Thursday, October 13, 2011

Smuggling in Devon

by Jenna Dawlish

In this post, I am going to talk a little about smuggling in Devon in it's hay-day in the late18th Century and early 19th Century.

Ever since there was taxes on goods, there has been smuggling, and Devon, with it's south coastline so close to France, and small bays and inlets made it the perfect place for smugglers.

For those not familiar with where Devon is this map shows the County of Devon (in red).

What was smuggled? Usually it was Brandy, Wine, lace, tea, silks and other luxury goods.

Who were the smugglers? The smugglers were divided into three groups:

1) The sea smugglers - skilled sailors, and familiar with the intricacies of the coastline where they lived, they knew the best ways to smuggle their wares out of the view of the excise men. Usually at night with little or no moon, and often in the winter when the excise ships were in harbour they would land their goods. Sailors who were smugglers were highly skilled to be able to cope with rough sea.

2) The land smugglers would convey the goods inland, ready to be stored and distributed.

3) The freighters or principals who were the brains behind the operations. These were often of higher social standing and would plan the smuggling operations, and pay the others once a job was done.

However, in most coastal towns and villages in Devon, where smuggling took place, pretty much everyone knew about the smuggling and were in some way party to it. Even if they weren't on the boats, once the goods were ashore they had to be hidden until they could be distributed and sold.

When I say everyone was involved, I mean everyone. Landowners, clergy, magistrates, common folk. Everyone.

Why were so many people involved in smuggling? The main reason was although these people were breaking the law by avoiding taxes on goods they were viewed as heros. They were helping poor people afford goods that they otherwise couldn't have afforded with tax on top. Especially tea and Brandy. And remember at this time, the middle classes were only just emerging through the start of the Industrial Revolution and there were not many people who were rich.

So whilst the smugglers were hailed as hero's and were law-breakers they still had a moral code. Smugglers would not steal or murder. They wouldn't stoop so low to do that. They were not pirates.

The excise men trying to stop the smuggling had a very hard time, because nobody would help them. On the few occasions people were reported and caught, they would find life very difficult.

In East Devon, a tollgate keeper informed on some smugglers he had an arguement with. Many people from three parishes (Sidbury, Salcombe Regis and Branscombe) marched through their villages carrying an effigy of the gate-keeper which they then burned.

How did they smuggle? Mostly the smugglers would go to France or the Channel Islands and load their boats with the contraband. They would then sail to an arranged place and unload. The goods were then hidden nearby until they could be distributed.

Where did they hide the contraband until it was distributed? All sorts of places. In lakes, barns, in tunnels under the ground. In East Devon, the coastal village of Salcombe Regis was a central smuggling hub where the church was used to store the smuggled goods. For almost 100 years, the vicars of Salcombe Regis were the ring-leaders in smuggling and their meetings would take place in the vicarage. There are tunnels that go between the vicarage and the church which were believed to be used to store the stash.

What happened if smugglers got caught? Usually they were put in prison for a short time - usually a few months, maybe more if they had been caught before. But they had to be caught with the goods. Circumstantial evidence was not allowed.

Jack Rattenbury:

Jack Rattenbury is probably the most famous Devon smuggler. A fisherman from the village of Beer (left) he famously retired as a smuggler and wrote a book about his smuggling days. He became a Victorian celebrity. His book is still available to read today, but it is a bit disappointing because whilst he talks a bit about smuggling, he doesn't actually say how he smuggled the goods (ie what everyone wants to know!)
Finally, Rudyard Kiplings famous poem "The Smuggler Song" sums up the attitude people were told to have towards smugglers:

Jenna Dawlish is the author of the Victorian novels: Love Engineered and Sprig of Thyme.


  1. Smugglers are fascinating. Loved this informative post.

  2. There is something compelling about the smuggling trade as it plays a part in many historical fiction novels and was not even frowned upon by most if its contemporaries. I enjoyed the Kipling poem and recognized a popular phrase that we use in my family and I had no idea where it came from until now 'ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies'.
    Thanks for posting.

  3. Fascinating post, Jenna, and I love the audio portion! I'm looking forward to more of your posts.

  4. Loved this and tweeted it. I became interested in smuggling working on my series, which has to do with smuggling in colonial Rhode Island, which was more a matter of evading duties. Very informative, how entire towns were wrapped up in it.

  5. Great post - so much history on the Devon coastline.

  6. I've read a lot about smuggling and never tire of it. What a great poem, and how beautifully it was read.

  7. Fascinating information! Smugglers are great novel inspiration. I'm a new follower via GFC! :-)

  8. I loved this post. I live in an area in Spain where smuggling was also important, especially during the Civil War (1936-1939), when people lacked of the most basic things. It was very usual to smuggle for sugar, flour, clothes and even tobacco. I liked this post because it sounded familiar to the history of my home town. Thanks.

  9. Thanks everyone, I'm pleased you found the post interesting. I must admit, I'm not really into poetry much, but Rudyard Kiplings poetry never fails to touch me. It was really well read wasn't it!

  10. Smuggling plays out in numerous Regency romances. Thank you for shedding light on the subject.

  11. Thanks for this interesting and informative overview of smugglers in historic Devon.

  12. Then there's Tom Benson of Appledore in North Devon who smuggled goods via Lundy Island ... only things eventually went wrong and the captain of one of his ships hanged - Benson cleared off to Portugal. While writing a book about smuggling (Life of a Smuggler, published by Pen & Sword) I found it fascinating that the Devon and Cornwall methods of smuggling were very different to that carried out by the huge (very rough and ruthless) gangs of East England (Sussex, Kent etc) they were a very nasty lot, unlike our Devonshire 'gentlemen of the trade'.


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