Smuggling in the Bexhill Area Introduction

by Don Phillips
Smuggling became a major occupation in Sussex, especially in the 18th century when cargoes of illicit goods were sponsored by high ranking merchants and the aristocracy. It was also a period of great hardship for the Sussex labourer, for whom a few hours hard work at night earned more than a full weeks wages on the farm.

Smuggling arose as a direct result of taxes levied on imported and exported goods. These tariffs provided a source of income for the monarchs and governments over the centuries and the extent of smuggling reflects the variation in the levels of duty. Export duties were also used to restrict the movement of goods out of the country from as early as 1275, when a tax was imposed on wool. This was seen as a mechanism for strengthening the internal economy and safeguarding internal supplies. The smuggling of wool was known as cowling’, for it took place at night and owl hoots were used as signals. It was reported that in 1671 wool was taken to ships in Sussex and Kent, guarded with bands of 20 armed men and that in two years an estimated 40,000 packs of wool were smuggled from Sussex and Kent to Calais alone. In 1673 an injunction was sent from ‘the king to the Earl of Dorset, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex directing him to use his utmost endeavours to discover persons transporting combed wool to France, and to search for and seize all such wool as it is probably designed to be transported and to apprehend the owners thereof if they cannot give a sufficient account of the same’. It is thought the Huguenot refugees, settled in Sussex and Kent, were behind the smuggling of wool at this time, maintaining their links with the merchants in France.

Very often the wool went to France, where it was part exchanged for French brandy. There was also internal tax on goods e.g. candles, soap, leather and salt known as excise duty. Excise officers ensured payment of this tax. Whenever there was a demand for increased revenue, usually to finance warfare, the duties were substantially increased.

Silks, laces and tobacco were normally smuggled through ports; local legal quays (i.e. where Customs men were employed) were Rye, Hastings, Pevensey and Newhaven. The more bulky items such as tea, brandy and wines were brought in on the beaches. These items were much easier to handle than the bulky wool had been. Consignments of gold bullion were smuggled across the channel to France, which proved useful to the French government in times of war. Spices, coffee, chocolate, playing cards, jewellery, fashionable clothes, glass and china ware, rum and geneva or gin were also smuggled to Britain, newspapers to France and letters and spies both ways. Arthur Young in 1813 was concerned with the effect smuggling had on the district; “in the neighbourhood of the sea are many old labourers, as the young and active find smuggling a more lucrative employ, which is very successfully pursued in Sussex. At Rye, Hastings, [East]Bourne etc it is highly flourishing, whilst the health of the inhabitants is injured, the revenue defrauded and [the cost of] labour high….the revenue….is cheated to the amount of £80,000 per annum: between 3 and 400,000 gallons of gin, rum and other spirits are annually smuggled in this district….this great consumption of spirit is very pernicious to the labourers and equally injurious to the farmers”.

It has been estimated that in the 18th century, the heyday of smuggling, no duty had been paid on two thirds of the tobacco consumed in England; nearly 4 million gallons of gin (distilled in Holland) and five to six million pounds of tea was smuggled in.

Local favoured landing places were at Pevensey Bay (before development had begun and known as The Red House), Normans Bay (again before development and known as The Sluice, Sluicehaven or Havensmouth), Cooding Gate (Cooden Beach), Veness Gap (Hartfield Road/South Cliff), Sea Lane (Sea Road), the area of the Sackville Hotel before development, Glyne Gap, Bulverhythe and St Leonards. Goods were usually landed in the ‘dark’ (between moons) and carried away on the backs of ponies and men. Temporary hiding places have been found at Barnhorn Manor (behind a chimney breast), at Whydown Farm (behind a false wall) and at Sandhurst Farm.

