From Jack Sparrow to Hairy Jack, Long John Silver to Blackbeard – the world has long been fascinated by pirates, buccaneers, and scurvy seadogs both real and fictional. And all these infamous characters share one thing in common: they’re all masters of their trade – that being smuggling.
That’s right, pirates are the original smugglers, and even though they’re now often portrayed as jokey characters with parrots and wooden legs, these were hardened criminals not afraid to resort to cut-throat methods to get the job done
But what exactly did early smugglers, well, smuggle? How did they do it? And how do they compare to their much-feared modern counterparts?
Here, we’re delving into the murky world of Britain’s smuggling heritage, from its earliest origins at places like St Clement’s Cave to the golden age of bootlegging in the 18th century and beyond.
Smugglers are criminal merchants that transport goods illegally, typically to evade taxes, import charges or to get around local laws that prohibit certain contraband items. In short, they’re not-so-nice people willing to break the law to turn a profit on goods that may be banned or transported beyond the remit of the law.
Of course, throughout history, there have been nearly countless types of smugglers, some more dangerous and dastardly than others. For instance, in the medieval period, Britain was awash with smugglers bringing wool into the country illegally; compare that to the abhorrent people smugglers of today, and this doesn’t seem like too great an infraction.
Indeed, there’s a reason smugglers are often romanticised in songs, art, and poetry, because, for a time at least, many people viewed them as providing an invaluable service to the poor and less fortunate. This, ultimately, led to the golden age of smuggling and piracy in the 18th century, in which many privateers and bootleggers were held as heroes for bringing otherwise unreachable goods to the masses.
Make no mistake, though, smugglers were a bad and bloody bunch, capable of all kinds of treachery and villainy. Indeed, you need only read a little about the smugglers of Hastings to get a measure of what these cunning and ruthless buccaneers were all about.
It’s fair to say that smuggling has always taken place to a degree, right back to when laws were first introduced in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Egypt and elsewhere. The term “smuggling”, however, didn’t enter regular parlance until the 17th century, with etymologists claiming that it was introduced to the English language from the Dutch word “smokkelen” – meaning to transport goods illegally.
Of course, here in Britain, our history of smuggling long predates the introduction of the actual term. In Hastings, for instance, it’s widely held that the smugglers of St Clement’s Caves have been in operation since at least the 13th century when they began sneaking wool out of the country without paying the king’s taxes – tut, tut!
And it wasn’t just happening in Hastings, either. From Prussia Cove in Cornwall to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire Coast, smugglers utilised every cave, crevice, and cranny around the British coastline to transport their wares, often lining the pockets of wealthy local landowners with bribes to keep their nefarious operations under wraps.
From the medieval period to the start of the 17th century, the scale of British smuggling skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, fuelled in part by increasing taxes, levies, and goods embargoes by the crown. This proved the precursor to the golden age of smuggling throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, in which everything from tea to wine, grain to liquor was moved illegally through Britain’s borders.
What caused this massive uplift in instances of smuggling? At the time, the British Empire was growing and so too was its list of enemies, with wars raging in France and the United States. It needed money to fund its overseas endeavours, and so taxes went up and with them instances of bootlegging.
So far as infamy goes, the 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise of some of Britain’s most notorious smugglers, with names like Cruel Copinger, William Owen, and Isaac Gulliver emerging during this time. This was also the period in which Britain’s smuggling gangs were most active, with legendary groups like The Carters of Cornwall, The Hawkhurst Gang, The Hadleigh Gang and The North Kent Gang emerging at this time.
The smugglers of the 17th and 18th centuries resorted to any and all methods to keep their bounties away from the prying eyes of local authorities and the merchant navy. From graveyards to caves, sewerage systems to secret passageways – no route was too dangerous, too risky, or too sacred for these cunning buccaneers to exploit.
While smuggling gangs were busy finding new routes and passages for their blood-soaked contraband, they were also focused on making sure local landowners, sheriffs and authority officials were brought to heel – something they achieved with both the promise of riches and the threat of savage violence.
So far as what they smuggled, nothing was off the table. Rum and other spirits were, of course, hugely popular items for smugglers to bring in and out of the country at this time, but so too were more everyday items like food, grain, and clothing. Basically, anything these guys could get their hands on and turn a profit with, they did so without question.
While dozens of smuggling gangs existed around the British coastline in the 17th and 18th centuries, some individuals stood out for their particularly brutal crimes or legendary defiance of local authorities. But who are these fiends and rapscallions? And how are they remembered?
Here’s a look at three of Britain’s most celebrated and infamous smugglers.
The Carters of Cornwall were among the most successful smuggling gangs of the 18th century. Operating amid the coves and caves of southern Cornwall in the early 1700s, this band of seafaring ruffians was led by John Carter, the infamous “King of Prussia”, who together with his brother Harry owned two lightning-fast sailing craft – vessels which enabled them to scamper in and out of the Cornish coast and build a fruitful smuggling empire.
William Owen was among the most successful smugglers operating in Wales in the early 18th century. Known for smuggling everything from salt to brandy, Owen ran a highly lucrative smuggler’s route from Cardigan Bay to the Isle of Man, before his execution in 1747. Other Welsh smugglers operating around the same time as Owen were Black Bart of Pembrokeshire, Siôn Cwilt of the Ceredigion Coast, and Henry Morgan, who is thought to have traded on Caldey Island.
Isaac Gulliver is an example of a famous smuggler who achieved near-legendary status during his lifetime, mainly for his extraordinary exploits along Dorset’s beautiful south coast. While much is known about Gulliver’s life, some experts have cast doubt on stories that he was a lovable villain more akin to Robin Hood than comparable buccaneers of the period. Still, if such stories are to be believed, Gulliver never killed a man in all his years as a smuggler – which is more than can be said of many of his counterparts.
While much of our guide has focused on the history of British smuggling, make no mistake that this unique form of criminality remains a huge problem today.
Indeed, each year, millions of pounds worth of goods are transported in and out of the UK illegally, and over time, these items have become decidedly more nefarious. Cigarettes, drugs, weapons, alcohol, and counterfeit goods are now the tradeable currencies of modern smuggling gangs, and despite advanced technology, criminals continue to concoct complex ways to get these items into and out of the country – just like their counterparts did centuries ago.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget more repugnant forms of smuggling, not least human trafficking and wildlife smuggling. These offshoots of regular goods smuggling bring a new level of villainy to the table, with often considerably more damaging consequences.
While Britain’s knavish smuggling heritage has been largely forgotten in some parts of the country, it’s alive and well in all its brutal reality at Smugglers Adventure. Here, you can venture deep into the caves of St Clement’s, where Hairy Jack and co. will spin a yarn or two of devilish goings on. It’s an experience not for the faint-hearted, but one that offers memorable insight into Britain’s villainous smuggling past.
Brave enough to descend into St Clement’s with Hairy Jack as your guide? Plan your next visit to Smugglers Adventure right here.