Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Lesser Known Smugglers of the North

by Nick Smith

The very image of smugglers is an evocative one. A complex network of sailors, riders, merchants and more, working beneath the very nose of the dreaded excise. Illegal landings at night, secreting away goods by starlight, hiding in caves, crossing lonely moors, for the contraband to end up in the heart of vast port cities like London, only to be sold side by side with goods that have had their tax paid.

Britain in the eighteenth century was rife with smuggling, and even though the South coast is notorious for the exploits of these criminals, the North East and Yorkshire were far from innocent… But why did smuggling exist? And why was it so prolific for well over a hundred years?

Whitby in the 18th Century, Watercolour. By John Bird.

Smuggling was not new. As long as any government has enforced some sort of import duty, people have tried to avoid it with varying levels of success. During the English Civil War parliament introduced further import duties in the form of excise (on top of the normal customs). As the seventeenth century progressed, customs and excise duties increased massively.

On top of this, in 1699 the English parliament created the Wool Act. Amongst other things, it prevented farmers from exporting their wool to the continent. This was a loss to many farmers and wool merchants, as prices in Britain were lower than those over the water in Holland.

You might ask what the reasoning for these laws were, but you can probably guess already. Money. England (and later Britain) needed lots of money, because it had a rather expensive pastime to fund: War. Successive wars throughout the world had taken their toll on the national treasury, so to top it up taxes were increased.

However, when you take a glance at the following examples, one must wonder if they lost more money than they ever gained:

It is estimated that eighty percent of all tea imported to Britain during the eighteenth century was smuggled ashore! And smuggled gin from Holland became so common that there are references of people using it to clean their windows! In one seizure at Whitby by the revenue over six thousand gallons of rum, brandy, and gin were confiscated!

Many goods that were landed in Yorkshire and the North East – fabrics, spirits, tea – came from daring Dutch sailors. The smugglers in return would provide the Dutch with precious English wool. Sounds like a bargain to me.

The activities of smugglers in Yorkshire and the North East are far less documented than those of the South coast, but it was still very much a problem, and the government measures to reduce smuggling were simply ineffective. A new Customs Officer called John Beckett – on a salary of forty pound a year – was appointed in the early eighteenth century, along with a land waiter in Whitby called John Brown who inspected cargoes at unlading, and one Thomas Long as boatman to inspect the holds of ships. A Mister Sedgewick was made surveyor of Robin Hood’s Bay. Another Mister Standridge became riding officer at Filey and new horse officers were appointed at Hayburn Wyke and Reighton.

This small handful of men were given no support, a small salary, and very few powers. The fact that they made very few seizures over a whole century says a lot, and who can blame their ineffectiveness?

These agents were up against whole villages of organised smugglers – literally whole gangs of locals, forming vast transport networks across the parishes and counties, and in some instances they even had the local parson joining in! There are references and lists of arrested smugglers, their occupations are beekeepers to washerwomen. Everyone seemed to be in on it. Those who weren’t involved would turn the other eye as a smuggler passed by, and it is said that in return for saying nothing they were given a quill of spirit from an open anker.

It’s probably no surprise then that these men of the law would frequently become a part of the operations they were paid to stop. They would gladly take a small share to turn a blind eye. Those who didn’t could very well end up dead…

Like all aspects of maritime lore, I find smugglers fascinating, and I am just about to launch a novella in my BUCCANEER series based on their activities in North Yorkshire. I have glorified and romanticised the landings of smugglers in my new work, but I’m an author, and I can do what I like!

And for the very first time in public, I am proud to present my brand new book cover...

SMUGGLER'S HILL - To be released soon...


Nick Smith is a twenty-nine year old Northumbrian in exile, currently living on a small rock in the Channel Sea where he teaches science. He has a love for all things of a nautical and historical nature.

He is the author of the gritty swashbuckling adventures Rogues’ NestGentleman of Fortune, and the soon to be released Smuggler's Hill. All explore the reality of buccaneers, smugglers, and pirates at the start of the 1700s.

Find out more about his work at  


  1. Interesting facts. I look forward to your new forthcoming book. Marg Muir (ex Yorkshire Lass)

    1. Thanks Margaret! We nautical types should stick together ;)

  2. Interesting post. Shared.


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