The decline in smuggling


The decline in smuggling was a gradual one and was brought about mainly by the emergence of the coastguard service in 1831. The harsher penalties that were risked and the increased effectiveness of the King's Men lead towards greater stealth, secrecy and ingenuity on the part of the free traders.


One method to avoid detection when bringing cargo ashore was known as "sewing the crop". Merchants abroad would often sell the tubs ready slung, and when the ship came close to the shore, 40 or 50 of these attached to a length of rope and with heavy stones in between would be thrown into the sea and marked by a cork on a length of string. This was later "crept up" using specially made grappling irons, or towed ashore under water. Mention of this procedure can be found in the page on Handfast Point. In some places such cargo would be lost for ever in deep silt, and so tubs would often be tied to weighted planks of wood, thus suspending the raft a few inches from the seabed. In bad weather, however, there was a risk of the stones becoming dislodged and the raft floating to the surface. Also, if the tubs were left under the sea for too long, their contents would become foul and spirits in such a condition were known as "stinkibus".


When these tubs were landed, the rope slings could be used to carry them by man or horse to suitable hiding places, such as quarries. The bell ringers of Fordington in Dorchester showed ingenuity when concealing their own contraband. They were accused of disloyalty to the Crown when they failed to join other ringers in celebrating a great naval victory. The truth was that the casks had been attached to the bell clappers!


The design of many shipping vessels were adapted to help smugglers go about their business as the trade became more and more risky during the "blockade". "Phaedra" for example, a 14 ton yawl rigged vessel from London, put into Christchurch Harbour in 1824, and was found to have a second deck three inches above the original, between which was crammed 66 bales of tobacco. It was the presence of Richard Streeter on board (a relative of John Streeter) that alerted the chief officer at Christchurch.


Transport, too, had become more cunning, and the people of Dorset used a variety of means to carry this out. A Swanage smuggler, for example, trained his horse to walk home, unaccompanied, with the goods and to wait for his master's return on the doorstep. No one could prove that the man had loaded the contraband himself. After one landing, however, the horse arrived at a porch next door, where it just so happened that a customs officer lived. Doubtless to say, the cargo was seized before the horse, returned to his master's house.


Smuggling was not confined only to men. The women of Lulworth, for example, often carried tubs under the piles of linen in their clothes basket, and bladders of spirit under their petticoats.


In Poole, two ingenious methods were used to transport cargo inland, by using a hearse and the underground drains and tunnels. Both of these methods are related in the page on Poole and Poole Harbour. The gangs, by now, had become more vicious to resist arrest, and in 1827 the Bow Street runners were called in to deal with the leaders of a gang who had wounded several customs officers in the Purbecks by using "swingles" (similar to flails).


In the 1830's two officers were thrown to their deaths, one from the cliffs west of Lulworth, and the other from Gad Cliff. A ceremonious burial followed the death of the former, which many of the locals attended. The worm of public sympathy had finally turned.


Over the next 20 years smuggling became less and less viable. Fewer people tolerated the barbarism, the Revenue laws were updated, severer punishments were imposed, profits decreased, the efficiency of the coastguard service increased, and the training standards were high. Britain was now entering a free trade era.


Dorset smuggling had almost ceased to exist, but incidents still occur today. Not the brandy, tea and silk of yesterday, but a far more lucrative and dangerous contraband - drugs.