The customs service has been in force for more than 1200 years. The earliest record dates from AD 742 when ships were paying customs dues and it has continued through the centuries. Up to the 17th century collection of dues was rather haphazard and subject to much abuse and corruption but with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the customs service received a fresh impetus, the king appointed the Board of Customs in 1671 and the Board of Excise in 1683. An act of parliament in 1698 created the land guard force of ‘Riding Officers’. Their main purpose was to enforce the law regarding the selling and transporting of wool within 15 miles of the coast, firstly in south-east Kent and in 1699 extended to Sussex and the rest of Kent. They had to provide their own house and patrolled between four and ten miles of coast. They kept a daily record and were required to keep their movements secret. The pay was £25 per annum plus an allowance for their horse. They were armed with a cutlass and two pistols. If required they could call on a detachment of military, usually dragoons sometimes hussars or lancers for back-up but this took time and reduced their effectiveness. Overall they must have been a very brave breed of men to challenge and attempt to apprehend sizeable gangs (usually 20 to 50 men) of smugglers single-handedly although there is evidence that smugglers could bride Riding Officers with payments to turn a `blind eye’ or the smugglers could leave a small part of the goods for the officer to ‘seize’ once they had departed. From 1735 to 1750 the Surveyor-General of Riding Officers in Sussex was Major Battine. At the same time Riding Officers were introduced, twenty revenue vessels were formed to patrol the channel coastline.

The first half of the 18th century saw a continuous passing of miscellaneous laws regarding smuggling, in 1717 the Smuggling Act made smugglers who refused to plead liable to transportation, the following year the Hovering Act was passed which made it illegal for vessels of under 50 tons to ‘hover’ along the coast if laden with tea, brandy, silk etc. In 1721 a further Smuggling Act required convicted smugglers to be transported for seven years and boats with more than four oars were confiscated and destroyed. This act was itself replaced with that of 1736 which increased penalties for convicted smugglers; severe fines for bribing officers, death for wounding or taking up arms against officers and transportation (if unarmed) for resisting arrest. The following Indemnity Act meant that a convicted smuggler could have a free pardon if he confessed all and gave the names of his associates.

In the period 1723-1736, 229 smuggling boats were confiscated, 2,000 persons prosecuted and nearly 200,000 gallons of brandy were seized. However 250 Revenue Officers were beaten and wounded and six murdered which presumably prompted parliament to increase the penalties especially for offences against officers.

In 1745 Henry Pelham cut the duty on tea to such an extent that smuggling this commodity was unprofitable until it was raised again in 1759.

The Smuggling Act of 1746 established the severest penalties; they were introduced initially for a seven year period but were retained. The death sentence was now imposed on anyone found miming contraband, assembling to run goods or found harbouring smugglers. Those found guilty of killing Revenue Officers were to be gibbeted (hanged and then hung in a cradle until the body rotted – such a cage can be seen at Rye Museum). Collective fines were also introduced whereby the whole county was fined for unresolved offences (£100 for an officer killed, £40 for one wounded). Another system was `gazetting’; names of known smugglers would be published in the London Gazette, if they did not surrender within 40 days they became automatically guilty and outlaws, a £500 reward was offered for anyone informing on a gazetted smuggler.

In 1782 came the ‘Act of Oblivion’. Finding willing men to serve in the navy and army was becoming an increasing problem, in an attempt to solve this smugglers were given the opportunity to redeem their crimes by finding men to serve in the armed forces.

William Pitt the Younger on becoming Prime Minister in 1783 cut the duty on tea from 127% to 12.5% and instead increased the window tax. He also amended the smuggling and hovering acts and prohibited certain kinds of boats favoured by smugglers from being built (the smugglers then built or bought their boats on the continent!).

During the Napoleonic Wars the fight against smuggling continued and was combined with the need for defence especially on vulnerable coasts in south east England. In 1809 the Preventative Waterguard were created by the Board of Customs. The Southern District which included the coast from Lands End to North Foreland (Kent) was under the command of Captain William Blake. He had 43 preventative boats and 23 cruisers at his disposal. Their main aim was to assist the Revenue Cutters in patrolling the coastline. Between 1777 and 1780 the revenue cutter locally was based at Newhaven and was called ‘The Dispatch’ of 138 tons. It was manned by 26 men and had 12 carriage guns. In 1780 and until 1783 it was replaced by ‘The Surprise’ of 135 tons, 28 men and carrying 14 carriage guns.

