Romney Marsh


Background to smuggling and how it affected the history of Kent.

Background and outline of smuggling
The right of the king to levy revenue from duties on goods carried into or out of this country goes back countless centuries, and smuggling in one form or another is just as old a profession. Over the years the laws governing the rates of tax became extremely complex, and the job of collecting the duty was the responsibility of the Custom House officers at the legal quays and recognised ports to which trading was limited.
Extra revenue
Then during the Civil War in the 17th century extra revenue was raised by imposing Excise Duty on certain goods manufactured within the country, such as candles and beer. This detested tax on items in daily use was initially intended as a temporary measure, but it was found expedient to keep it and broaden its range. During the 18th century numerous imported goods were liable to both Customs and Excise duties, and the overall effect was often to double or even treble their cost. It was clearly to the advantage of everyone (except the government) if such items could be bought into the country free of tax. The higher the levels of tax, the greater the incentive to smuggle.
Trade restrictions
Restrictions of trade in certain objects, calculated to protect home industry or national security, had the same result. It had been forbidden to export cannon from the Wealden iron works at the time of the Spanish Armada, for instance, and there were later restrictions on exporting Cornish tin or Cumbrian graphite; predictably a lively smuggling traffic had developed in each case. But it was the restrictions on the export of English wool which had the utmost impact.
In an effort to protect England’s cloth industry, it was made illegal to export wool from other than designated ports, and for some years after 1662 this was a capital offence. The prohibition was mainly irksome to wool producers on the downs and coastal marshes of south-east England, and led unsurprisingly to extensive violation of the restrictions. Around 1700 it is thought that 150,000 packs of wool per year were being shipped out illegally from Kent and Sussex, within days of shearing the sheep!
The ‘owling’ trade, as it came to be known, was often controlled by Huguenot families who had come to England as refugees from religious persecution, and who maintained close contacts with their relatives across the Channel. The European clothiers conspired with the English wool producers to make sure that the trade continued, and cargoes of lace and brandy were shipped back in part-payment for the prized high quality wool. There has long been dispute about how they acquired this name, and people have put forward a range of romantic ideas, mostly centred on owls — the smugglers hunted at night, so they took the name of the nocturnal bird; or they signalled to each other by hooting like owls. The most ordinary explanation, and probably the most likely, is that 'owler' is just a corruption of 'wooler', which was a common name for anyone processing wool.
In 1713 two Frenchmen were caught in a classic incident at Fairlight near Hastings, while trying to negotiate a deal of this type. Moreover, foreign vessels, known as 'coopers', frequently lay for days off the south and east coasts, and even within the Tyne and Humber estuaries, acting as floating supermarkets.
The owling trade brought into being the first significant smuggling gang, which was based at Mayfield in the Sussex Weald before 1720, and the farmers, shopkeepers and others involved built up the capital and business contacts from which the later import smuggling developed. Illegal shipments of wool and even live sheep persisted through the 18th century, but after about 1720 the whole emphasis of the smuggling trade changed to bringing in tea, spirits, tobacco and luxury items.
Smuggling increases
A number of other factors contributed to the swift increase of smuggling after 1720, and to the extent of support for the trade at all levels of society. Particularly important was that the economy of Kent and Sussex was in a depressed state. The sharp turn down of the iron-smelting and cloth-making industries of the Weald had reduced many to severe poverty. A farm labourer could earn no more than seven or eight shillings for a full week's work, and was prone to be unemployed for part of the winter, whereas for a successful night's effort carrying contraband he could expect about ten shillings.
The populace of the towns along the coast were also in difficulties. Before the Norman Conquest the five prosperous ports of Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings and the two 'ancient towns' of Rye and Winchelsea had joined together to form the Cinque Ports Confederation. In return for providing the medieval kings with men and ships to form a navy, they had won the key rights of self-government and exemption from the earliest form of Customs duty, a concession which their citizens planned to keep hold of long after their contribution to the navy had stopped.
