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  • Writer's picturecaitlyncallery9

Smugglers in Georgian Sussex, part one

Yesterday, Sunday March 10th 2024, was Mothering Sunday in the UK. In modern times of course, this has come to be known as Mother's Day, and is a time when we honour our mothers, along with stepmothers, grandmothers, (and any other ladies we care to think of, to be honest.)

Which is why my eldest son treated me to Sunday lunch at the award-winning Robin Hood pub in Icklesham, a small village on the road between Hastings and Rye.

Although it probably wasn't always called the Robin Hood, the building has been an inn since the 17th century. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was probably up to its cellar ceilings in smuggled goods and nefarious goings on, as were most of the buildings in this village, and most other villages in the area. There were hidden coves and secret tunnels that helped the smugglers get their illicit goods –  tea, brandy, tobacco, and lace, among other things, from the beaches at Hastings and the embayment at Rye, closer to their buyers in London, Tunbridge Wells, and other affluent inland towns.

These days, there is a tendency to look back on the smugglers of the Georgian era with rose-tinted glasses. The likes of Jean-Benoit Aubery in Frenchman’s Creek, or the Reverend Dr. Christopher Syn in the books by Russell Thorndike are our models. They are heroes, with a code of honour, and a soul filled with derring-do.

In reality, smugglers were far from romantic heroes. They were, much like their modern counterparts, ruthless profiteers willing to do anything, up to and including murder and acts of treason. They would, and did, smuggle everything that turned a profit, bringing duty free supplies of otherwise heavily taxed goods into the country, and helping fugitives get to the continent. From Jesuit priests in Tudor times to French spies during the Napoleonic wars, smugglers would give passage to anyone who could make it worth their while.

In my novel, "The Smuggler's Daughter," Adam Mason has been sent by the Government to find proof against suspected smugglers who plan to help Napoleon escape Saint Helena, raise an army, and invade Britain. There really were people who believed the Corsican dictator was what this country needed, and they worked happily alongside ruthless gangs of smugglers.

Smugglers are, of course, more known today for what they brought into the country than what they shipped out. If caught, the penalty was death, but the profits were so good, the risks were worth it.

Not that those risks were necessarily high. The people, on the whole, sympathised with “the Gentlemen” as they were called. In part, this was because their goods were a great deal cheaper than the legal versions - not difficult when duty could be as high as 30%.

Also, many of the ordinary people were complicit in their trade. Again, it's not difficult to see why. In one night acting as a Tubman, (a person who carried the goods from the coast to its inland hiding places) a labourer could earn more than he would in a month at his day job.

Many, including Landed Gentry and country vicars, turned a blind eye to goods stored on their property or in their churches, and customs officers could be bribed to look the other way:

do but dash a bottle of Brandy in his face and he is as blind as a beetle.”

(attributed to a Sussex smuggler.)


Following a change in the law in 1746, if the authorities learned a smuggler's name, he could be “gazetted.” That meant his name was published in the London Gazette. After that, he had forty days to turn himself in. If he didn't, he became an outlaw, with a bounty of £500 on his head. A pound was twenty shillings, and a shilling was twelve pennies. When a labourer could expect to earn between one shilling and sixpence and twelve shillings a day, depending on the tasks he undertook and the skills required, that reward could equal between two and six years wages, making the gazetted man very vulnerable indeed.

If he did turn himself in, he was faced with a stark choice. Turn King’s Evidence and betray his former colleagues, or hang. Or, if he was lucky and wasn't wanted for murder, he might be transported.

Of course, if he turned King’s Evidence, he would then have a very different price on his head…

The law didn't have the effect of lessening smuggling, but it did increase the violence used by the smugglers. However, that is another story...

"The Smuggler's Daughter" is published by The Wild Rose Press.

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