In 1816 control of the revenue vessels was transferred to the Admiralty, local Preventative Waterguard stations were at Hastings, Bulverhythe, Pevensey, Sluice and Eastbourne.

Also in 1816 a Coast Blockade force of naval personnel, paid for by Customs had been formed to stop smuggling between North and South Foreland in Kent. In 1818 this was extended to the coast between Sheerness and Seaford. They included Lieutenants, 120 Midshipmen and 1000 seamen (and provided use of men taken on during the recently ended Napoleonic Wars), they were divided into parties and stationed on land in Martello Towers. They were commanded from a warship stationed in the Downs (off of Deal, Kent). In 1817 the ship was the 44 gun frigate HMS Ganymede, replaced by the 74 gun HMS Ramillies and later still HMS Severn. A further ship, HMS Hyperion (42 guns) was stationed at Newhaven. Midshipman Charles Brand has left an account of his time with the Coast Blockade. He describes the Martello Towers as “dungeons” and being wet and mildewed having not been used since 1815. He served in Tower 50 (Cooden Beach), Tower 73 (Eastbourne) and Tower 55 (Normans Bay), ‘removed from all society…. “[he] lived the life of a hermit”. The seamen he describes as being “either old, young or Irish” and many deserted.

Each station was manned by a Lieutenant, a midshipman and a minimum of eight seamen. Each station would mount a “rowing guard along section of coast, if rough weather, a shore patrol”, this was in addition to the Preventative Waterguard Riding Officers and Landguard forces.

In 1831 the Coastguard was formed by combining all the above forces. They took over and continued to use most Coast Blockade Stations and most men also transferred over to the new service. The Coastguards were regarded as a naval reserve and men were trained in military drill and prepared for service at sea if necessary. Many Coastguards helped man lifeboats which were introduced from 1824 onwards. In 1856 the Coastguard Act confirmed their responsibilities as: Defence of the Coast, help man the Royal Navy, help vessels in distress, take charge of wrecks, operate life-saving equipment, telegraphs, lighthouses etc.

Unlike the Coast Blockade, accommodation had to be found not only for the Coastguard Officer but also his family. Martello Towers although unsuitable continued to be used, some accommodating three families, in 1841 Tower 59 (between Pevensey Bay and Langney Point) housed a total of 16 people on its two floors, in totally unsanitary conditions.

After 1860 the Admiralty were empowered to acquire land to build new stations or add to the existing ones. Each site was not to exceed three acres, which would be sufficient for a boathouse, watchroom and cottages with gardens for the men to grow vegetables. Coastguard cottages were built locally at The Sluice (Normans Bay), Kewhurst (Cooden Beach), Bexhill (The Horn – now the site of the De La Warr Pavilion) and Galley Hill. Only those at Normans Bay now remain but a good example of the type of buildings and isolated position exist at Fairlight.

The great use of The Sluice area for smuggling is reflected in the great concentration of the Coastguard service in this area. Martello Towers nos. 52 and 54 were used for accommodation, Towers 53 and 55 for watch purposes. Cottages were built between Towers 52 and 53 soon after 1843. By 1866 the station consisted of ten cottages, an officer’s house, boat house and rocket house on the site of 2 acres. From 1853 the Methodist Missionary enterprise from Belle Hill in Bexhill started regular services in the boat house at The Sluice. The Church of England St James Church was built in 1866 and also provided a school.

A smaller coastguard station was formed around Martello Tower 57 (Normans Bay – Pevensey Bay). In a storm on New Years Day 1877 much of it was destroyed; the four coastguards and their families being forced to seek refuge in the Martello Tower. Their names and families were recorded as:

Chief Boatman William Wedge and six children
Commissioned Boatman E T Coppard and five children
Commissioned Boatman. John Dyer and one child
Commissioned Boatman. T Hosier and three children

The availability of the Martello Towers to the preventative services was of crucial importance, they provided high vantage points at frequent intervals and accommodation (albeit primitive) for a sufficiently numerous force of men to effectively reduce the profitability of smuggling. The following list concerns those from St Leonards to Langney Point, listing those used by the Coast Blockade etc and their subsequent fate. In many instances the towers were built exceptionally close to the sea, many succumbing within twenty years of being built.

