This article was first published by the Scarborough Evening News in 1968. Written by our own John Rushton it is now reprinted here.
Smuggling was not new in the eighteenth century - it existed as long as there were customs to - but in the age of the Georgians it reached a new peak, as the rate-books were extended to cover a widening range of products.
Silks, tobacco, French Muslin, wines, and spirits were made the subject of heavy duties, along with a galaxy of other goods, all in increasing demand. They became the staples of the smugglers art.
Coastal people saw the levies as an unjust trick, as suspect indirect taxation interfering with a traditionally free trade. But to the state, the customs were the easiest way to collect money, despite all the evasions.
The Customs Commissioners in 1701 faced a deteriorating situation along the Yorkshire coast and met it by expanding their staff. John Becket was appointed to Staithes with a salary of £40 a year. John Brown went to Whitby as an additional land waiter, to inspect cargoes at unlading, and Thomas Long as boatman to inspect the holds of ships. J Sedgewick was made surveyor of Robin Hoods Bay and allowed to charge his horse to expenses. Mr Standridge became riding officer at Filey and new horse officers were appointed at Hayburn Wyke and Reighton. Later in the century, the establishment was expanded again and again until each small harbour had its officer and boats crew, with riding officers and informers covering the country between them.
Although the contraband that escaped may have been at least as great as that caught, there were some very considerable hauls. In July 1730, the Hull custom house had 3050 gallons of foreign brandy available for retail sale, and in the next year added 4 gallons of geneva, 9 gallons of spruce beer, and quantities of tea and coffee. Whitby Custom House in January 1777 advertised a haul of 650 gallons gin, 79 lb of green tea, 200lb of Bohea tea, 7 gallons of wine, 56 lbs of brown candy, and the 44 ton open boat in which some of these goods had been found.
Smuggling was at its easiest when the coastal watch was depleted, during the American and Napoleonic wars. Then the bands of smugglers could compete on more than equal terms and the dragoons were not available to customs officers as a reserve.
When the Robin Hoods Bay officer captured 200 casks of brandy and Geneva, 150 bags of tea, a chest of blunderbuses, and cartuche boxes for 20 men in an Innkeeper's house during October 1779, he had ruefully to report that the haul had previously been seized by the smugglers during a raid on the Hartlepool Customs House.
Smugglers and officers were in a state of war, in which the local people sided with the rebels against authority. In a famous fight at Bay Town, the inhabitants escaped through the back doors to the country beyond with the aid of the local people.
Effective action against the beach smugglers required either an adaquate coast watch, the use of informers, or the prevention on sea of vessels approaching the coast. In the main harbours, the problems were different. Here you had to locate the hidden goods on vessels rich in hidey holes and watch for its passage in small boats to the quayside.
Scarborough's bailiffs wrote to the Lords of the Admiralty in 1781 that they were credibly informed that the crew of the Fearnought cutter, frequently found on this coast in the night, to run prohibited goods in the smuggling business was back again, under Captain Rowles, as soon as the informer Gibson had told them, they sent expresses to Hull and Newcastle urging that the armed ships be sent out to seek the cutter.
The Whitby guards were often out in the nineteenth century, inspecting suspicious vessels or watching for signals from the cliffs. By then the balance of power was changing. After seeing a suspicious vessel near Runswick one August Monday, lieutenant Kings boat gave chase, and was eventually able to escort into harbour a 23 ton ship yielding 21 tubs of Geneva, 7 tubs of brandy, 3 casks tobacco, 2 chests of tea, and 28 casks of salt. The four prisoners were fined £100 each by the justices, but being unable to pay they were sent off to York prison.
During the chase, a preventative man called Pearson had the misfortune to be wounded by the discharge of his own pistol, which fired under his jacket as he sat in the boat and put a ball into his thigh. Two or three nights later, this boats crew was out again, chasing a large lugger which gave them the slip.
Smuggling was a large- scale and highly organised trade during its peak years. It required considerable investment. Goods might be purchased and vessels hired abroad or the mariner from the European coast might run in on spec, selling to the leaders of the coastal gangs. Losses could be considerable and there was no insurance but the returns on capital could be great.
On shore the organisation had three stages. The landing party, sometimes assisted by diversionary groups who drew the officers away on blind leads, had quickly to hide the goods in cliff staches or coastal farms. To be caught on a coastal beach was disastrous even on a dark night, for escape ways were few and well known.
The next stage was to move the goods inland beyond the immediate reach of the coastal customs. The traditional smugglers' ways from Robin Hood's Bay and the Brandy Gap at Sawdon may well recall the routes taken
From Whitby, a much used avenue of trade was that used by the alum ponies going to Littlebeck. Here and at such other storehouses at Gin Garth, Danby , the goods were again hidden away. Littlebeck over the years has revealed many small finds of contraband in this century beneath stones or in cupboards.
From Gin Garth a veritable wholesale trade was organised to Ryedale. This marked the final stage, sometimes a very long one, for smuggled goods were taken as far as York and even London. At the ports, the purpose was the same. Here, the supplier and his market were seperated by only a few feet of water, though some goods were taken inland by postchaise. Here more might be achieved by a little judicious bribery, and Customs Officers had then to be frequently moved and not a few dismissed.
In the long battle, it is difficult to say who won. Yet in the eighteenth century, it was publicly admitted at Scarborough that the price of tea was low due to the smugglers' resource.
By John Rushton
- Scarborough Evening News - 11 January 1968