Smuggling in the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century

Joe Varley

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are described as the golden age of smuggling. From the perspective of the present time, a slightly romantic and rather innocent appraisal has been made of that period. Richard Platt examines this interpretation in his recent book. (1) In a chapter entitled “Myth and Reality- Deconstructing Kipling”, he investigates the popular stereotype of the eighteenth century smuggler and looks at the folklore of the benign smuggler. (2) He contrasts this sympathetic treatment with the violent reality that characterised smuggling at certain times in the period examined. (3) His book is an excellent introduction to the subject. The purpose of this article is to examine why smuggling, although always illegal, was a major trading activity in the eighteenth century. The starting point will be to examine how the prevailing political and economic orthodoxy unintentionally favoured the development of large scale smuggling. The dominant economic philosophy in Britain and Ireland for most of the eighteenth century was mercantilism. This presupposed that the state should always have an economic surplus, as a result of the country’s trading activities. (4) The obvious way to achieve this was to boost exports, and therefore create revenue. Conversely, imports were discouraged or at best tolerated, because revenue was sucked out of the system to pay for them. However, Britain and Ireland have always had a fondness for the wines and spirits of France. Also, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was significant development in the trade to North America and to the Indian subcontinent. This increased trading activity introduced many new products to the consumer, some of which, like tea and tobacco, became very popular. Being imports, these products were subject to taxation. The combination of the products’ popularity and the fact that taxation made them expensive, made them ideal cargoes for the smuggler. The government of the day tried to regulate every aspect of this trade in order to achieve the economic surpluses at the core of mercantilism. Christopher French describes how the British and Colonial trade had to be carried exclusively in British or Colonial vessels, and at least three- quarters of the crews of these vessels had to be British. (5) He also states that commodities such as tobacco and sugar were enumerated, i.e. they had to be shipped to Britain first, and only then could they be re-exported. (6) These measures give some indication of the degree of government regulation of eighteenth century trade. From a smuggler’s perspective, two business opportunities were becoming very obvious. The first was that shortages in popular goods were created, as items such as tobacco and sugar were being re-exported in order to create additional revenue for the state. The second opportunity was that there was a large pool of trained and skilled sailors who, attracted by the high wages associated with smuggling or being out of work in recessionary times, could form a large cohort from which the crews of the smuggling vessels could be made up. In the period from 1703 to 1815, Britain fought five major wars. They all had one common factor. They were expensive to fight. This expense increased from 1756 onwards when wars were conducted on a global as well as a European scale. It is simplistic to state that these wars were paid for basically on the duties levied on popular consumer products like tobacco and sugar. Roger Morriss has shown how the development of credit finance and the national debt was a significant factor in the financing of these wars. (7) However, W.A. Cole has developed the idea of the existence of a co-relationship between increases in the duty on tea in wartime during the eighteenth century and the greater smuggling activity in the product. (8) It is hard to resist the argument that the Mercantilist economic philosophy and the frequent eighteenth century wars, created optimum conditions for all types of smuggling activity. In the modern freighting and forwarding industry, new entrants undertake some basic training. The following topics usually form part of this induction:
  1. How to finance freight and forwarding operations.
  2. How to source supply of goods to be transported.
  3. The importance of entrepots.
  4. Onward forwarding patterns from the entrepots.
While the 18th Century smuggler was totally ignorant of PowerPoint presentations and modern management jargon, the above four points are an accurate summary of the operational pattern of their activity.

How to finance freight and forwarding operations

As regards the methods of financing smuggling, these totally depended on the particular circumstances of the various operations. Those engaged in small-scale smuggling operated what Platt calls a “club” system. (9) This meant that each crew member contributed to the financing of the trip according to his means, enjoying the profits and suffering the losses in proportion to his investment. (10) This system was further developed and expanded by communities taking shares in smuggling runs, using the same principle. (11) The advantage of the crew method of financing was that it called for total motivation on the part of the smugglers.Similarly, when the community provided the finance, their full co-operation was assured if the goods were brought ashore in their area. They were also less likely to break the code of silence which made the work of the customs and excise officers so difficult. The strategies used to finance large-scale smuggling are well illustrated in the trading activity of Carteret Priaulx & Co. of Guernsey. (12) This company had a legitimate trading cover in privateering and fish buying. However, it was also involved in extensive smuggling from Guernsey to the South-West of England, the Bristol Channel and Ireland. An example of the legitimate side of the company’s business may be seen in a letter of 15th October 1807, written from London by one of the partners in the firm. In it, he speculates on the trading possibilities that could occur if the Portuguese royal family had to flee to Brazil. There are seven trading vessels mentioned in the letter which indicates the extent and scope of the activity of the firm. (13) In contrast, there is another letter also dated 15th October 1807, which gives a fascinating insight into the smuggling operations of the firm in the South West of England. The writer is Mr. Thomas. W. Gosselin, a nephew to the Priaulx brothers who is employed as an account manager and debt collector in Cornwall. (14) The young Mr Gosselin writes that he is experiencing great difficulty in getting paid for smuggled goods. He expresses his pleasure that one of his uncles is coming to Cornwall in the very near future, as he feels that the older gentleman will be more successful in collecting the money owed. (15) This letter gives an insight into the pattern of large scale smuggling and is particularly unusual. Understandably, it is uncommon for smugglers to leave documentary evidence of their activities. However, it adds to our picture of the financing of 18th and early 19th century smuggling, through the “club” system for small-scale activity or under the cover of legitimate trading activity for its large-scale counterpart.