39 Coast Blockade (CB) St. Leonards (Bo-peep) destroyed soon after 1876
40 CB St. Leonards destroyed soon after 1873
41 CB Bulverhythe fell into sea by 1842
42 CB Bulverhythe demolished 1840
43 Bulverhythe (Little Galley Hill) fell into sea by late 19th century
44 CB Galley Hill (Bexhill) fell into sea by end of 1870
45 South of Sackville Hotel, Bexhill fell into sea by 1839
46 CB Site of Colonnade, Bexhill demolished 1870
47 south of Richmond Road, Bexhill fell into sea by mid 19th century
48 CB south of Pages Ave., Bexhill demolished 1858
49 CB Veness Gap/Hartfield Rd area destroyed by late 1870
50 CB Cooden Beach destroyed 1860 – gunnery practice
51 CB Hospital Culvercroft Bank, Herbrand Walk fell sea into by 1870
52 Coastguard (CG) Cooden – Normans Bay fell into the sea by 1900
53 CB,CG Cooden – Normans Bay fell into the sea by 1900
54 CG The Sluice (Normans Bay) fell into the sea by 1900
55 CB, CG The Sluice previously a summer residence, now derelict, known as Telegraph Tower
56 Normans BayPevensey Bay destroyed
57 CB, CG Normans Bay – Pevensey Bay destroyed
58 Pevensey Bay fell into the sea
59 CB, CG Pevensey Bay demolished 1903
60 Pevensey Bay Private residence
61 Pevensey Bay Private residence
62 CB, CG Pevensey Bay Private residence
63 CG Pevensey Bay destroyed WW2 gunnery practice
64 CB, CG Pevensey Bay falling into the sea
65 Crumbles, Eastbourne fell into the sea 1938
66 CG Crumbles, Eastbourne used by coastguards until 1989

The end of traditional smuggling can be linked to the formation of the Coastguard Service and almost simultaneous the parliamentary reforms which removed excessive duties on the traditional commodities smuggled. The gradual movement to free-trade by the end of the nineteenth century made smuggling unprofitable. Unfortunately for the local labourers the end of smuggling also coincided with a general agricultural depression where wages and conditions deteriorated and labour plentiful. Without the welcome additional sums gained by helping with the movement of contraband goods, many sank below the poverty line.

Generally there were two types of land smugglers; the tubmen and the batsmen. Tubmen were hired labour, usually local and employed to move cargos for relatively short distances – handing the goods over to contemporaries of other districts. They took their name from the ‘tubs’ of spirits (half anker, 4 gallons) two of which could be tied with rope, the carrier having one in front on his chest and one behind on his back. The average pay being 10 shillings a night, which compared favourably with the labourers wage of eight shillings in 1789 and four shillings in 1813.
Batsmen were the organisers of the gang usually of criminal persuasion and due to the high profits available, frequently violent. The large gangs such as the Groombridge, Hawkhurst and Mayfield gangs became a law to themselves with numerous weapons. Frequently preferred were the ‘bats’ -six to eight foot long ash poles which were a very effective weapon against swords and cutlasses and the early firearms. As the authorities improved their weapons so did the smugglers until both sides carried cutlasses and pistols. A witness at a trial in the mid 1700s stated that the organisers “allow each man half a guinea a journey and the gang bear all expenses of eating and drinking, provide a horse and an allowance of a dollop of tea [4001bs] worth 20 shillings…. such a temptation that very few people in the country can withstand and which has been the cause of so many turning [to smuggling], they always make one journey, sometimes two and sometimes three in a week”.

The sea based smugglers were another separate section, they were generally very good seamen, especially at navigation at night, knowing their area of coast on both sides of the English Channel intimately. They were also good at avoiding enemy shipping and the Press Gang. The largest vessels used were luggers of 50-200 tons with three masts and required a crew of 50 then. They were frequently armed with carriage and swivel guns. Smaller cutters were also used, these were swift clinker built boats with one mast and a bowsprit and were used by both smugglers and the preventative forces. The smallest used boats were ‘tub’ boats, small rowing craft ideal for approaching close to land.






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