallons by Moonshine Buck and 2.6.0 for two tubs of Geneva of 4 gallons each by ditto and the odd 8d. for Horses shoes removed.”

#William Holland

29 July 1805

>”After breakfast moved about the garden and trimmed the arbour. While I was at work with a bill hook in my hand Little Cockney Shitfield the Brandy Merchant called. I desired him to walk in. I paid his bill but did not order more as what I had is not yet out. I made him give me a receipt this time which he used not to do before. He said it made a great difference to him but said I the Law requires it. It does so returned he, then he jumped up skipped on his horse and was off in a trice telling me that at any time when my stock was out if I would but drop a line I should have it in a trice.But really they are become now so abominably dear that there is scarce any drinking of them and moreover at the Custom House one may have very good spirits for half the price he sells at.So Mr Cockney I think I shall be able to cater better in future.”

A vast range of goods were smuggled not just the brandy and tobacco which first comes to mind but also many everyday useful goods which might have been defined as luxuries in this time such as tea, silks, coffee, cocoa, and even necessary items like candles, salt and soap.
Smuggling was part of the unending fight between the Government which needs to levy taxes to pay for public services and the citizen who knows this, but still attempts to evade paying his share.