By Haydon Luke

Adapted from a talk given to the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve. 

No account of anywhere along the Sussex coast would be complete without reference to smugglers and smuggling, Countless books, movies and all forms of popular culture have fed the public appetite for smugglers’ tales, and our coast is particularly well-supplied. 

In Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings Old Town there are many buildings, inns particularly, containing well authenticated evidence of the smuggling past. One of the best known is the Mermaid in Rye, frequented by the violent and dangerous Hawkhurst Gang. Nearer home the Hastings Arms in George Street and the Stag Inn in All Saints Street contain solid evidence of smuggling activity in the shape of concealed hiding places for contraband goods. 

The signalling window

Across the road from the Country Park stands the Fairlight Lodge Hotel. An 18th century listed building, it was formerly known as the Lantern House and there is a window in the octagonal upper part which is reputed to be a relic from smuggling days – a window which enabled smugglers to signal to confederates inland.

Sussex’s own Nobel Laureate, Rudyard Kipling, highlighted the essence of smuggling in A Smuggler’s Song, with its refrain: 

Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the parson,
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by! 

Kipling’s poem skilfully evokes the nocturnal world of the trade and illustrates the dilemma smugglers caused for the general population in areas where smuggling was a way of life. How to keep in with your neighbours but avoid falling foul of the authorities? Locally, smuggling was very firmly fact not fiction and the reality rough and uncompromising. 

Ideal smuggling territory

Walk eastward into the Country Park, step back 200 years and you find Fairlight – rich in smuggling associations. From the cliffs of the Country Park on a clear night, the lights of Boulogne can readily be seen. 200 years ago, the dark seclusion of this sparsely populated section of the Sussex coast made ideal smuggling territory. At Fairlight there were additional advantages – the remote cliffs and shadowy glens, proximity to Romney Marsh, and the Hastings sea-going community close at hand.

How did smuggling begin? Not, as many suppose, with bringing in silks and brandy, but with something altogether more basic – wool!

Wool leads the way

Smuggling first appears in the national consciousness around 1300 and is in response to the introduction of customs duty on the export of wool. Not surprising, then, that Sussex farmers, much of whose livelihood depended on wool exports, got together with those who had boats to continue to trade across the Channel and evade paying duty, even though, initially, duties were quite small. However, as the 100 Years’ War progressed, taxes increased and when, in 1614, a ban on the export of wool was introduced, smuggling really took off.

It rapidly developed into a bilateral trade. Vessels arrived under cover of darkness to take the wool away, paying for it with luxury goods such as tea, spirits and high-end textiles, such as silk and lace.

A victimless crime?

This was the case at the zenith of smuggling in the 17th and 18th centuries. The illicit trade flourished in response to the imposition of various duties and levies by governments always anxious to find ways of raising revenue. The levies on tea, tobacco and spirits were particularly resented by ordinary people who regarded smuggling as a victimless crime. In 1784 the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, suggested that of the 13 million pounds (weight) of tea consumed in Britain, only 5.5 million had been brought in legally.

Smuggling also thrived later during the French Wars in the Napoleonic period, which interfered with cross-Channel trade, and through to the 1830s – after which it declined because of the rise of free trade. Indeed, towards the end of the Napoleonic period, smuggling into France was state-backed – a form of economic warfare.

Napoleon allowed English smugglers entry into the French ports of Dunkirk and Gravelines, encouraging them to run contraband back and forth across the Channel. Gravelines catered for up to 300 English smugglers, housed in a specially constructed compound known as the ‘city of smugglers’. Napoleon used them as a weapon in the war against Britain. The smugglers arrived on the French coast with escaped French prisoners of war, gold guineas (worth 30/- in France) and English newspapers, returning to England laden with French textiles, brandy and gin. 

The scale of the smuggling activity, and especially the keenness of English traders to sell produce to France, was seen as one reason why commodity prices were rising in England at that time – as this Gilray cartoon illustrates. For English merchants, the main enemy was to profits – more their own government than the foreign power. The fact that the common people suffered deprivation and shortages as a consequence did not trouble the consciences of those who made the profits.

Who profited from smuggling?

Who were the profiteers? If we look a little more closely at the bottom of the cartoon, which is in the National Portrait Gallery, we can see a faint annotation in pencil. This is contemporary and identifies the guilty men. They are the Dukes of Norfolk, Bedford, and Grafton, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Stanhope – doubtless patriots all – but still prepared to profit mightily from doing business with the King’s enemies.

But we have strayed from Fairlight and its place in the story.

