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Smugglers

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The Georgian Underworld: Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England; Chapter 13. Including the stories of The Hawkhurst Gang, and Thameside Pirates
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  1 T   HE  H   AWKHURST G  ANG &   T   HAMESIDE  P   IRATES    S MUGGLERS   (The Georgian Underworld: Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England; Chapter 13)  Rictor Norton Smuggling was an important part of the economy of eighteenth-century Britain  –   which depended upon the distribution of goods via water. It was a common part of life in many coastal towns, and along the Thameside quays in London. Many provincial shopkeepers, apothecaries, innkeepers, grocers, and various tradesmen included contraband goods in their stock, and smuggled goods were sold at stalls at country fairs. People objected to taxation on imported tea and spirits, and happily bought ‘duty - free goods’. They seldom regarded ‘runners’ as criminals, so long as violence was not used. The Duke of Richmond, who campaigned against smuggling along the south coast, wrote to Sir Cecil Bishop in 1749, ‘I have often heard you say, and with great truth, that the common people of this country have no notion that smuggling is a crime.’ John Taylor, the chaplain at Newgat e  prison, felt the same, concluding that ‘The common people of England in general fancy there is nothing in the crime of smuggling.’ In fact this attitude was shared by the upper classes: Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, had ‘dark cargoes’ of wine shipp ed for his personal use and the  political entertainment at his country house (though this is not quite the kind of ‘goods running’ that gangs of smugglers organized).   However, the fact that poor people, as Taylor said, felt they had ‘a right to shun paying any duty on their goods’, and looked more kindly upon smugglers than upon excise men, does not mean that they regarded smugglers as political activists. I would disagree with those historians who characterize smuggling as a ‘social crime’, as only technically an illegal  2 activity, regarded by the community as a legitimate practice (such as quayside porters pilfering some of the goods they carry, as a ‘perk’  justified by custom), or an activity illustrative of political protest (such as weavers wrecking looms, or food riots). Although smuggling gangs sometimes were supported by local communities, this was often achieved  by intimidation and the threat (and use) of violence. In the 1740s one Revenue officer said he was unable to persuade a farmer to give evidence  because ‘he is afraid the gang will burn down his house and barn if he should discover any of them and so says everyone . . . They all say that there is no force in the country, the smugglers will do as they please with them.’ The rural poor benefited b y smuggling, partly through cheap local  prices for tea and brandy, partly because they received small amounts of tea or money from smugglers for assisting them. The poor, however, were not members of the smuggling gangs, which were made up of men who had been labourers or task-workers or artisans, for whom smuggling was more profitable than honest work loading and unloading ships. Contrary to the view of some historians that smuggling along the coast was a defence of the local economy against the encroachment of commercial capitalism, the smuggling of tea, in particular, was a capitalist  business organized by men with sufficient wealth to buy ships and warehouses as well as horses and guns. One smuggler who was hanged in 1748 was said to be worth £10,000. He did not accumulate this by redistributing wealth among his poorer neighbours. In November 1778 twelve wagons and 50 horses carrying smuggled goods worth £5,000 were seized between Lymington and Christchurch, and brought to the Custom House at Southampton. The smuggling trade thrived until 1784, when the duty on tea was reduced by three-quarters, making smuggling less  profitable and no longer worth the risk and investment. Although some wealthy businessmen, whether in London or France or Holland, financed some smuggling, by far the largest majority of the men who capitalized this trade were local merchants on the south coast who established a consortium to put together venture capital to buy the goods, then used the  profit on selling them duty-free to increase their business. The merchants who lead this trade  –   whether small-scale or large-scale  –   were entre- preneurs and financiers: they did not engage in smuggling as a socio-  3  political act, but in order to make lots and lots of money. They do not meet the u sual description of ‘social criminals’ whose flouting of the law carries political overtones or aims to achieve a fair redistribution of wealth. Smugglers were not ‘social bandits’ –   they were trying to beat the system for personal gain. Far from attacking the taxation laws as being unjust or irrational, they were simply exploiting the gap between duty- paid and duty-free in order to make a killing. Many smuggling gangs consisted of common criminals who were classed as thieves by the ordinary community. By the later eighteenth century, smuggling became an example of organized crime unseen since the days of Jonathan Wild (and Captain Johnson who smuggled Wild’s stolen goods to Holland). Smuggling also involved much larger gangs than any other type of criminal activity. This was because a very large  body of men was necessary to unload a ship full of many tons of cargo and then carry the goods across land on a large caravan of horses. The logistics necessary for assembling these forces necessitated a high level of organization. The trade was far less casual than the trades of highway robbery or housebreaking, and was