Saturday, May 19, 2018

“ ‘Baccy for the parson…brandy for the clerk…” What Did Smugglers Smuggle?

by Helen Hollick

image purchased from AdobeStock

The quick and simple answer to the above question is …. Anything that could be carried and easily hidden, then sold at a profit! The reasoning behind smuggling was (is!) to avoid paying  excise duty, but the profits had to be high enough to warrant the risk involved, making a few shillings would not be worthwhile, but a few pounds sterling (or whatever currency!) could tip the balance between legally and illegally importing or exporting an items that were in demand.  In the 17-1800s no smuggler would risk his life for a few kegs of common ale, but for best French brandy? Ah, that was different!

Throughout history, various mercantile goods gained or lost their smuggling value. Thomas Jefferson, in his pre-presidential days as an American ministerial representative in Paris for several years from 1784, smuggled rice out of Italy, hidden in his pockets. This was a crime carrying the death penalty if caught. He was also involved in smuggling hemp from China. To us now, it seems odd – rice? Hemp? Whatever for!

Silkworms, too, were smuggled from the far-east, as was tea. Spices were exotic and expensive: cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, cloves – tulips – all were smuggled from where they grew in abundance to where they were prized. Leather goods were valued at some points in history, so too was grain when harvests failed and people were at starvation level.

The Romney Marsh, one of the main wool smuggling areas
 - where the smugglers were known as 'Owlers

image purchased from Shutterstock

Wool, in Medieval times, was important for England and its economy, reflected even today with the presiding officer of the Parliamentary House of Lords traditionally sitting on a seat stuffed with English wool, and known as the ‘Woolsack’. English wool was sought after in Europe. It is estimated that England exported something like 25,000 bales of wool in 1280, rising to a peak of 45,000 per year, then falling in 1355 to 33,000.

Incidentally, the term ‘fleeced’ comes from the wool trade, meaning to be tricked with something that looks a better quality than it really is.

Edward I negotiated an agreement with the wool merchants of a permanent tax duty, although illicit trading did not become illegal until Edward III became king. By 1566 anyone caught smuggling wool would be punished with the left hand being amputated and nailed to a church door as a warning to others. Obviously to little effect, as wool smuggling continued apace, for in 1689, when all trade was banned with France (because of yet another war), something like 500,000 pounds weight of wool was being smuggled every year across the Channel.

Salt: Before refrigeration, salt was essential for preserving food. During the late 1600s, William of Orange needed money. In 1693 he brought some of his Dutch accountants from Holland who advised a higher import duty on salt, although the tax was added to the manufacture, not the sale, which of course equally affected the cost of buying it. George III raised the rate again in 1767 to assist funding the cost of the American War of Independence, all of which led to the smuggling of quality white salt from Ireland to England.

Romper Lowe, from Cheshire, was a salt smuggler. One night, the parish constable was awoken by Lowe’s gang making a noise because their cart, laden with salt, had become stuck in a ditch. Constable Carter did his duty – and sent his servant and a horse to assist in pulling the cart out!

Gold. During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, Bonaparte paid people to smuggle gold from England into France in order to support the French currency. Very enterprising of him. The method used was to row across the English Channel in what were called ‘Guinea Boats’, although we are not talking small rowing boats here, but huge forty-foot long vessels which could carry a £30,000 value of the gold on each voyage. With twenty-four oars, twelve aside, the Kentish men could cross to France in less than five hours, given the right conditions.

Voluminous gowns - ideal for hiding smuggled goods.
No Revenue Man would be permitted to rummage beneath a lady's skirts
 - no matter how suspicious the 'padding'!

image purchased from Canstock photos

Jewellery was easy to smuggle:  slipped into pockets, sewn into coat linings, or women’s petticoats, or even swallowed to reappear at the smuggler’s convenience. (Excuse the pun!).