How to source supply of goods to be transported

It is interesting to examine where the smugglers sourced their supplies. Platt describes the seizures made by the Aberdeen Customs in November 1721 and explores the different types of contraband. (16) There were nineteen separate items on the list, including prunes, black pepper, white starch and Swedish iron. (17) This gives an indication of the variety of goods smuggled. Strangely, while brandy was on the list, tea was not. One can therefore conclude that where there was a demand for a particular good and the possibility of making a profit from it, a trade in it would naturally develop. The variety of goods smuggled necessitated a wide range of producers, both in Europe and overseas, to supply these requirements. France and Holland and their respective colonies produced a wide range of these goods. Cullen notes the importance of the French East India Company in providing supplies of tea for onward smuggling. (18) The autumn tea auctions were held in the Breton town of Lorient, and this tea was subsequently smuggled into Britain and Ireland. France, Spain and Portugal supplied wines and brandy, while rum originating in the West Indies and in the North Eastern corner of South America was extensively smuggled. (19) Tobacco from Maryland and the James River area of Virginia was also a popular item in the trade. (20) The smuggling of tobacco is interesting because it is an example of an eighteenth century “scam” which was a natural development arising from the Mercantilist economic philosophy which, as stated earlier, emphasised exporting in order to gain revenue for the state. The tobacco was legally imported into Britain with duty paid .It was then re-exported to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or the channel ports of France in order to collect a refund ( called “drawback”) on that duty. (21) The same tobacco was eventually smuggled back into the coves of Devon and Cornwall, and the sandy harbours of North County Dublin. The Treasury therefore took a double loss on these transactions. It had refunded the duty it received as well as losing out on the sales tax which would have accrued from the legitimate sale of tobacco on the open market in Britain and Ireland. Holland was also a significant supplier of every type of manufactured goods, usually listed in 18th century cargo manifests as merchant goods. Boxer has described the vibrancy of Holland, in terms of its financial strength, its technical ingenuity and its capability of moving goods, both in the coastal and deep sea trades. (22) This view is supported by Platt who recounts that the quantity of illegal Dutch gin imported into Southern England at this time was so large that the inhabitants of some Kentish villages used it to clean their windows. (23)

The importance of entrepots

In the last section, fleeting reference was made to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the French coast from Dunkirk to Boulogne. These areas were in effect distribution hubs for the smugglers. Cullen classifies these as entrepot centres. (24) He develops this idea using the argument that there was a relentless pressure on the smuggler to reduce costs. (25) The rewards were high, but the smugglers normally did not have the profit cushion of a return cargo. As it was financial nonsense for them to go directly to the manufacturers for supply, a system developed where the goods to be smuggled were delivered by the producers to the entrepots. This trade was conducted by large commercial vessels normally using false documentation. The final stage in this process was the actual smuggling where small fast craft made the short sea passages to their markets. The French channel ports and the Isle of Man were the entrepots for London and Dublin respectively, and the South West of England was serviced from Guernsey and sometimes from Roscoff. The entrepots were chosen for their proximity and ease of access to their potential markets. It is interesting to examine the position of the Isle of Man. It is situated in a central area in the northern half of the Irish Sea. It received contraband goods from England, France and Holland, and these were smuggled onto the East Coast of Ireland, The Lancashire and Cumberland coasts of the North of England, the Scottish Coasts from the Solway Firth around to the Clyde, and onto the North Welsh Coast and the island of Anglesey. The administrative system of the island was conducive to smuggling. The island was the private property of the Duke of Atholl, and was consequently immune from British rule and commercial legislation. Very low duties were placed on imports coming into the island which created ideal operating conditions for the smugglers. A very similar operation was conducted in the French coastal towns from Dunkirk to Boulogne, with the smugglers concentrating on the South East Coast of England and particularly the London market. The South West of England smugglers were too far away from the Isle of Man and the French Channel ports for them to regularly use their facilities. Their entrepot was normally Guernsey. However, in the years 1767 and 1775, the authorities imposed a crackdown on smuggling activity on the island. Consequently, the trade temporarily transferred to Roscoff on the French mainland. (26) The sea passage across the mouth of the English Channel was longer than the short hops described in the smuggling in the Irish Sea and in the South East of England, so larger and sturdier vessels had to be used because of the more difficult conditions.

Onward forwarding patterns from the entrepots

Whether contraband was landed on a sandy beach or on a rocky cove, the receivers had two basic aims. The first was to get the merchandise away from the area quickly. They also wanted to attract very little attention to what was going on. Platt refers to both of these activities as the task of the land party. (27) He describes their work as landing the cargo, and protecting it on its onward journey inland. (28) To move goods rapidly, spirits were carried in small barrels called “Half- Ankars”, which contained a little over four gallons. (29) The “Tubmen” or carriers, used a harness arrangement to carry two “Half-Ankars”, one at the front and one at the back, and then headed off into the night. (30) Their destination usually was a pub or a safe half-way house. It is a reasonable assumption that London and Dublin received a substantial amount of its illegal spirits in this fashion. In the South West of England and the Bristol Channel area, horses were used to move the smuggled cargo inland. This was because of the great distances involved between the landing points and the eventual markets. As regards preserving secrecy during these operations, this was achieved by violence towards intruders, or by judicious bribing to encourage the legal authorities to ignore what was going on. The idea of violence and bribery will be developed further in another section of this article.

