Thursday, March 29, 2018

‘Watch the Wall my Darling, While the Gentlemen Go By…’

by Helen Hollick

Gentleman - or smuggler?
image purchased from ©Adobe Stock
 A Smuggler's Song by Rudyard Kipling

IF you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the parson, 'baccy for the clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again –  and they'll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide,
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore,
If the lining's wet and warm –  don't you ask no more!

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you ‘pretty maid,’ and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!

Knocks and footsteps round the house –  whistles after dark –
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

'If you do as you've been told, likely there's a chance,
You'll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood –
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!

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!
                       Copyright permission by courtesy United Artists, London

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born in India on the 30th December 1865. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 and died in London at the age of seventy on the 18th January 1936. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Initially, he was a journalist but his penchant for storytelling and evocative poetry is what we remember him for – who does not love Mowgli’s adventures in the Jungle Book, chuckle at the Just So stories, recite lines such as “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” or quote the final line of Gunga Din: "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din"?

Rudyard Kipling, by Elliott & Fry
(Wikimedia Commons media repository)
Kipling’s children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a collection of short stories set in varying periods of English history and narrated by two children and an elf, Puck. One of the items included is the above poem, A Smuggler’s Song.

Written as a smuggler issuing a warning to curious children to keep what they have seen secret, the poem uses different rhythms and rhymes to enhance the feeling of mystery and imminent danger: “Knocks and footsteps round the house - whistles after dark…”. It conjures the atmosphere and detail of a smuggling run by using stanzas with each concentrating on a particular topic, which in turn emphasises the need for secretiveness. “If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red, you be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.” The repetitive chorus highlights the emphasis of the poem: keep quiet when the smugglers are about their business.

Smuggling. The word conjures an image of a moonlit night, a tall ship rocking gently at anchor in a wind-ruffled bay, and men wearing three-cornered hats making their swift, but silent, way along remote West Country lanes that zigzag between high banks and thick, foxglove and cow parsley-strewn hedgerows. The men are leading a string of pack ponies tied nose-to-tail, their hooves muffled by rough sacking. On their backs, casks of brandy or kegs of tobacco… 

But is that how smuggling really happened? Is Kipling's poem nothing but fancy romance? 

Exmoor ponies were used
as smugglers' pack ponies in Devon
photo © Kathy Hollick-Blee 
Contraband goods were brought in on moonless nights and taken away as swiftly as possible via pack pony or ‘tubmen’ who carried small kegs on chest and back strapped together across the shoulders. A cargo could be landed and on its way within the space of a few hours – secretively and in the dark. Or if it could not be moved quickly it was hidden safely until the next night - church crypts made a good hiding place ('brandy for the parson...') or in the hayloft above the stables where tired horses dozed, or in the wood pile... Thomas Hardy, as a boy, recalled his grandfather stowing mysterious kegs in the cupboard under the stairs, and hearing muffled calls and whistles.

image purchased from © Adobe Stock
Smuggling, however, despite the romance, is the illegal importation of goods to avoid paying tax and, ultimately, to make a decent profit. The smugglers of the past would argue a different way to look at things. They bought and paid for the goods, so these were not stolen items. The contraband was transported, carried and delivered at the smugglers’ own expense so there was nothing illegal there. The items were in high demand by the majority of the population, many of whom could not afford the legal cost of purchase. The smugglers’ conviction was that to refuse to pay government duties on prohibited goods such as fine French lace, tea, tobacco and brandy, (or wool in the Medieval period,) was justified because of the right to buy or sell with the freedom of choice, unrestricted by laws, and that ‘freedom of choice’ should not be a crime. After all, the only ones who suffered from the effects of smuggling (leaving aside the aspect of violence where organised gangs were concerned,) was the government who did not collect the required taxes. Few of us, I think, would lose much sleep about that small fact!

But were smugglers ‘Gentlemen’? Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language describes the smuggler as: ‘A wretch who, in defiance of justice and the laws, imports or exports goods as either contraband or without payment of the customs.’ It seems he was not impressed by the Gentlemen Free Traders. On the other hand, the eighteenth-century economist and supporter of Free Trade, Adam Smith, proclaimed: ‘The smuggler is a person who … would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.’

We tend to ignore the fact that the smugglers of the past were, from fisherman to country gent, lawbreakers. Except, how many of us occasionally break the law by speeding, or paying the gardener or handyman in cash to avoid paying V.A.T? Minor things, but to many a historical smuggler bringing in a few kegs of brandy, or packets of tobacco, was equally as minor. All well and good, except, unfortunately, rogues and ruffians often corrupt the subtle bending of the law to new extremes of outright criminality to suit their own mind. What started with the relatively harmless smuggling of everyday items by a small group of villagers and quiet-minded fisher-folk was soon swept aside by ‘big business’ and the greed of making money.

The smuggling business was not just a few men out for a lark after an inebriating tot or two at the local pub, with a sudden fancy to row across to France, pick up a couple of half-ankers of grog and row back again. Smuggling was highly organised and many of the men thought nothing of violence to gain that essential profit. When one of King George's men came sniffing round, one gang member from East Sussex, without any hesitation, calmly sent the customs official to his death over a cliff… So, alas, derring-do romantic rebels and ‘gentlemen’, most smugglers were not. So take Mr Kipling's advice - best to watch the wall, m'dears, and not look out of the windows... just in case.

‘Baccy: short for tobacco
Brishwood: Sussex dialect for brushwood
Laces: this can either mean French Lace, or silk threads for tying stays
Woodlump: a woodpile
Valenciennes: French lace from the town of the same name

Next time: Some of the more notorious smuggling gangs.

Smuggling In The British Isles by Richard Platt
Smuggling: A History 1700-1970 David Phillipson
Smuggling In Fact and Fiction Helen Hollick (not yet published)
The Kipling Society


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction which is due to be published in 2018.

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Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction


  1. Reading through quickly I thought I'd put 'snuggling' not 'smuggling' *laugh* - although maybe more than a few tavern wenches did snuggle up to a smuggler!

  2. Evokes memories of growing up in Sussex - and reading Dr Syn books.

  3. Thanks for dropping by Anna and Roland

  4. A merchant seaman always loved the poem.

  5. Great poem/song


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