New Forest smuggling tales old and new by Mark and Hugh

To Lymington or Cuba?

Mark and Hugh tell tales of smugglers and smuggling of olden and more recent times - within, to and from the New Forest and incorporating just a little irreverence! 

Mark and Hugh signoff 600x400When you hear the word smuggling, what comes to mind I wonder? Men wearing eye patches? Wooden rowing boats with rags wrapped around the oars to muffle the rowlocks? Barrels of brandy from France landed somewhere on our coastline in the dead of night? Or perhaps a sea container full of cigarettes being off-loaded from a ship in Southampton? Mark and Hugh tell their tale with their usual relish. Read on below!

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Smuggling, a bygone industry?

In the eighteenth century, despite heavy penalties up to and including the death sentence, smuggling was common along our shores. But here’s another question. What would your first thoughts be when I mentioned the topic of smuggling? There’s no doubt that you would see smuggling as a criminal activity and not to be condoned but I think there’s a distinct possibility that the tiniest smile might creep across your face. You see, smuggling has always been seen as the little guy against the establishment. An establishment which sometimes taxes goods punitively; taxes that ultimately would be paid for by us, the consumers. If I was to ask you if you enjoyed paying your taxes my question would most likely to be met with a growl. Naturally we need our hospitals and roads but handing over our hard-earned cash is never pleasant. Lymington and the shoreline around it were at one time a very busy place for smugglers who certainly did not entertain the idea of paying tax.

The 1700s, the golden age of smuggling.

In order for smuggling to be worth the risk taxes had to be high. Smuggling was driven by greed from both sides of the law. Politicians using uniformed men to enforce punitive taxes were every bit as guilty as others who risked their own lives to make a profit by offering delicious brandy to fellow citizens at knock down prices. The Gin Act of 1729 imposed a tax of five shillings on a gallon of spirit. In 1733 this form of duty was abolished, consequently consumption soared. In 1736 the tax on spirits was increased to twenty shillings on a gallon of spirit. This put the cost of spirits out of reach of the average person promoting much public anger. Overnight gin became the tipple of the wealthy. To give you some idea of relative costs the average daily wage for a labourer at the time was one shilling and sixpence. The high rate of tax opened the floodgates for the smugglers. Then, as now, people enjoy the effects of alcohol and they are generally prepared to pay for it; but there is a limit.  If we turn from grain to the grape for a moment, the present UK tax on a bottle of wine is £2.43 per bottle. Our French friends pay a tax of just three pence per bottle.  When I lived in France, I found that I could get a really lovely bottle of wine for around £3.00 whereas in this country I need to spend around £7.00. This means that the government is single handedly forcing the majority of wine lovers into quaffing muck!

Governments tread a fine line when they tax what are effectively legalised recreational drugs. The routine reason given for taxation is of course public health. We must be protected from ourselves because we are silly. Incidentally, the same politicians who tax our guilty pleasures for our own good enjoy subsidised alcohol in their private House of Commons bars. They are fully aware though that there are a great many more citizens than there are police or Armed Forces. Taxation has to applied with a gentle touch otherwise the people will rebel against authority. This is precisely what happened up and down the shores of our country with smuggling.

Still at it?

Apparently, there are home distillers in this country who create ethanol in their garages and sheds. Apparently, there are flavourings readily available by mail order which mean that these home-grown creations are actually delicious, and, with a knowledgeable distiller, very safe. How naughty!

Short sighted, politicians? Surely not.

 Smuggling ended when the government realised it was fighting a battle it couldn’t win. The public was on the side of the smuggler. Contraband was often stored in ordinary houses. There are tales of caves which were used to store contraband but these reports ring hollow for me. Word of specific places for storing contraband would mean that Excise officers would quickly and easily recover brandy, lace and tea. No, the general public was heavily involved and the goods were stored safely in a number of locations. Excise officers could be met with large numbers of smugglers who were not afraid to use violence to achieve their aim. In the face of a hopeless situation where around a fifth of imported tea, alcohol and tobacco was smuggled, the government reduced taxes. It was Pitt the Younger who realised that he had to make life easier for traders. Reducing taxes encouraged honesty amongst the buying public and tax revenue leapt by two million pounds. This reduction in taxes effectively ended smuggling.

Master mariners of yesteryear.

Those of us who sail will be familiar with the modern miracle that is global positioning. With this modern system sailing from Lymington to Calais is simplicity itself. On most devices there is a ‘goto’ function which enables the skipper to press the touch sensitive screen at the intended destination and the boat’s autopilot will steer towards it regardless of tides or adverse winds. Sailors of the eighteenth century had to think a little harder. Smugglers had to think even harder still because their return journey from France to Lymington had to be planned so that they crept into harbour unseen and at night. The gentlemen of the Excise were all too keen to intercept the returning boats, arrest the smugglers and seize the cargo of contraband. Our ancient smugglers also had to navigate without the aid of illuminated buoys which these days we take for granted. They had to know the coastlines of the Isle of Wight, Lymington and France intimately. They had to understand how far the flood tide, which runs from west to east, and the ebb tide, which runs from east to west, would take them. With a decent wind the crossing would take a minimum of twelve hours so the need to accurately allow for the drift due to tides was paramount. Personally, I am in awe of these eighteenth-century sailors. Not only were they brave but they were extremely knowledgeable. They would laugh in amazement at the ease with which we modern sailors navigate across the entire globe with pinpoint accuracy. If you were to ask the average sailor of today to take an open boat to France and then to return to Lymington harbour at night, without charts or navigation lights, you would be laughed at.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

If you think that smuggling is a bygone activity then think again. On a regular basis the excise men discover large quantities of tobacco and alcohol destined for the black market. I was a smuggler too albeit an unwitting one. Around a month after I bought my yacht, I was trying to find the route of a cable which ran beneath the floorboards. Some of the floorboards were impossible to lift and so I found myself spreadeagled on the floor with an arm at full stretch and fingers feeling carefully for the elusive cable. My fingers came across something cold and smooth, carefully I gripped and retrieved the object which turned out to be a bottle of French white wine! Clearly it had been stowed below the floorboards by the previous owner, reasons unknown. I consumed it at bilge temperature and it was delicious.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

If you were to believe the tales of tunnels below the high street that were used for smuggling then in all probability the high street would have collapsed by now. Tunnelling is a costly business and penniless smugglers couldn’t even dream of such fancies. No, all they wanted to do was to get safely to shore and distribute the booty. Talk of specific locations for smuggled goods is also almost certainly bogus. It reminds me of the amusing photograph of the road sign directing people to the ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker’. Smugglers needed to keep one step ahead of the excise men and their informants. I am certain that landing places were varied as were storage points. Repetition would surely lead to discovery. One thing we can be sure of is that smuggling was rife. It took the wisdom of Pitt to reduce taxes in order to generate more fair trade. But then, he did introduce income tax so he’s definitely coming off my Christmas card list.

Here's hoping you all enjoy some tax paid tipple in the near future. 

Cuban sunset cartoon

More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh

If you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

The Auld Mug
Seeds of success

Moonlit meeting with cetaceans 

Trees and what they tell us
Cartography and trig pillars

Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi

Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence 
Cordless home entertainment

The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...



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