Smuggling and the development of shipping

In the opening paragraph of this article, it was stated that smuggling was a major trading activity in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sea transport was dominant in this period, and along with the development of inland transport on the recently built canal system, had an importance that perhaps we have lost sight of at the present time. Ships, boats and barges were part of the fabric of everyday life. The deep-sea aspect of this period is comprehensively addressed in Philip Bosscher’s “The Heyday of Sail-The Merchant Sailing Ship 1650-1680”. Reference has been already made to this book earlier in this article, when the influence of mercantilism on the development of smuggling was discussed. However, the focus in this section will be on the small vessels and boats which were used by the smugglers. This article will contend that smuggling played a significant role in the development of boat design in England and perhaps in Ireland. The ideal small or medium-sized vessel or boat for the smuggler was a fast one, drawing little water and having a significant cargo-carrying capacity. This specification poses contradictory challenges for the ship or boat builder. The beam necessary for large amounts of cargo will slow the vessel down, while the deep hull necessary for speed will restrict its operation in shallow waters. In order to build and modify craft within these parameters, qualities of innovation and adaptability were required. These traits are reflected in the references to smuggling during this period. The Carteret Priaulx letters, referred to previously, record the sale of a 115 ton cutter to smuggling interests, at Plymouth in September 1806. (31) The sale price for the cutter was £475, but to get her overhauled and ready for sea, the final reckoning came to £800. (32) The additional £325 spent gives an indication of the extent of the customising of the cutter for the smuggling trade. Unfortunately, the letter does not give any details of the nature of the additional work done on the vessel, but the amount of money involved suggests that it was extensive, time-consuming and perhaps not the ordinary work undertaken by the shipyard. Ni Mhurchadha, in her work on the customs and excise service in North County Dublin, refers to the smuggling wherries that operated in Rush, North County Dublin, a noted centre of smuggling activity. (33) She states that these wherries, which were converted fishing boats, were purpose built to enter a difficult harbour like Rush, where the larger more cumbersome revenue barges could not easily follow. (34) Helen Doe, in an article about the shipyard of “Dunn and Hanna” at Port Mellon, near Mevagissey in Cornwall, also examines the idea of the smuggling demands creating challenges for the shipbuilders. (35) The normal business of the Port Mellon yard was in ship building and ship repair. They built and repaired small boats for the local fishing industry as well as medium-sized vessels for the coastal trades. The expertise gained in these areas was easily adapted to meet the needs of the smugglers. (36) Doe details this aspect of the work carried on in the yard when she gives an account of coastal cutters being sold by Dunn and Hanna to the Guernsey firm of Maingy and Company who were regular suppliers of goods to the smuggling trades. (37) It is interesting to examine the type of vessels that the majority of Dunn’s customers wanted from the yard. These vessels had to be small, fast and highly manoeuvrable, yet strong enough to withstand beaching. These design parameters are not very different from the ones that were noted at the start of this section. The shipyard was successful, and some very fine vessels were built there. Doe refers to the comments made by Robert Seppings in 1804 and again in 1806, when he examined seized smuggling vessels, built by Dunn and Hanna, that could be used by the Excise Board. (38) He noted their sharp construction, which allows for speed, and also the small size of their scantlings which would allow the vessel to carry more cargo. He maintained that they would be very suitable for employment as preventative vessels in the excise service. This is the same Robert Seppings who afterwards became Surveyor to the Royal Navy from 1813 to 1832, and is remembered particularly for his innovation in hull bracing, which allowed vessels of greater length to be built for the Royal Navy in the early nineteenth century. (39) All this innovation did not cease at the end of the Napoleonic war in 1815 and a subsequent decline in smuggling. Helen Doe gives an account of a family of shipbuilders in a small Cornish village in her 2002 book “Jane Slade of Polruan.” (40) The demand for fast wooden vessels, which were increasingly required for the specialist trades like fruit carrying, were met by shipyards based in the Fowey Estuary in South Cornwall. These vessels were a development and improvement on the successful smuggling design principles and were built and subsequently repaired in these yards throughout most of the nineteenth century. Doe traces the development of the yards in Polruan, which are situated near the mouth of the Fowey estuary, starting with the Geech family who were shipbuilders up to 1837, when they were declared bankrupt. (41) In 1847, Christopher Slade set up a shipbuilding yard at Polruan. (42) She traces the business fortunes of this family, noting the launch of their last wooden building, the barquentine ES Hocken in 1879, and after that date, the emphasis on repair work. This section has shown how the requirement for specific smuggling vessels created challenges for the boatyards and shipbuilders. It has also noted that the consequent expertise developed to meet these challenges, enabled Cornish shipbuilders in the Fowey Estuary to survive against the growing competition of steam until well into the nineteenth century.

