Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Did You Know...? - Smuggling #3

Not that sort of barrell!
What links the following items: Prunes, salt, string, soap, paper, black pepper and brandy?

The answer is they were all once smuggled goods. In the 18th century it wasn’t just luxury items that were smuggled, but anything in demand that would raise a profit. Indeed, one chapel in Pembrokeshire was lit by candles made of smuggled tallow:
"One evening, the chapel being lighted with those candles, by some means… the excise officer became aware…and suddenly appeared and commandeered all the candles, leaving the congregation in the dark."
A smuggler's barrell with hidden compartments.
In order to maximise the quantity of smuggled goods per run, alcohol and spirits were transported undiluted, straight from the still. This was dangerously strong, and virtually colourless. Dilution to make it drinkable was a relatively simple matter, but no one wanted to buy clear brandy, and so caramel was added to achieve the traditional colour.
Undiluted spirits were drinkable but potentially lethal. When a smuggler's ship ran aground in shallows near Harwich, they threw their cargo of barrels overboard to lighten the vessel. Soldiers from a nearby fort seized the alcohol and took the opportunity to celebrate - the next day four of them died from alcohol poisoning.

Tubs and barrells were sometimes hidden beneath the boat.
Because the alcohol was so concentrated, it could be transported in smaller barrels, or tubs, making it easier for men to carry ashore. The writer Thomas Hardy recalls these tubs in his notebooks.
"…my grandfather used to do a little smuggling, his house being a lonely one. He sometimes had as many as eighty tubs in a dark closet…the spirits often smelt all over the house, being proof, and had to be lowered for drinking."
He goes onto describe a tub and how it became an everyday object.
"The tubs …were of thin staves with wooden hoops. I remember one being turned into a bucket by knocking out one head and putting in a handle."
Thomas Hardy.
Modern Calais.
It's also interesting to note that many modern French ports owe their development to smuggling. Ports such as Boulogne, Calais, Dieppe and Le Havre were conveniently placed for short crossing from England and had good harbours. They may have started as sleepy fishing ports but as they realised the potential for free-trade and easy money, they transformed themselves into centres of commerce.

"Roscoff…and unknown and unfrequented port…grew in importance so that from small hovels it soon possessed commodius houses and large stores…These….gave every incentive to the British smugglers to resort there and …the French government afforded encouragement to the merchants."
French report, 1767

Whilst smuggling may have started small scale, when for instance a draper wished to stock his shop more cheaply, but in the mid 18th century a change took place. Wealthy city backers started financing runs as a form of investment. These men fronted the cash to buy foreign supplies and pocketed the profits, but avoided the physical lifting-and-shifting of smuggling. They were a bit like modern speculators on the futures market, city financiers who weren’t worried about the ethics of their trade.
These wealthy men risked a lot of money and in 'Hope's Betrayal', our villain is just such a man, and when he perceives Hope has betrayed him to Captain Huntley, becomes obsessed with revenge and resolves to destroy what the Captain holds most dear.

Photo courtesy of


  1. Another great post on the commerce of freed-trade/smuggling.
    See it is people like the backers that really turned smuggling into a dirty business. All the different ways they came up with to smuggle stuff is very interging.


    1. Hi Mel,
      thank you for leaving a comment. I'm thinking of doing a future post on the different ways of hiding the goods - some very inventive stratergies were used - including coffins!
      Grace x

    2. Ohhhh, that would fainating!

  2. That should have been...... that would be fascinating! Oy'. Can't spell. :-)


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