Few records exist of the smuggling which happened on the North East coast. It was an activity which was carried on in secret and supported often by Customs Officers in secret. The memories of the smugglers are passed down by word of mouth. It was a very serious matter to be accused of smuggling and very dangerous to accuse someone of smuggling.
As the smugglers grew old their tongues loosened and they told of their colourful pasts. The evidence was long gone and they loved to tell the stories. One such case was of an "Aunt Peggy" who Meadley writes of in "Meadleys Memorials". She told the story in 1810 of how she had ridden on her husbands horse on a pillion seat. When they found themselves followed by the Customs Officers she dropped from the horse with a couple of half ankers of spirits. She had a few bruises but hid. Eventually the preventatives caught up with her husband who was of course now carrying no contraband.
People today probably don't realise the opportunities that smugglers had around Scarborough. They think of the Marine Drive and the lights which light up the cliffs. Yet in the times of smugglers this was a desolate cliff area. Vessels went in at the dark of night. They unloaded goods in secret hiding places in the Cliffs. There were plenty of caves, some of which connected to the old town via tunnels. If the law was spotted then they had plenty of time to reload goods back onto ships. Anyway smuggling was so profitable that they could afford to lose some of their goods.
One such tunnel linked to "The Three Mariners Inn". This fits every requirement of a smugglers house. It has numerous secret cupboards. There are false floors and hidden rooms. Half way up the staircase is a very small window which was used as a look out down Quay Street. These secret hiding places really were secret. Often they were forgotten. Years later a secret room was discovered in the "Three Mariners" which contained a keg of gunpowder. On another occasion a child broke some plaster and managed to find his way into a small cupboard. It was only through his cries that they found him and the hidden cupboard.
In fact there is a very spooky tale told of a similar Inn on the Great North Road linked not to smuggling but to highwaymen. Here a secret room was found years later which contained the skeleton of a man clearly dressed up as a highwayman. Obviously he had died in the room together with some stolen purses and a pistol. Perhaps the only person who knew of his presence had maybe been arrested or in fact died themselves. Even before this body was found many spoke of the ghost of a highwayman.
The Three Mariners Inn is apparently haunted as well. A headless woman is said to warn of troubles at sea. The owner of the Three Mariners Inn at the time, Mr A Bell, heeded the warning and stayed onshore. That night a friend who ignored the warning was drowned at sea.
Often the tales of ghosts suited the smugglers. This encouraged many unwanted visitors to stay away especially at night when the work was done. This was the case with Paradise House which was apparently haunted. Men took goods up here from Church Stairs Street. One hiding place was behind Councillor Pauls house(covered extensively in Bakers History of Scarborough). There was an outhouse at the back and underneath this was a deep drawn well. Excisemen never thought to look down here. According to Bakers informant this was "as full of contraband as it could hold".
Even those charged often managed to get found not guilty. One local solicitor in Scarborough took on the case of some Frenchmen accused of smuggling brandy. He described them as "poor innocent victims of a dishonouring suspicion". As they walked away not guilty one of the men was heard to say to the lawyer "thank you for saving us, we will send you a keg tonight".
One case involved a Customs Officer. He found himself having to search the house of a lady who had been informed on. He rummaged around a little and quietly told a little girl to go and cover things up with a sheet. He then searched that room and declared "I don't see anything here". Meanwhile the poor woman had almost feinted with fear. She later went to personally thank the Customs officer who scolded her and told her what a risk he had run.
Another time a man was seen on the shore unloading from a suspected smuggling ship. All the other men had managed to scramble back onto the boat. This man managed to evade the law and even spoke to a Customs Officer and asked him the time as he walked up Merchants Row. He was told it was a quarter to five. He managed to get off a charge of smuggling when the other Custom House man had told of how the struggle took place before 4-30. How could he have been in that struggle when he was seen elsewhere. The times did not match up correctly and was let off.
Merchants Row, was a highly linked to smuggling. Rowntrees history book recalls one old inhabitant of this Street. On the news of the acquittal of some RobinHoods Bay fishermen who had been tried in London on a charge of smuggling a huge bonfire was lit up in Newborough fed by tar barrels.
Occasionally the preventatives themselves were placed under suspicion. One involves a Mr Phillip Salmon. His sailing packet was searched. The Officers were just on the verge of giving up their search when he confessed that he had some wood on board that he had not paid duty on. They searched for this but gave up again when he placed his wooden leg on the table. He said "there it is! I broke the old one when foreign, and got this instead". He clearly did not like being placed under suspicion and this became a standing joke for years ahead. Elsewhere in the histories of Scarborough is mentioned a man with a wooden leg. He was a known smuggler who used to muffle his wooden leg at night to prevent the noise. It does not say if it was the same man. But the truth is that virtually everyone was involved in the smuggling industry.
Smuggling was also popular around the coast to the south of Scarborough. At Johnny Flintons Harbour in Cayton Bay and around Gristhorpe. Here large pits were dug to house goods. Brandy kegs were tied together and anchored at sea until nightfall.
Smuggling was more prevelant to the north. Peaseholm Beck, Scalby Mills, Cloughton Wyke, the Peaks and RobinHoods Bay were all involved. The Staintondale portion of the coast was not so bad. Here the cliffs were dangerous and there were fewer hiding places. Further north smuggling was rife at RobinHoods Bay. In RobinHoods Bay virtually every house has hidden cupboards and secret rooms and passages. Goods could be carried from the shore to clifftop in the village without ever seeing the light of day. In a letter from Edward Cayley to a friend dated 12th December, 1763 he states "The people of this coast in this respect(smuggling) are no better than a pack of ruffians".
The most notorious case involving smuggling involves a murder charge in 1823. According to one version (Bakers history of Scarborough) a William Mead resided at Barmston (Burniston). He had for a long time been a smuggler but for some reason he turned kings evidence. He caused many troubles for the man he informed on who neverthe less managed to get a not guilty verdict. Many farmers used to gather under his cottage window after thursday night market and sing ironical songs mocking him. He got into a rage and fired his gun and a farmer named Law was mortally wounded. A second version is recounted by FC Rimington (going by the Scalby Parish records) stated that Mr Meade was a much respected man. He had informed on Mr Law but this resulted in Mr Law bringing an action in the court for "wilful and corrupt perjury". Mr Law was shot whilst passing by Mr Meads house. Meade was convicted and served just three years. He was later transported to Australia on a charge of theft.
- Bakers History of Scarborough,Scarborough Library
- Meadleys Memorials, Scarborough Library
- Hinderwells History of Scarborough, Scarborough Library