The organisation of the Customs Service

The emphasis in this article so far has been on the operations of the smugglers. It has been shown that vast quantities of different types of contraband were brought ashore. This prompts the question as to how the smugglers could operate with such ease and obvious success. It is therefore necessary to examine the organisation of the customs and excise service during this period. Fingal is an area in Ireland corresponding to North County Dublin. Dr. Maighread Ni Mhurchadha, as previously mentioned, examined the question of customs and excise operation there. (43) It has an extensive coastline facing the Irish Sea, and the customs service was organised to protect this. In view of the considerable smuggling in the area, it is strange that the number of Customs officials employed was very small. Ni Mhurcadha shows that in 1675, there were at least 7 officers employed by the service. (44) In 1684, nine years later, this total had increased to 11 and stayed comparatively static until the early 1740’s. (45) In 1764, the end of the period under investigation, it had peaked at 45. (46) In order to give an opinion on whether that was an adequate number to protect this coast, it is necessary to examine how the service in the area was organised and operated.
map of Dublin's Coast

© Ordnance Survey Ireland / Government of Ireland. Copyright Permit no. MP 0007313

At the time, there were six customs stations guarding the North Dublin Coast. (47) It is useful to examine three stations: Skerries, in the extreme north of the area, Rush in the centre, and Malahide in the extreme south.. All these stations were organised on the basis of a watch-house. (48) They all operated using two complementary strategies. The first was a system of coastal patrolling within their designated area, sometimes on foot but usually on horseback. This was supplemented by surveillance at sea, using customs barges depending on the degree of smuggling activity. (49) Ni Mhurchadha gives some very interesting statistics, based on the number of seizures of smuggled goods by the various stations between 1759 and 1764 as recorded in the local papers. (50) 80 seizures were reported at Skerries compared to 26 at Malahide. There are no statistics given for the Rush station during this period. It is on record that during this time, the customs at Rush requested support from the army to help them to deal with the smuggling there. This was given in the form of detachments of the Light Horse Cavalry being assigned to the service. However, it made very little difference to the dominant smuggling culture of the town. (51) It would seem that the station at Skerries was active and successful, while that at Malahide was less so and experienced periods of serious indiscipline. (52) It is a reasonable assumption that the service was not effective at Rush, the centre of smuggling on this coast. It is suggested that the numbers employed were not a defining argument as to the efficiency of the service in certain areas. The numbers were approximately equal in each station, but distinct local conditions as sketched above, were the most important factor in the effectiveness of the customs service in their respective areas.

Smuggling and the contemporary judicial system

The last section noted the small numbers employed in the customs service in North County Dublin at this time. Platt describes slightly similar circumstances in Kent. When the riding officers were established in that county in 1690, eight officers were appointed to patrol what was an extensive coastline. (53) Just as in Ireland, the numbers were expanded first to 50 and later to 300 officers. (54) This article will now examine what happened when the smugglers were caught. It will start by reviewing the anti-smuggling legislation of the period, and then examine how this legislation was applied by the contemporary legal system. There was no shortage of anti-smuggling legislation both in England and in Ireland. The thinking behind the legislation in both countries at the start of the period was to destroy the seized smugglers’ vessels and contents. The confiscated material was normally cut up or burned. This was totally ineffective because the smugglers were making so much money that everything could be replaced very quickly. Ni Mhurchada vividly illustrates the dismay of the actual customs staff at this practice. (55) Up to this time, the contents of the seizure were sold at auction and the subsequent distribution of the money realised, was regarded as a perk of the employment. The offer of a barrel of ale to the customs’ officials who attended the burning of a seized vessel at Ringsend in Dublin City in 1744, was a poor recompense for what was regarded as custom and practice in the service. (56) The next stage in the legislation was basically to develop a system of paid informers. This aim was central to the Act of Indemnity of 1736, and to what became known as the Gazetting Act of 1746. Indeed, this idea had limited initial success, but the downside of it was the introduction of sometimes horrific violence into smuggling. Informers were easily identifiable in small communities. Their families were ostracised and the target person was normally killed, sometimes after enduring systematic torture. In 1782, during the American war, the government was prepared to declare a limited amnesty for the smugglers. It was recognised that the smugglers were skilled and experienced seamen. Under the terms of the Act of Oblivion, the smuggler was pardoned if he went into the Royal Navy. This variety of legislation vividly illustrates the efforts made in forming laws to combat smuggling. However, the legislation followed a pattern of reacting to events, rather than a serious attempt to stop the activity. All the laws described in this section originated in London and should have transferred automatically to Ireland. However, they became embroiled in what James Kelly has called the long-held dream of the Dublin Parliament for commercial and constitutional equality with Britain. (57) It simply meant that the Dublin Parliament wanted to have total control of its legislative functions while maintaining the constitutional link with Britain. Dublin had some leverage in this aspiration, as it had the power to legislate for its own tariff schedules and to make its own laws governing customs administration and enforcement. (58) This facility allowed the Dublin administration to customise the British smuggling legislation when it was sent over to Ireland, with the result that the subsequent Irish legislation was not as rigorous as the original. The law as regards appeals in smuggling cases, where every form of legal obstruction was used to prevent speedy verdicts, was a lot more flexible in Ireland, and the same degree of protection was not given to informers and customs officers as in the United Kingdom. (59) Indeed, the British government had little confidence in the verdicts in smuggling cases delivered in the Irish courts. (60) It is reasonable to state that Britain had a superfluity of anti-smuggling legislation that proved in practice very difficult to enforce. The Irish legislation, which was a lot looser in order to make a political point, had very similar enforcement problems The legal system was relatively kind to the eighteenth century smuggler for as well as unworkable legislation in both jurisdictions, it was usually impossible to obtain convictions in smuggling cases, except in the larger cities like London and Dublin. The acceptability of the smuggling culture generated goodwill, which translated into protection for the captured smuggler, and very quickly extended into the courtrooms of the respective countries. It was as difficult to obtain a verdict against a smuggler in Cornwall as it was in Galway.

