The Isle of Purbeck


The Isle of Purbeck is a Peninsula with a gentle sea slope, riddled with sheltered coves and bays. The land varies from the low-lying beaches and heath at Studland to particularly hazardous high cliffs further south. The East side of the Peninsula is particularly well sheltered from the harsh south-westerly winds. Many natural caves can be found in the Purbeck stone, as well as man-made quarries, providing ideal storage dumps for contraband. Quite often a stone cave was dug out solely to create a hiding place.


This area of forest, heath and marsh was surrounded by the open sea on two sides and by Poole Harbour on the third, ideal for importing illicit goods. Transport within the Peninsula was made easy by the deep and secluded valleys, which help smugglers on the way to the nearby market of Poole. It was a bad area for horses which drastically reduced the effectiveness of Dragoons, and so, for all these reasons, the Purbeck islanders were particularly active in the craft of smuggling. There was hardly a house without a cellar or hiding place in the thick Purbeck stone walls. The Isle of Purbeck was truly smugglers country.




The sheltered and gently sloping beaches of Studland were ideally suited to landing cargo and the fine sand made its burial easy. The smugglers would often cover the hidden cache with seaweed and return later to collect their contraband for onward transportation. The heath immediately beyond the beaches could also be used for hiding the goods.


A local activity was to burn seaweed on the beach to provide kelp for the fields. Smugglers made full use of this innocuous activity by concealing kegs within the kelp as it was loaded onto wagons. At dusk it would then be taken across the heath to Poole Harbour.


In the village of Studland, many cottages acted as watch-houses, including one that is now known as the "Smuggler's Watch".


Sinick and Hutchins


At one time, the smugglers of Studland were led by John Sinick, a devout enemy of a local customs man named Thomas Hutchins. This animosity dated back to a time when Hutchins had prosecuted Sinick for breaking into his house in an attempt to recapture 3 casks of spirits that the customs man had previously seized from him.


Hutchins spotted Sinick on the beach one day as he was carrying a cask of spirits towards a skiff. Investigating the scene, Hutchins found a casket containing 4 gallons of brandy in a nearby canoe at which Sinick's wife was waiting. Hutchins tried to seize the casket, but Sinick ran towards them, grabbed Hutchins by the collar and threw him into the sea. The smuggler's attempt to drown the Customs Officer was foiled when a villager named Thomas Summers stepped into the affray. In the ensuing scuffle, Hutchins was knocked into the water and viciously kicked by Sinick, who then ran back to the shore and escaped with his brandy. Summers helped Hutchins back to the shore, where he was violently sick.


After consultation with his superiors in Poole, Hutchins returned to Studland and seized both the skiff and the canoe. One of the boats was owned by Robert White, another man who had long held a grudge against the Customs Officer. White filed against Hutchins for the seizure of the boat, and Sinick claimed that Hutchins had ill-treated his wife during the incident. Thomas Summers and his brother John were also dragged into the argument when Sinick claimed that they were in fact smugglers. Hutchins cleared his name easily, and summers was rewarded by being made a tidewaiter.


Handfast Point


Old Harry Rocks are a famous geographical landmark etched from the cliffs of Handfast Point, at the most Southerly point of Studland Bay. Just beyond Studland Baythere is a site known as Parson's Barn, which was once a cave used as a storehouse before the gales of 1963 unfortunately brought the roof down.


Many stories are linked to this area including this one from the 1750's. Two strangers were being ferried on a regular boat from Swanage to Poole and one of these expressed interest in a line of corks he saw floating on the water near Parson's Barn. The boatman, cautious of divulging the true nature of their purpose, replied that they were lobster pot markers. The stranger was not so easily deterred and asked the boatman to raise one of the pots so he could see what a lobster looked like. The boatman had no choice but to agree, and stopped the boat so that the line could be hauled in. The corks were in fact markers for kegs of contraband brandy hidden underwater (a practice known as "sewing the crop"), and the boatman looked on horrified as the as the line of brandy kegs was raised and the stranger produced a knife with which to mark every keg with a broad arrow.


A couple of days later, a revenue cutter captured the smugglers as they went out to collect the goods. The stranger was the new Chief Customs Officer at Swanage.