Several sites in or near the Country Park are known to have been associated with smuggling, though it is important to acknowledge that, in trying to recognise locations today, erosion has greatly altered the cliff and beach profiles. Fairlight locations included the Whippings (thought to be the smugglers’ name for the high cliff near Ecclesbourne Glen), the Marrow-Bone Gap (near the Fairlight coastguard station) and the path up from the shore by the Dripping Well (down from Fairlight Place), as well as the inlet below the Haddocks at Fairlight Cove where Stream Lane provided a perfect route inland. Occasionally, the smugglers were even brave enough to climb rope ladders up the steep cliffs themselves and haul goods up with improvised cranes in a technique known as ‘derricking’.

Hard physical work

Derricking apart, smuggling was an extremely physical business demanding great strength and endurance. The cargo was heavy, and much rowing was required – in addition to strong nerves and great cunning. Boats were often rowed to the French coast and back in a night. 

The reasons that induced people (of all classes) to participate in smuggling were economic, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries when agricultural depressions brought much hardship to rural communities. As other traditional Sussex industries such as fishing, weaving and iron production declined, men sought alternatives to supplement a meagre income. Tub carriers could earn up to 10 shillings a night bringing tubs from the beach up to local hiding places, a sum which compared favourably to a labourer’s weekly wage. 

Risking life and limb

Although smuggling could be highly lucrative, it could also be exceptionally dangerous – though it was generally only the gang leaders that were convicted. Nevertheless, the men risked their lives and their livelihoods. Sea smugglers faced enforced naval service on a man-of-war, and land smugglers risked transportation and possibly even death if convicted.

At the other end of the social scale, smugglers were encouraged and financed by the local gentry including compliant magistrates. Often, too, their activities were condoned by the clergy and at times facilitated by venal revenue officers. As Graham Smith points out in Something to Declare: “The illegal trade extended throughout the country and permeated every level of society; the smuggled goods found their way into virtually all households, from the lowliest to the highest.” 

Policing or profiting?

In the Hastings area it was widely believed that the “venal revenue officers” included local bigwigs John Collier and Edward Milward Snr, who, as senior customs officers, acquired from smuggling a large part of the money with which they bought the land that they were, in theory, policing and which later became the Country Park and Nature Reserve we all enjoy

In 1714, John Collier, at the time Surveyor of the Customs, recorded in his letters: “Of late this trade [i.e. exporting wool to France illegally] has been much more practised there [Fairlight] than ever was known before and such a multitude of persons concerned in carrying it on that it was not in the power of the proper officers with the utmost diligence to prevent it.” (Collier papers, no. 328) Was this the truth or a piece of defensive self-justification? Who knows?

Sometimes the authorities did succeed in making arrests and prosecuting those responsible. “December 10th 1787. Last Tuesday was tried before the Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, at Westminster, on information filed by His Majesty’s Attorney General, against a person of Fairlight in this county, for exporting wool out of the kingdom, when the fact being clearly proved a verdict was given in favour of the Crown for £732, being a penalty of 3 shillings for every pound weight of wool so exported.” This represents a bit over two tons of wool.

The person charged here was one Thomas Harman. A little later a certain John Harman, also of Fairlight, was fined in the same court £3,899 & 4 shillings for smuggling not just wool but whole sheep. The Gilray cartoon was not exaggerating!

Shift in focus

Illegal shipments of wool and even live sheep continued through the eighteenth century, but after about 1720 the whole emphasis of the smuggling trade shifted to the bringing in of tea, spirits, tobacco and luxury items.

An extract from the Sussex Advertiser of 8 May 1786 illustrates the new focus on high value goods: 

It was a constant battle, and frequently a losing battle, between the authorities and the smugglers. Eventually, with the advent of free trade in the 1830s, smuggling largely came to an end.

A violent end

But not long before, in 1831, Fairlight had a part in one of the final scenes of the smuggling drama and with it the dubious distinction of being the location of the last fatalities of the smuggling era – a violent end to a long and violent period. 

What happened was this. On 5 January 1831, in Fairlight Glen, there was a major confrontation between a large detachment of the Coast Blockade and a gang of around 100 smugglers and their associates, many armed with wooden clubs. A pincer movement from east and west by the Blockade men drove the smugglers inland and their boat and its cargo of 109 tubs was taken. In the resulting affray, William Cruttenden and Joseph Harrod were shot dead in the Glen just below Fairlight Place on their way up from the shore. Several more wounded smugglers were carried off and five Blockade men were wounded. 

Survey of the Country from Rye to Hastings, showing Fairlight and Westfield Downs under the command of Maj General Sloper … 1779
CREDIT: Royal Collection Trust /Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

A dramatic and bloody conclusion to the smuggling era – on our very doorstep in Fairlight. There was a full account of the Coroner’s inquest into the incident in The Times of 10 January 1831 which fills in more of the details. It is worth reading in full to get a sense of how the event was seen in its own times. 

And the last resting place of the last smuggler? Look at the Burial Register. The story concludes in St Andrew’s Churchyard just adjacent to the Country Park.

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