Smuggling from Galway in the 1730’s

This article has so far concentrated on examining the framework within which smuggling took place and the strategies which evolved to prevent it. In a previous section on the financing of the activity, the examination of the methods of funding large-scale smuggling was supported by documentary evidence from the records of the activities of Carteret Priaulx and Co. Such supporting material from smugglers themselves is unusual as it was neither in their nature nor their interests to write their memoirs! However, another case of large-scale two-way smuggling, this time in the west of Ireland in the 1730’s, also provides first hand documentary evidence in the form of actual correspondence, namely five letters discovered among the Irish State Papers in the old public record office in London during the 1950’s by the Irish economic historian, Louis M. Cullen. (61) Follow-on research led him to a further letter and two legal petitions relating to the same incident. This second set of documentation was discovered among the British Treasury papers in London. (62) The catalyst to the events in these letters was a quarrel over money between James Brown, a major smuggler, and Bryan Mc Donagh, a minor one, in the west of Ireland in December 1735. Mc Donagh felt he was cheated by Brown in a smuggling transaction and harboured a lingering grievance. Both gentlemen were in London on separate business ventures in late 1736. A meeting between them failed to reconcile their differences and led Mc Donagh to inform the Commissioners of the Customs in London of the smuggling activities of Brown, who was subsequently arrested. Mc Donagh was advised and indeed was subsidised by the Commissioners to return to Galway to get another backing witness in order to strengthen the case against Brown. (63) Mc Donagh returned to Ireland. On 7 January 1737, he was kidnapped by the smuggling fraternity in Galway, and was held captive by them until he escaped on 27 April 1737. (64) He came back to England in October 1737, with the second witness against Brown, a man called Patrick Early, a sailor from “H.M.S. Spy”, the Royal Naval vessel on station at Galway. Both men gave evidence at the successful prosecution of Brown in late 1737. (65) The sequence of events depicted in the letters reached a conclusion from Brown’s perspective, when his petition for clemency is rejected by the Customs Commissioners in London on 23 April 1793. (66) The final letter of Mc Donagh to the same body is an appeal for some additional form of help in recognition of his service. He cannot return to Ireland and he is being trained as a land waiter in the port of London. This letter is undated but Cullen, in a footnote, dates it as 14 June 1739. (67) The smuggling involved wool, which was being shipped from Roundstone Bay, at that time a very open anchorage situated to the north of the entrance to Galway Bay.
Galway Coast

© Ordnance Survey Ireland / Government of Ireland. Copyright Permit no. MP 0007313

The wool was normally consigned to Nantes in western France, but cargoes were sent to the Channel and Brittany ports as required. Cullen has shown that a fall in the price of wool in Ireland during the 1730’s made this a very lucrative trade for the smugglers. This fact reinforces the opportunistic nature of smuggling which was referred to at the beginning of this article in the seizures made by the Customs at Aberdeen. The smugglers had the added incentive of a return cargo, normally tea, brandy and wine. This could be unloaded at leisure at Roundstone Bay because customs surveillance in that area was negligible. The reason for this was that it was not until 17 May 1738, that the Irish revenue commissioners decided to station a proper revenue cutter at Galway. (68) Prior to that, their seagoing vessel there was a “Kings Large Boat”, which was destroyed by persons unknown in October 1737. (69) The naval vessel on station at Galway previously was “H.M.S. Spy” previously referred to. A two- masted sloop of the “Bonetta” class, she was a comparatively new vessel, having been commissioned at Chatham in 1732 for duties in Ireland. (70) Her commander, Edward Smith, was an experienced officer who had passed up for Lieutenant as long ago as 1719 (71) Allegations were made in the first set of letters discovered by Cullen, that the commander of the naval vessel and other customs officials were not interested in enforcing the regulations and that the anti-smuggling patrolling was minimal. The pattern previously referred to of spasmodic customs activity in north county Dublin was clearly being replicated in Galway. The legal aspects arising from the letters are of particular interest. Here is a situation where Brown, an Irishman, is being tried in London for a customs offence committed in Ireland. There was a certain inevitability that with two strong witnesses testifying against him, he would be convicted. A considerable part of his appeal against his sentence rested on a section in the Indemnity Act of 1736, which has been previously referred to. This section allowed for leniency if the defendant could prove that he was duped into committing the offence for which he was being charged. (72) However, his appeal was unsuccessful, confirming the previously mentioned proposition that the revenue had a better chance of getting convictions in the larger cities like London and Dublin than in the rural areas. This is very obvious when the kidnappers of Bryan Mc Donagh were tried in Galway in March 1738. After a long trial, in which overwhelming evidence was presented against the defendants, and despite a very strict charge from the judge to the jury as to the seriousness of the crime, a verdict of not guilty was returned. (73) Again, this reinforces the contention that the anti-smuggling laws were very difficult to enforce in areas where the smugglers had overwhelming influence either through support or fear. The letters and Cullen’s subsequent research on them reveal interesting information on the type of vessel used in the Galway smuggling. While Helen Doe’s examination of the influence of smuggling on shipbuilding in Cornwall related to small and medium classes of vessels, Brown’s Galway smuggling operation used a substantial ship of 150 tons, the “Livorne Galare” of Rhode Island. She was an American vessel, which lends credence to Ralph Davis’ 1960’s research into the expansion at that time of the American shipping industry and its consequent employability in European waters. (74) She was chosen to meet the requirements of a voyage involving crossing the open Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay and up the Loire river into Nantes in the early winter of 1735. Not only would she be well able for it, but also her much increased cargo-carrying capacity in a two-way smuggling operation would translate into greatly enhanced profits. The ship was available for charter at Cork and Brown sent down a Galway pilot, Mr Turner Daly, to guide her around the difficult Irish south-west and western coasts into Roundstone Bay. The American master of the vessel, a Mr Matthews, was well looked after by Brown, receiving a bond for £950 in case his vessel should be seized by the customs. (75) This certainly strains the credibility of Brown’s claim in his appeal that he was an innocent participant in the whole business.

