Smuggling Capital of England
In the dead of night, the sea mist hangs over the beach and the surrounding area of Camber sands cloaking the incoming boat. It moves silently towards the beach, out from the dunes, a large group of men approach the vessel, while a handful of armed guards keep a lookout for the king’s men. The heavy cargo of brandy and wine is unloaded and hauled up the beach and over the dunes to the waiting packhorses ready to take the contraband to the old vaulted cellars in nearby Rye on route to its final destination, London. Unloaded the boat turns around and heads back out to sea to return to France. [quote_right]Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall, my darling,
while the Gentlemen go by.
Rudyard Kipling.[/quote_right] Rye in the 18th century was the smuggling capital of England. As an important Cinque Port, Rye’s smugglers were treated with leniency; a contributing factor being the covert involvement of many corrupt town officials who benefited from the affordable goods these men provided.
The Mermaid Inn was even then such an established hostelry that it would be surprising if it did not have smuggling associations. In fact, it was a well-known haunt of free-traders and recurs frequently in smuggling episodes involving Rye.
The Hawkhurst gang, the most notorious gang in the history of English smuggling and boasting it could assemble 500 men in a couple of hours when needed, used the Mermaid Inn, Mermaid Street, Rye as one of their bases, often seen sat imbibing at the windows of the pub with their pistols cocked on the tables, they did not hesitate to torture or murder anyone who stood in their way; but such was the gang’s notoriety that the locals felt powerless to act. The gang maintained their fearsome reputation by a variety of rowdy activities such as firing their pistols at the ceiling to intimidate the other drinkers.
Another of the Mermaid’s eminent guests was Gabriel Tomkins. Tomkins was a reformed smuggler from Mayfield, and in 1735 when he stayed in Rye he was a bailiff of the sheriff of Sussex and had arrested Thomas Moore, a local smuggler. However, like his fellows at Romney, Moore was bailed by the magistrate, and he returned to the Mermaid to seek revenge. With the aid of the landlord, he smashed his way into Tomkins’s room, dragged him through the streets and onboard a boat, probably with a view to landing him in France and leaving him to fend for himself. However, the local revenue men intervened, searching vessels berthed at Rye, and Tomkins thus narrowly avoided involuntary emigration.
Other officials were not so lucky. The luckless John Darby, who had been threatened and bullied in Lydd, found himself enjoying a weekend break in France in 1742. He and one other officer had tried to impound some tubs of brandy but — as usual — they were heavily outnumbered. The smugglers kidnapped the two men and hustled them on board a French boat from which they had just unloaded tea. This story has a surprising ending: with unusual courtesy, the smugglers made sure that when the two men had secured passage home from the continent, their horses were waiting for them at the Old George Inn in Rye.
Other Rye pubs are just as intimately tied up with the free-trade, though few are as picturesque as the Mermaid. The Olde Bell Inn once had a revolving cupboard for rapid exits to street, a connecting door to the adjoining building, and a tunnel leading to the cellars of the Mermaid inn nearby. When Rye was still bordered by the sea the Flushing Inn backed onto the water, and smuggled goods were conveniently brought straight into the pub after landing by the back door.
For in this part of south-east England, smuggling was a lucrative business and had been for centuries. In fact, in the seventeenth century, it was one of the most profitable professions in the region.
From the eleventh to the eighteenth century, cross-Channel smuggling was a busy activity, providing a living for hundreds of people around the East Sussex coast. It began in serious shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, when William the Conqueror brought over thousands of his men from France. They brought with them a taste for French wine and other continental products, and these tastes soon spread among the English population.
Long before the seventeenth century, smuggling had become a major industry; and indeed, until this period, there was virtually nothing that could be done to effectively stop it. Tax collectors, or revenue men, were not generally well-respected people in those days, and whole communities, from the local priest to the ordinary folk, would work together to outwit any officials who came along.
The eighteenth-century saw the climax of the smuggling trade; it also saw its worst horrors. During this century, when Britain really began to expand as an international trading nation, the rise in imported goods was spectacular; so too was the rise in the number of different products on which the government-imposed taxes. Tea, coffee, silk, spices, tobacco, and other luxuries from around the world; all became subjected to sometimes very high dues.
With so much at stake, it was not surprising therefore that smugglers went to great lengths to ensure that their operations ran smoothly. Armed gangs of men were paid to keep the King’s officers well away from what they were looking for. They did not hesitate to beat up, torture or kill those who tried to get in their way and customs officers soon realised that it was not in their interest to intervene, unless they wanted to come to a sticky end.
It was Napoleon, in the end, who brought the great age of English smuggling to an end. Fear of invasion from France led the government to establish a permanent watch around the south-east coast of England, a watch which later developed into the Coast Guard service. Confronted with this alert and respected force, smugglers were no longer able to go on ruling the roost as they had done for so long; and subterfuge and cunning came to replace force and threats. From then on, organised smuggling became a minor activity, perceived more and more as a criminal activity like any other.
So when you come and stay with us in Camber sands who knows what you will find hidden amongst the dunes or cobbled streets of Rye!
Special thanks to Richard Platt the author of Smuggling in the British Isles: a History a book well worth buying