Alcohol: In his notebooks, Thomas Hardy mentions his grandfather hiding kegs of brandy under the stairs: ‘The spirits often smelt all over the house...’ Spirits were supplied ‘neat’ – lethal if consumed undiluted in quantity. Dilution would not be done until the brandy, gin, or whatever, reached its point of sale destination. The disadvantage: the water used, especially in London, was often contaminated with sewage, dead rats and other nasty stuff. It wasn’t the booze that caused the stomach aches –  but the added water!
So much gin was smuggled in the 1700s, that it was even used as a household cleaner!

image purchased Adobe Stock

Tobacco was as addictive in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as it is today. Much of the smuggling was an ingenious ‘scam’ as it would be imported legally into Britain then exported to Europe with a legal ‘drawback’ refund paid on the import duty. The exact same tobacco would then be smuggled back into England, but bulked out by adding ground rose petals, leaves, herbs, straw and dust, then re-packaged and re-sold at a substantial profit. Questionable tactics, but very clever.

image purchased Adobe stock

Lace was an excellent textile to smuggle because it was lightweight and easily hidden.

Blonde Lace was made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France. This bobbin lace was crafted from silk, with the ‘blonde’ referring to the natural colour of the thread. Favoured by royalty, it is depicted in a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817) the daughter of King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick.

Brussels Lace, was admired as a delicate lace made from fine-spun linen thread which, in order to ensure it did not become brittle was spun in a damp and darkened environment, with only a single ray of light permitted. First produced in the fifteenth century, Brussels Lace is listed among presents given in 1543 to Princess Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. A royal lace indeed!

In order to protect the making of English lace, the import of foreign lace was prohibited by Parliament in 1662, with the English version known as ‘English Point’. Unfortunately, it was not the same quality, so smuggled Brussels Lace remained in demand. The import ban was lifted in 1699 but French Brussels Lace continued to be a favourite of Queen Anne.

Valenciennes Lace originated, as the name implies, from Valenciennes in France. The height of its popularity was between 1700 to 1780. Made by hand it was woven in one piece  and was extremely strong. Sadly, there was very little of this beautiful hand-crafted lace being made by the time the 1900s arrived as machine-lace had taken over.

A Lacemaker
image purchased Adobe Stock

What about tea? Portuguese merchants smuggled tea to Europe in the late 1500s, with the fashion for its distinctive taste spreading to England in the 1600s, reportedly introduced by Portuguese-born Catherine of Braganza when she married King Charles II in 1662. It was known in Portugal as chá – often used today in Britain as a slang term.

Tea did not become popularly consumed until the eighteenth century because it was extremely expensive. With the establishment of the East India Company, and black tea grown in India, the Chinese stranglehold was broken and tea became easier and cheaper to harvest, transport, import – and buy.

For the smugglers, tea was one of the top commodities to be prized. It is estimated that three-million pounds in weight of tea, per annum, was being smuggled into England between 1700-1750. No wonder the English are known as a nation of tea-drinkers!

In a series of published news-sheets, the East India Company condemned tea smuggling as detrimental to the economy, and was therefore affecting high unemployment and low wages. Of course, there was no mention of their tumbling profits!

Tea gradually became more widely available as shipping increased in number and efficiency. Eventually, the British Government revoked the import tax, and the smuggling of tea became unprofitable by the end of the 1700s.

Prior to this amendment, however, the unpopular Tea Act of 1773 provoked a certain famous Tea Party in Boston Harbour, Massachusetts… but that tale is for a different article!

Smuggling in Fact and Fiction by Helen Hollick is due to be published by Pen & Sword Press in January 2019

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)

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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Twitter: @HelenHollick

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


  1. Ah, Romney Marsh! I remember a book I read as a child, Summer Of The Great Secret, set in that area, though in the 20th century. Two girls discover that the local fishermen, their friends, are all involved in smuggling. It’s a local industry!

  2. One of my treasured books on my bookshelves Sue - I have all the Monica Edwards series of the Romney Marsh and the Devil's Punch Bowl - the first of which is Wish for a Pony. I think these books were one of my first experiences of discovering that characters in books could seem so real! I also love the way the characters 'grew up' as the series developed.


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