Smuggling from 1793-1815 and subsequent changes.

The revolutionary and Napoleonic wars took place from 1793 to 1815, with one short peace intermission. Prior to the 1914-1918 conflict, this was termed “The Great War” It was an apt description because it was conducted on a worldwide scale, and involved a vast number of soldiers and sailors. Naturally, there were increases in taxation to help fund this enormous undertaking. The Revenue authorities at this time had identified a wide range of items as taxable. A good example of this is found in the financial documents of the Irish House of Commons. (76) It is in the form of an appendix extending to fifteen foolscap pages of close typed entries. It minutely detailed the range of taxable items starting with adzes for coopers and concluding with ten different types of yarn. (77) Beside each entry, the appropriate rates of taxation are also listed. (78) This vast range of goods and the virtual certainty of them increasing in price due to the demands of the war created opportunities for the smuggler. The potential increase in smuggling created concerns for the authorities in both England and Ireland. Prior to the war, this is reflected in a three way series of letters between the Earl of Chatham, first Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Westmoreland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and John Beresford, head of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin. (79) The letters are initiated by Chatham, informing the Dublin administration that the frigates on station in the Irish Sea area are being replaced by sloops and cutters. These smaller vessels are more suitable for anti-smuggling surveillance and the Admiralty is prepared to co-operate with the Irish Revenue Commissioners in this activity. (80) There is a response from the commissioners in the following year, with suggestions on the most effective deployment of the vessels in the Irish sea area and they also outline their requirement for additional help to prevent smuggling off the West and North West coasts of Ireland. (81) This is necessary because of the increase in American vessels smuggling tobacco into counties Donegal and Londonderry. (82) The Lord Lieutenant, the senior British official in Dublin, comes across in the letters as a very willing facilitator between the two bodies. A further indication of the extent of smuggling is shown in petitions to the Irish Parliament by the merchants of Newry and Londonderry in early February 1793. (83) These state that the legitimate trade in tobacco is being destroyed by smuggling, and they suggest a reduction in the tax on the product in order to counteract this. (84) This was never an option because war had been recently declared, and significant expansion was projected for the army and the Royal Navy, as well as the activation of the militias in both Britain and Ireland. To undertake all this activity, the governments in both countries needed revenue. Platt also notes the same adaptability in English smuggling at this time, which is clearly shown by the smugglers operating from the Kentish coast ports. The Jacobin terror of 1793 and 1794, created a substantial market with possible guillotine victims fleeing France. As the war progressed, money was made returning escaped French prisoners of war back across the channel. (85) Yet the halcyon days of virtually unrestricted smuggling were numbered. Two factors basically combined to cause this. The first was the increased military activity associated with the war. The second was a total change in the thinking on how the state regulated business. The rather ironic factor was that the increased military activity was not specifically designed to police smuggling activity, but in the long run, it had that effect. A good example of this is the wartime convoy system. At the start of the war, convoys were activated in the coastal and in the deep-sea trades. This is evident from the port news in contemporary newspapers and from Lloyds List. Llyods List 2467-2503, 01-01-1793- 29-04-1793.; ">(86) The coastal convoys in particular were escorted by small naval vessels such as sloops and cutters. As there were so many convoys, this increased naval presence at sea acted as a deterrent to the smugglers. Later in the war, with the danger of a French invasion of either England or Ireland, a massive system of coastal defences was developed. There is a general familiarity with the Martello Towers, but Mc Enery has shown that in Ireland, this was complemented by an interlocking defensive system consisting of forts, signal towers, batteries and redouts (small self-contained field works protected by ramparts). (87) The same situation was replicated particularly on the south east coast of England. Most of these defences were on or near the coast. They were continually manned and had to be aware of all marine activity in their area of surveillance. They developed a system of passing on information to the Customs, and this was a further restriction on the activities of the smugglers. This vast infrastructure could not be maintained when the war finished in 1815. However, some of the surplus sailors became the nucleus of the newly established Coastguards, which had evolved from the Preventative Waterguard . This service, formed in 1809, was a reorganisation of the original Customs sea service. (88) In time, the Coastguard became very effective at combatting smuggling. Green has shown its development in North County Dublin, with four stations established in 1821. (89) What is particularly significant in this expansion is the establishment of a station at Rush, which previously had been the major smuggling port in the area. (90) This increasingly effective surveillance alone would not have stopped large- scale smuggling, but taken in association with a change in the prevailing economic conditions, it proved very effective. It is outside the remit of this article to discuss in any significant detail the transition from the legalistic restrictive principles of Mercantilism to the free trading environment of the early 19th Century. In effect, it meant the pruning and sometimes a complete removal of the complex taxation system referred to previously. Trevelyan cites the work done by Huskisson as President of the Board of Trade in this area at this time. (91) The removal of many taxes and tariffs had the effect of reducing prices in most products for the final consumer. A situation was therefore created in which smugglers could make very little money, and with the increasingly effective surveillance, it was the beginning of the end for the smuggling culture described in this article.


