The Smugglers of Britain

The beginning of the eighteenth century sparked the rise of the infamous British smuggling trade. Tea, tobacco, spirits and other luxuries had taxes opposed onto them and this made them worth smuggling. Although there were severe penalties for being caught smuggling the smugglers carried on and it seemed even the authorities could always be persuaded to keep quiet with some contraband.

The Smuggling Museum, Broadstairs, Kent

One of the biggest smuggling trades was tea. After it had arrived into Britain in 1657 it had become a national staple and was more favoured than beer and ale. The great East India Company's ships would sell tea to passing boats from Britain. The smugglers would then hide it in their clothes as it was light and easy to handle before making the journey to London, tea capital. However not all of this tea was for the British. The tea industry had rocketed and it was now being exported to be sold in Rotterdam.

Harty Ferry, Faversham, Kent

Another item that thrived during the height of British smuggling was alcohol. Bootleg alcohol was now an industry and it seemed Britain and the French coast soon became business partners as gin was being specially distilled for the English smugglers in Dunkirk distilleries.

"In the 1730's Lord Hervery found that in Britain 'Drunkenness of the common people is so universal by the retailing of a liquor called Gin, with which they could get drunk for a groat, that the whole town of London and many towns in the country swarmed with drunken people from morning to night, and were more like a scene of a Bacchanal than the residence of a civil society'." - 'The Smuggling War' by Geoffrey Morely
The Smugglers pub, Bleak House, Kent

There was also a large amount of brandy or 'cognac' available, which in smuggler rhyming slang had been renamed 'Cousin Jack'. Now, it is no wonder that the population of Britain were getting rather drunk as the finest cognac sold was 93 percent proof. However people didn't just drink it for fun, it was drunk to cure all kinds of illnesses such as toothache, fever, gout and also used as antiseptic. The brandy arrived a clear liquid but the British liked it honey-coloured so much that French merchants used to supply free caramel tint, but some towns used to colour it themselves with sugar.

"It is said that in many of these plcaes one could walk out into the evening air and breate in the balmy perfume from the burnt sugar with which the smugglers' ladies were colouring the cognac their menfolk had just run in" - 'The Smuggling War' by Geoffrey Morley
Joss Snelling at the The Smuggling Museum, Bleak House, Kent

Kent was a big centre of smuggling. The smugglers in Kent were known as the most ruthless and were described as "men of violence, maintaining reigns of terror and conducting armed insurrection against the forces of the lawful government whenever it suited them. They were for the most part, vicious outlaws". One of the gangs that menaced was the 'Hawkhurst' gang, based in Hastings the gang worked throughout Kent. "When they were drunk they would swagger about, frightening people and firing their guns just for the sheer pleasure of seeing sober citizens jump".

Deal pier, Kent

In the midst of Kent's smuggling trade was the seaside town Deal. This was due to Deal's beach being only 22 miles away from the French coast. People would come from far and wide to shop the luxury items that were being sold very cheap. It was also apparent that the whole town was involved in these crimes.

"It would be foolish to deny that Deal's prosperity in times past was founded upon smuggling. Almost everyone was involved in the 'midnight trade', from the common boatmen who were the carriers, to the magistrates who not only sympathised with the smugglers, but often funded their nocturnal activities." - 'Deal: Sad Smuggling Town' by Gregory Holyoake

Click on the video to see how Deal became Britain's most wanted town!

Rowing boat, Harty Ferry, Kent

Our modern day Coastguard is actually a result of smuggling. They were first appointed to counteract the smugglers, however as time has gone on they have now been entrusted to prevent lose of life on the coast and at sea by search and rescue. As we can see the fight against smuggling continues. Click below to here from our coastguard officers!

For more information about Her Majestys' Coastguard go to

Created By
ellie somers


Created with images by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL - "The roads of ye south part of Great Britain, called England and Wales, containing all ye cities, market towns, post towns, boroughs: and whatever places have ye election of members of parliament &c. all the great or post roads, and principal cross-roads"

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