Ballard Down


Further along the coast from Handfast Point is the area known as Ballard Down. On landing, kegs would be hauled up the steep cliffs of Ballard Point by ropes, and then carried by farm wagons and pack ponies either to Studland, or along the top of Ballard Down. It is likely that the load would firstly be taken to Jenny Gould's cottage on the Swanage to Studland road. Jenny Gould was said to be a witch and her cottage was near to Godlingston Hill where the ancient Giant's Grave and Giant's Trencher were to be found. These factors combined to make superstitious customs men afraid to go near the place. The Purbeck smugglers did their best to keep alive such ghostly tales and stories of witchcraft - what better way was there to keep Revenue Officers away from churchyards late at night, while the free traders carried on with their activities uninterrupted?


Swanage Bay


Known in the 17th Century as "Sandwich"


Stretching between Ballard Point and Peveril Point is a gently sloping sheltered beach known as Swanage Bay. This area was notorious for smuggler's who found good custom from the many inns in the town of Swanage itself.


In 1760 an incident occurred in the bay that illustrated the friction that existed between the King's Navy and the Customs Service. Two Swanage Customs officials, Milner and Shank, had been keeping watch on either side of the Bay when they heard gunfire out at sea. At midnight a boat was heard approaching the shore and the two men went to investigate. They found eight smugglers on board who told the Customs men that they were fleeing from two armed cutters, and although they had lost their cargo, they were pleased to have escaped impressment into the Navy. Milner and Shank then hired a boat and three oarsmen and boarded one of the naval cutters where they met the two commanders, Standford and Noble, and the captain of the smuggling vessel, John Harman. When Milner and Shank announced their intention to take the seized vessel to Poole Harbour, Standford and Noble stated that they were under orders to take it to Portsmouth or Sandown for seizure by an Excise officer. The determined Customs men, refusing to concede, climbed into the hired boats and headed for the smuggling cutter with Noble following close behind in his own boat. When they refused to stop, Noble ordered his men to fire and sink the boat should Milner and Shank try to board the cutter. The three hired oarsmen refused to go any further and so the officers had to return to the Navy cutter. Eventually Standford agreed to let Shank accompany the seized cargo to Portsmouth but owing to his inexperience, he returned to Swanage empty-handed.


Durlston Bay


The cliff faces of the Purbecks were a warren of quarries that acted as ideal places to land goods. Even the quarryman carried contraband inland by concealing it in their lunch baskets.


There was once a huge pile of stone off-cuts here which housed a magnificently built secret room accessed by moving a massive boulder. Contraband was hidden in this room, unknown by customs officers, for many years until they were informed of its presence by a villager. The room was ransacked and then razed to the ground after which the smuggler's vowed to discover who the treacherous informer was and to hang him. They eventually found him, but instead of hanging him, they decided to punish him by fear. His effigy was burnt in front of him, witchcraft-style, and he was then set free. He was so afraid of the dark forces that might have been invoked against him, that he spent the rest of his life as a recluse, never venturing outside his door unless absolutely necessary.


Dancing Ledge


The coast here is on an exact East to West line, and this proved to be good landmark for incoming ships. Dancing Ledge was trimmed out of a natural quay ideal for loading stone as well as landing contraband. To reach the ledge, access had to be made by an iron ladder attached to the cliff face.


In the 1790's a large cargo of brandy was landed here and taken to Spyway Farm for the night, before being stowed between the ceiling and roof of Langton Matravers Church (without the vicar's permission!). Unfortunately, the ceiling couldn't cope with the weight and as the choir were singing "and thy paths drop fatness" the next morning, it gave way, burying the congregation under 200 kegs of French brandy. One villager was killed and many injured, some crippled for life.


St Albans Head


This marks the Western boundary of the Isle of Purbeck, and with Corfe Castle in the middle, it lies on a straight line to Wareham. It was on the wide beach below the Head in 1827 that two contraband luggers were met by about 80 land smugglers under the leadership of John Lucas, landlord of the ship Inn at Woolbridge. They were, however, surprised by 10 preventers under Captain Jackson, who gave the order to fire when the smuggler's went for their weapons. Two smugglers were killed and many injured before Customs reinforcements arrived and the smugglers retreated.


The next day, Jackson and his men knocked at the door of the ship Inn and was let in by Lucas after mimicking the voice of a little girl asking for brandy for her sick mother. Several of the smugglers were captured in this raid along with the goods, and Jackson received a commendation. Lucas and his men ended up in hard labour at Dorchester Jail, known locally as "St Peter's Palace".


Kimmeridge Bay


With its gently sloping beach free from treacherous rocks, Kimmeridge Bay could be used by free traders in all weathers. To the East is Clavel's Tower, erected in 1800 by the local squire, Reverend John Clavel. It is likely that this was used as a signal tower for smuggling ships as well as a landmark to show where the safe part of the bay started, to the west of the treacherous Kimmeridge Ledges.