By 1700 both the head ports and the lesser members of the confederation, known as limbs, had fallen on hard times. The sea, on which their former wealth depended, now filled their harbours with shingle or washed away protecting headlands. During the 16th century the seamen of Winchelsea had turned to piracy to replace the wine trade which had once brought them wealth. Smuggling offered them better prospects throughout the 18th century, and men from all the Cinque Ports were to be vigorously involved. One possible explanation for the fearsome reputation of the Kent and Sussex smugglers is that their activities were more widely advertised than those of smugglers from other counties. The book that chronicles the torture and savage murders of Galley and Chater was first published in 1749 shortly after the trial, and reprinted four times in that year alone. It has appeared in full and abridged forms many times since. Furthermore, it had graphic engravings of the men's last moments, which would have impressed even the illiterate.
Riding Officers
Kent became such a hub for smuggling activity that it is scarcely surprising to find the earliest preventative efforts concentrated in the south east. In 1690 an fearsome force of eight men was stationed in the towns of Lydd, Romney, Hythe and Folkestone in an attempt to avert wool exports from these areas. These 'Riding Officers' patrolled the area on horseback to detect and deter, but the smugglers would perhaps have outnumbered them a hundred to one. In 1816 the Kent coast blockade scheme started between North and South Foreland; and in 1824 this was extended north round to Sheerness, south to Beachy Head, and in 1824 round as far as Chichester. Preventive measures were set up in other parts of the country, but were never as strong as in Kent.
Outside Kent
It was not just in Kent and Sussex that the mass of people lived in poverty. 18th century society was strictly grouped; the labouring poor had little chance to advance their lot, or even to move out of the parish of their birth. Smuggling, like poaching, was to some degree a form of social protest against the harshness and cheerlessness of this way of life. At the other end of the social scale, most of the landed gentry grew richer as the century progressed. Public appointments were regularly filled through patronage, and corruption was endemic. Sir Robert Walpole, as Whig Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742, built up his private fortune while at the same time working hard to bring in order into the collection of revenue.
There were other reasons for extensive public alienation. In 1714, following Queen Anne's death England accepted Hanoverian George I as king, but there were many who saw the exiled James Stuart as the legal claimant to the throne. Disaffection among Jacobite supporters lingered on, to surface in the unsuccessful rising of the Old Pretender in 1715. There is profuse evidence of links between Jacobite sympathisers and the smugglers.
Undoubtedly the main reason behind the enormous increase of smuggling was the high level of import duties, caused by the necessity to raise income to fight a succession of wars. The conflicts of the early 18th century had only partial impact on trade, but a detrimental struggle began in 1739, and warfare continued during forty-four of the subsequent seventy-five years. All these involved war at sea, and France was the enemy most of the time. As a consequence, not only were heavy duties imposed on trade, but French privateers habitually attacked shipping along the Channel coast.
Smuggling peaks
The first peak of smuggling activity came during the 1740s, when the country was beleaguered by Jacobite disaffection within, and the War of the Austrian Succession overseas. It was likely that up to a quarter of overseas trade was being smuggled at this time, though no actual statistics exist. With the return of peace in 1748, some lowering in duty, and the succession of trials which broke up Kent and Sussex gangs, there was a pause in the conflict for some years. Then came the Seven Years War, fought in four continents, and the even more injurious War of American Independence. Duties had once again climbed to unreasonable levels. The country was shorn of the manpower required to control widespread free-for-all, and smuggling reached a second peak around 1780. It was then speedily reduced by the intercession on William Pitt, who cut the duty on tea from 129% to 12.5% in 1784 (and increased Window Tax to make up the deficit).
The French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars which lasted from 1793 to 1815, led to new types of smuggling. French aristocrats were helped to escape to England after the French Revolution. Another item smuggled out of France at this time was part of the Duke of Orleans' collection of pictures, shipped into this country as wine by Sir Thomas Moore Slade, using his authority as Agent-Victualler at Chatham Dockyard.
The seamen of Deal and Folkestone specialised in running gold guineas to France, where the currency had collapsed and the money was needed to pay Napoleon's troops. Meanwhile, the many French prisoners, often held in appalling conditions on prison hulks in the Thames estuary, were helped to get away by Kent oyster fishermen. Numerous smugglers found profitable employment as spies or double-agents, and some became naval pilots.
