Isaac Gulliver 1745 - 1822

Isaac Gulliver

Many stories have been written and told about "Old Gulliver", perhaps the most popular of Hampshire and Dorset smugglers. Issac was a "Moonraker" (a Wiltshire-man), born in the village of Semington, near Trowbridge, on the 5th September, 1745. His father, also named Isaac, had doubts as to whether Isaac junior was really his own son (he refers to him in his will as "my son or reputed son Isaac Gulliver, otherwise Matravers"), but taught him all he could about the family sideline of smuggling. He was later to control his own gang and run 15 tuggers bringing spirits, silk, lace and tea across the Channel into Poole Bay. Even from an earlier age he showed a natural flair for financial sense, leadership and daring.


On the 5th of October 1768, at the age of 23, he married Elizabeth Beale, daughter of William Beale, at the Church of St Mary in Sixpenny Handley. William Beale was the owner of the blacksmith's Arms on the Blandford to Salisbury road at Thorney Down and it is widely thought that Isaac, at one time, took him on as a partner in smuggling. It wasn't long before Gulliver took over the inn and renamed it the King's Arms. In the following year's many incidents happened at Thorney Down in which it is likely that Gulliver was involved. On 25th March 1778, for example, the Gobblers seized tea and brandy from a nearby cottage and after successfully beating off an attack from a band of men, took it to the Supervisor of Customs house in Blandford and locked it up. At around 7pm a large group of well-armed smuggler's burst in and recovered the goods from the supervisor's wife. As they were leaving 2 casks of spirit were flung into the assembled crowd as a gesture of goodwill. There is no hard evidence to link this with Gulliver, but is very likely.


In the same year Gulliver moved to Longham to take over the White Hart whilst letting out the King's Arms. This moved his activities nearer to Poole Bay in an area five miles west of Poole and five miles East of Christchurch. At the height of his activities he had 15 vessels operating, dropping their anchors off Bournemouth, Alum Chine, Branksome Chine and Flag Chine. At the time, Branksome was his favourite landing spot owing to easy access through Pug's Hole, Talbot Woods (an area believed to have been named after a smuggler called 'Pug' who is said to have hidden his goods here when the area was still heathland) to the inland smuggling centre of Kinson.


By 1779 Gulliver had settled at Longham with his family, and in March another incident occurred near the King's Arms. Six Dragoons were sent out in search of smuggled goods reported near Hooks Wood. the contraband was found but the Dragoons were intercepted on the way back to Cranborne by about 40 smugglers, who succeeded in recapturing the goods. Again, there is no proof to link this incident with Gulliver, but it is a little too suspicious to be coincidence.


Gulliver bought North Eggardon Farm in 1776, 10 miles west of Dorchester or and five miles from the sea. Eggardon Hill, with its Iron Age fort, adjoined the farm and it was here that Isaac planted a circle of trees to act as a landmark for his incoming ships. Today, these trees are gone, but Gulliver's Lane still leads down from the hill. At this time he used landing places like Burton Bradstock, Swyre, Bexington and West Bay. The goods were taken to fashionable Bath and Bristol. His ships sometimes landed at Lyme Regis in plain view of the Customs House, which shows how firmly he had the area under control.


In 1780 Isaac moved to Howe Lodge in Kinson which contained several secret rooms and hidey holes, and a tunnel said to lead 3 1/3 miles to Parkstone Bay. When the building was demolished in 1958, a secret room was discovered accessible via a door or 10 ft up in the chimney. Gulliver resided here periodically from 1780-1816, but he also owned many other houses including one at Crichel, one at Corfe Mullen and Gulliver's Farm in West Moors.


Isaac's system was to buy land with houses and farms, build cellars, tunnels and hides, and then move on, thus increasing his empire. He always had around 50 men working for him who wore uniforms (traditional Dorset smocks) and powdered their hair white. This gave them the nickname "White Wigs". It is thought that Isaac was given a certain amount of leeway by the authorities and so these uniforms may have afforded his men some protection from the Revenue men. The powder in their hair may have been a boast, as a high customs duty was placed on the commodity.


There are many stories associated with "Old Gulliver", some of which may be true. The most widely related is that one night his lugger "Dolphin" dropped anchor off Branksome Chine with Gulliver acting as Lander. He took one cask of brandy for himself and galloped ahead of his convoy through Branksome Woods, now Branksome Park. He was then spotted by the King's men and challenged, to which his response was to laugh and ride off hastily. When he arrived at his home in Kinson he had his horse unsaddled and set loose in the paddock. He then dash indoors with the keg and told his wife of the situation. She hid Gulliver in a secret room accessed by a trapdoor under the parlour carpet. His wife sat down and laid her legs on the keg, covering it with it the folds of her skirt. When the customs officer arrived he was let in by the maid, but as he had no warrant, he wasn't able to search the house. He was told that the master was out riding and to check this story, the officer went outside to see if Isaac's horse was there. He could not find it, but next day he returned with a warrant. He was then told that Isaac had died and saw him lying in a coffin with a deathly colour. It was, of course, merely a trick, Isaac had covered his face with white powder and the coffin was buried full of stones. He then kept a low profile for the next few months.


In 1782 the government offered a free pardon to any smuggler willing to enter at the Navy or find 2 substitutes to take his place. Gulliver decided to take up this offer, perhaps to clear old scores, and bought two volunteers to take his place. He then announced his intentions to move to Teignmouth and run a legitimate wine and spirit merchant's business. This was, of course, only part of the truth and he was soon commanding a sphere of smuggling from Lymington to Torbay.


In 1788 the Board of Customs in London asked the collector at Poole for a confidential report on Isaac Gulliver. Information was passed back to London stating that he was now a legal merchant. It may have been that Gulliver had the Poole customs men in his pocket because shortly after this, Weston, the customs Deputy at Poole, was dismissed for passing information of military dispositions to John Early, a known smuggler, who may also have been one of Isaac's men.


It has been said that Gulliver was an information gatherer against the French, and that he received his pardon for informing the King of a French plot to assassinate him. This may account for the leniency that the customs officers obviously showed him. The truth of this, however, still remains unknown.


He completed his last known run around 1800 and moved back to Howe Lodge in 1815. in 1817 he moved to West Borough, Wimborne and became churchwarden at the Minster Church. It was at his home, now called Gulliver's House, that he died on Friday 13 September 1822 at the age of 77, and he was buried in the Minster Church. His body has since been moved to a different part and can now be found under the Western tower. His descendants claimed that when he died he accumulated so much money that he would be called a millionaire today. It is interesting to note that his only son (another "Isaac") died unmarried, but his daughters married into the Fryer family (another well known name in Dorset smuggling history) who had interests in fisheries and banking.


Gulliver boasted that he never caused the death of a King's man. How different he was from his colleagues in the Hawkhurst Gang.