One of the principal aims of this article was to explore why smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries, although always illegal, still remained a major trading activity. The rigidness of Mercantilism had caused shortages in consumer and non-consumer goods, thus creating an opportunity for huge illegal profits for those unscrupulous enough to engage in it. Despite the comprehensive legislation introduced during the period to stamp it out, it continued to flourish. Yet the legislation enacted by the state was more than adequate to deal with the problem.Indeed, the administrative documents showing accounts and taxable categories for Ireland in the 1790’s are very comprehensive and surprisingly modern. So why did the authorities fail in their attempts to suppress the activity? The problem during most of the 18th century lay with the enforcement of the legislation. As shown in the article, insufficient numbers of customs personnel were assigned to this task. Ni Mhurchadha’s analysis of the revenue personnel in north county Dublin illustrates this clearly, as does the description Platt gives of the customs service in the south east coast of England. In reality, the effective power of the state, while nominally supported by all its subjects, varied considerable from area to area, depending on the level of enforcement. In some parts, the army had to undertake what was really police or customs work. This played into the hands of the smuggler and remained the position until the early 19th century when the formation of an effective coastguard and later, regional police forces, made serious inroads into the smuggling culture. The decline of Mercantilism and the spread of more liberal economic thinking also reduced the profitability of the activity. Another reason for the survival of smuggling despite comprehensive legislation was that it had considerable advantages on its side. The article dealt earlier with examples of these. The code of silence in smuggling areas whether enforced or voluntary, made detection almost impossible. The Galway smuggling letters discovered by Cullen illustrate these forcefully and give a rare glimpse into this shadowy and murky world. The smugglers also had skill on their side. They were superb boatmen and sailors and their knowledge of what equipment would best serve their needs contributed greatly to fast boat and ship design as instanced in Doe’s articles referred to earlier. It could also be said that, in their own way, they contributed to regional development. They brought money and some employment to what were peripheral areas such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It is interesting to note that in our time, these same islands have maintained their tradition of sturdy individualism. Dare one suggest that the spirit of the smuggler lives on in their strictly legal expertise in the matter of off-shore company formation and the maintenance of registers of shipping? As regards the myths surrounding smuggling, there is a marked difference between England and Ireland. All around the coast of England, there is almost an affectionate nostalgia for the period. In Ireland, instead of nostalgia, there is an interest and it is very local. However, through the haze of myth and nostalgia, the sharp historical facts emerge. In the early winter of 1735, when Brown sent Turner Day, a local man, to Cork to pilot an American vessel up to Galway Bay, he provides evidence of the practical, sea-going expertise of the two countries. Through folksy and perhaps charming images of smugglers loading bales of wool onto ships in Roundstone Bay, the historical reality of the contemporary economic system is revealed. This would not be happening unless the drop in the price of Irish wool had made smuggling it to France an extremely profitable venture. When Benjamin Franklin wrote that nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes, he could well have added smuggling to the list. In our contemporary society, we are only too well aware of the smuggling of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and indeed, people. It seems that nothing changes. Indeed, over the years, there has been a withdrawal by the majority of the general public of their acceptance of smuggling activity. “No Go” areas created by such acceptance as, for example, the town of Rush in north county Dublin in the eighteenth century, are less likely now. However, the lure of smuggling is still there, fuelled by the same greed and enabled by similar intimidation and corruption. It must be acknowledged too that in the past, it also involved superb seamanship, opportunism and creativity in boat and ship design. The period of smuggling explored by this article was unique due to the circumstances prevailing at the time. As such, it is worthy of this and hopefully, further investigation. .