characterized by a division of labour involving specialized skills, often organized by age: young men to handle the horses, strong men to unload the cargo, old men to keep a lookout while the unloading took place. Determining the safest time to run goods, when Customs officers were not in the neighbourhood, required a system for gathering and conveying intelligence, often assisted by smugglers’ wives and by pub keepers. Finally, smuggling required an organized network for the distribution of contraband goods that used many of the same fences who distributed stolen goods. The prime factor in creating any sort of organized   crime is the professional network necessary for the efficient disposal of goods, whether stolen or smuggled, from the warehouses to the point of sale. The pawnbrokers without whom  pickpockets and housebreakers would not have survived, were also major distribution points for the buying and selling of smuggled tobacco, tea and spirits. Smuggling was very common on the south coast (mainly in Sussex and Kent) in the 1740s, especially the smuggling of wool. There was a kind of guerrilla war between the smugglers and the authorities. The  4 writers Daniel Defoe and Horace Walpole in their travels near the south coast passed camps of smugglers pitched not too far from camps of excise men. One night Walpole arrived at ‘ a wretched village called Robertsbridge . . . But alas! there was only one bed to be had; all the rest were inhabited by smugglers, whom the people of the house called mountebanks.’ Not liking this society, Walpole’s party moved on, but finally had to stop at ‘a still worse inn, and that crammed with excise officers, one of whom had ju st shot a smuggler.’ Defoe characterized dragoons of Customs officers on horseback as ‘riding always about as if they were huntsmen beating up their game’. In September 1739 the victuallers and inn-keepers in the Tunbridge area petitioned the War Office fo r relief ‘from the great number of soldiers that are quarter’d thereabouts to watch the smugglers, so many in a house that they have no room for their guests; and if not eas’d they must inevitably be ruin’d’.  The Surveyor-General of the Customs for Kent wrote from Hastings to the Solicitor of the Commissioners of the Customs in London in December 1744, describing the ‘triumphant manner’ with which the smugglers reigned, and their ‘insults, menaces, and abuses given not only to the Officers of the Revenue, but to any other persons that offer to speak against their detestable practices’. The Solicitor, among many others,  believed th at the smugglers were ‘a standing army of desperadoes’ who were terrorizing the people of Sussex. A Committee on Smuggling held Parliamentary hearings in 1745, which revealed a large network of smugglers in the area. Wool was smuggled abroad, where it was used to buy tea, which was smuggled into England. From the port of Boulogne in France, the goods were transported mostly in Folkestone cutters, carrying 15 to 40 tons, which were met three or four miles out from the coast by smaller boats, which brought the goods ashore, where men were waiting for the signal to be ready to collect it. Twenty to thirty cargoes were run each week. Abraham Walter, a tea-dealer and former smuggler, told the committee that the smuggling trade involved more than 20,000 people, and that more than three million  pounds of tea were illegally imported every year. The smuggling in spirits (brandy) was probably as large. Specialized containers were manufactured for transporting smuggled goods: oilskin bags for tea, and half-anchors for  5 spirits, both of which were paired containers slung over a packhorse’s  back, the former a pair of bags holding from a quarter to half a hundredweight each, and the latter a pair of tubs holding about four gallons apiece. A horse could carry six or seven half-anchors, or four half-anchors plus a rider. The goods were stored temporarily in holes dug in sand-dunes, in haystacks, in vaults in parish churches, and in concealed cupboards built into large hearths in village inns, before being sent to warehouses south of London. Although piracy and smuggling, as forms of theft, were already illegal and punishable by transportation, and killing an officer while smuggling was punishable by death, Parliament decided to make sure there was no ambiguity in the interpretation of a law that was difficult to enforce, and passed an Act which made armed smuggling a capital felony, declaring that any suspected smugglers who did not surrender themselves within forty days of their names being published in the gazettes, would be declared to be automatically convicted felons subject to the death penalty. The Hawkhurst Gang Many smugglers regularly assembled at Folkestone, though their chief  place of resort was the village of Hawkhurst in Kent. The ‘Hawkhurst Gang’ was noted as early as 1735, but was especially active in the 1740s. The smugglers ‘go armed; and although they are well known, people dare not ven ture to molest any of them’. Abraham Walter said that a group of 500 armed smugglers could be assembled in Hawkhurst in less than an hour, and that ‘not one person in ten in the country but would give them assistance, and do lend the smugglers their horses and teams to convey their goods. ’ In late March 1747 about seventy of the Hawkhurst smugglers, twenty-five of whom were armed with guns, were loading smuggled tea onto fifty horses on the beach when they were surprised by twenty Customs officers. A battle lasted for an hour and a half before the smugglers fled, taking a large quantity of goods with them. Four or five of the Hawkhurst smugglers were captured and sentenced to death in 1747, and several were transported. The high number of Customs officers who were involved in this conflict was unusual; normally they were too
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