November 2016 – Smuggling on the NE Coast

Despite it being a wet and windy night, there was a good turnout for the Alnwick and District Local History’s November meeting to hear Dr Tony Barrow give a talk with the intriguing title “Incendiary Letters and Iniquitous Practices”.

Dr Barrow is a maritime historian, who has collected a considerable amount of material relating to smuggling along the north-east coast (roughly from Berwick to Whitby).  Just three Customs Houses were responsible for this stretch of coast: Berwick, covering from Eyemouth to Alnmouth; Newcastle, covering Amble to Sunderland; and Stockton-on-Tees, from Ryhope to Saltburn.

The history of smuggling goes back to at least 1275, when Edward I introduced customs duties on wool.  Wine was certainly smuggled after 1453, but smuggling got going in a big way after mercantilist legislation (which introduced monopolies) in 1660.  It grew until the 18th century but decline in Victorian times.

At its heyday, smuggling was a highly-organised activity.  Bands of as 40 or 50 men might be working full-time at their “trade”, sailing in swift, easy to manoeuvre, heavily armed, vessels.  In 1780, one of these carried 24 guns, and held over 70 heavily-armed men.  Remote, sparsely-populated beaches were often chosen to land goods, and there was an efficient network to dispose of these quickly.

The easiest and most profitable commodity to smuggle was tea, and even the East India Company itself engaged in this.  In 1764, it is estimated that goods valued at £7 million pounds were smuggled.

Although the majority of smuggling went on in the south-east of the country, because of the proximity of the continent, the north-east had a tidy trade in cheap gin from Holland.  Costing 1/- per gallon, it was sold at 4/6d, which was still a lower price than legitimate gin.  Goods were paid for at source in cash, draining the country of circulating currency.

There were many attempts at Government regulation.  The first Act passed was the 1718 Hovering Act, to allow boarding on any vessel under 50 tons ‘hovering’ within 6 miles of the coast.  Other, equally ineffective, Acts followed, including a licencing system introduced by Pitt the Younger.  However, the Customs service was grossly understaffed, and Officers were required to patrol far too much isolated coast.  They were in danger of physical violence, and received threatening, or “incendiary”, as the Stockton Collector described them, letters.  There were, however, some successes.  In 1775, widow Potts was found with 87 lbs. of tea concealed around her house.

Smuggling declined in the 19th century because of the rise in free trade, which reduced profitability.  Other factors include the introduction of the Coast Guard in 1822, and the general rise in real wages and living standards.  But smuggling has not disappeared, with large-scale operations in smuggling drugs and people today.

The next meeting of the Society will be held on Tuesday 24th January at Bailiffgate Museum at 7.30pm (doors open 7.30 pm), when Alistair Sinton will be telling us about the Old Great North Road.