A third and short-lived peak of smuggling began with the return home of some 250,000 soldiers and seamen after the victory at Waterloo. Many had trouble in finding any employment, though the early stages of the Industrial Revolution were creating new opportunities in the Midlands and North, and the first fashionable coastal resorts were embryonic. In rural Kent and Sussex poverty and unemployment continued, and were to lead to riots and emigration during the 1830s. What ultimately eliminated organised smuggling was the organisation of an efficient preventive service, united with the change to free trade policies after 1840.
Smuggled items
As the level of smuggling activity altered over the years from 1700 to 1840, so too did the profitability of particular items. The smugglers were opportunists, ready to handle a wide variety of goods. Luxury objects, such as fine wines, silk, lace, fashionable clothes, glass and china were often brought in to order. Among the more mundane items sometimes carried were salt and pepper. Tea, spirits and tobacco were the staples of the trade, but spices, coffee, chocolate, playing cards, jewellery and even human hair appear among the many items apprehended.
For most of the 18th century the best profits came from smuggled tea. This was cheap to acquire and easy to handle (it came suitably packaged in oilskin bags). Around 1740 the cheapest grades of tea could be bought in Holland for sixpence per pound, and sold in England for three or four shillings per pound, compared with the lowest legal cost of five shillings. Not unexpectedly England was then drinking more than three times as much smuggled tea as that legally imported. In an effort to stop this uncontrolled law breaking, the government cut the duty on tea spectacularly in 1745. It is one of the ironies of the smuggling story that when the Hawkhurst gang rescued their tea from Poole Custom House in 1746, in which some of them paid with their lives, the profit margin on the cargo had been severely reduced.
Higher duties were quickly put back on, however, and by 1780 the genuine dealers (including a certain Richard Twining) lobbied the government for protection against unfair competition and the practice of adulterating tea with hedgerow leaves. William Pitt then shattered the profitability of tea smuggling by removing most of the duty in 1784. However, in the three years directly before this reform, Excise officers estimated that over 2,550,000 pounds of tea had been dishonestly landed on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, or one third of all the tea smuggled into the whole of England and Wales.
Tobacco smuggling replaced the illegal tea trade after 1800, and this was chiefly profitable around 1820, when the duty stood at four shillings per pound. At one point it was estimated that tobacco costing one hundred pounds in Flushing was worth ten times as much in England. The duty on tobacco remained high throughout the 19th century. A good deal of the tobacco was brought into the major ports by documentation frauds rather than run on open beaches. Most came in leaf form or as stalks (for snuff), and was either made illegally or infiltrated into the legal trade. Supplies came from America, either directly or via Ireland, so it was the west coast and the Bristol Channel ports which played most part in this trade.
French brandy was always a preferred item of contraband. Its import was prohibited during the years of war with France, and at other times it carried a duty of one pound per gallon. Gin (or Geneva) originated in Holland, and had become all the rage in England during the reign of William and Mary. It carried no duty to begin with, and this led to the outbreak of drunkenness we know best through the drawings of Hogarth. After 1736, gin too paid duty of one pound per gallon, and it was soon to become the most popular item of contraband on the coasts of England nearest to Holland.
Rum from the West Indies was also smuggled, but much less frequently. The spirits came packaged for handling (and sinking when necessary) in small kegs known as tubs. A tub normally held one half anker, or between three and a half and four gallons, and to boost its value further, the spirit was usually 70% over proof. It had as a result to be 'let down' after landing, by the addition of water and caramel colouring, a procedure which could generate problems. It also meant that enthusiasts for the raw spirit sometimes died of alcoholic poisoning after a cask was broached. More gin than brandy was brought in on the south coast because of its closeness to Holland. According to estimates made by Excise officers around 1780, well over half of all the contraband gin brought on shore in England and Wales was being landed in Kent and Sussex, a grand total of 1,808,000 gallons in three years. By contrast, 552,000 gallons of brandy were run here over the same period, a mere 14% of the national total.
Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information. 

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015