1. Manuscript sources

Carteret Priaulx Library, St. Peter’s Port Guernsey

Carterat Priaulx and Co., Guernsey

  • “Dear Brothers from T.P.” – 15-10-1807.
  • “Dear Uncles form T. W. G.” 15-10-1807

(With thanks to Dr. Helen Doe and Tony Pawlyn for their transcripts).

The National Archives of Ireland Private official correspondence book 1790-1793

  • N.A.I. CSO LB 417 Chatham, 30-01-1790
  • N.A.I. CSO LB 417 Beresford, 08-07-1791
  • N.A.I. CSO LB 417 Westmoreland, 15-07-1791
2. Printed Sources (Items first published before 1860)
  • The National Library of Ireland
  • N.L.I. I.R. 328i17 Irish House of Commons Journal 15, 1792-1794 (George Grierson, Dublin 1797)
  • Lloyds List (2467-2503) - 01/01/1793 to 29-04-1793

2. Newspapers, Periodicals and Annuals

  • N.L.I. Hibernian Chronicle (Later Cork Mercantile Chronicle) Jan- Apr, 1793.
  • N.L.I. New Cork Evening Post

3. Secondary Sources

  • Barber. William J, A History of Economic Thought (London, 1967.( Pelican paperback edition).
  • Boxer. C R.”The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800”, (London, Pelican paperback edition 1973)
  • Cole. W A, “Trends in eighteenth century smuggling” in Economic History Review, New Series, Vol.10 No. (1958).
  • Cullen. L M,“Five letters relating to Galway smuggling in 1737”, Journal of the Galway archaeological and historical society Vol.27 (1956-1957).
  • Cullen. L M,“The Galway smuggling trade in the seventeen-thirties”, Journal of the Galway archaeological and historical society Vol.30, No 1/2 (1962)
  • Cullen .L M, “The smuggling trade in Ireland in the eighteenth century” Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy. Section c: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature Vol. 69, (1968-1969).
  • Davis. Ralph, “The rise of the English shipping industry in the seventee”nth and eighteenth centuries” (London,1962).
  • Doe. Helen, “Jane Slade of Polruan”(Truran Books Truro, 2002).
  • Doe. Helen, “The Smugglers’ Shipbuilder: The Customers, Trades and Vessels of a Mevagissey Shipyard, 1799-1816, The Mariners Mirror Vol,94. No,4. (Nov 2006).
  • French. Christopher, “Merchant Shipping of the British Empire” in “ A heyday of Sail-The merchant sailing ship 1650-1830,(London, 1995).
  • Green, Roger, “ Old Malahide” (Fingal County Libraries, 2012)
  • James ,F G, “Irish smuggling in the eighteenth century”, Irish Historical Studies Vol.12, No,48.
  • Jamieson, A G, “A people of the sea, the maritime history of the Channel Islands”, (London,1986).
  • Kelly. James, “Prelude to unity-Anglo-Irish politics in the 1780s’,(Cork,1992).
  • McEnery. John Hartnett, “Fortress Ireland-the story of the Irish coastal forts and the river Shannon defence line”(Bray,2006).
  • Morriss. Roger, “The foundations of British maritime ascendancy-resources, logistics and the state 1755-1815 (Cambridge,2011).
  • Ni Mhurchadha. Maighread, “The customs and excise service in Fingal-1684-1765, sober active and bred to the sea” (Dublin,1999).
  • Platt. Richard, “Smuggling in the British Isles a History” 2nd Edition, (Stroud, 2011).
  • Rodger. N A M,“The command of the ocean” (Penguin paperback, London, 2005)
  • Syrett. David, and DiNardo. R L, “Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815” (Navy records society,1994).
  • Trevelyan, G M.“A shortened history of England” (Pelican Books, reprint 1967).
  • Winfield. Rif, “British warships in the age of sail 1714-1792 Design, Construction Careers, and Fates’ (Seaforth, 2007).


  • 1^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles a History
  • 2^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:141-164.
  • 3^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:146-148.
  • 4^^Barber, A history of economic thought page:18.
  • 5^^French, Merchant Shipping of the British Empire in A Heyday of Sail: The merchant sailing ship 1650-1830 page:12.
  • 6^^ Ibid:
  • 7^^Morriss, The Foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy-Resources, Logistics and the State 1755-1815 (2011) Cambridge: page:89 -102.
  • 8^^Cole, Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 10 No. 3 (1958) “Trends in Eighteenth Century Smuggling”: page:395-410.
  • 9^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:27.
  • 10^^ Ibid: page:27.
  • 11^^ Ibid: page:28.
  • 12^^ Carteret Priaulx Library, St. Peter’s Port Guernsey (With thanks to Dr.Helen Doe and Tony Pawlyn for their transcripts):
  • 13^^ (15, October 1807) C.P. Library Guernsey, To “Dear Brothers” from “TP”:
  • 14^^ (15 October 1807) C.P. Library Guernsey, To “Dear Uncles” from “T W G”:
  • 15^^ Ibid:
  • 16^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:31-32.
  • 17^^ Ibid: page:31.
  • 18^^Cullen, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature. Vol 67. (1968-1969) “The Smuggling Trade in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century”: page:155.
  • 19^^Jamieson, A people of the sea, the maritime history of the Channel Islands (1986) London: page:206.
  • 20^^ Ibid:
  • 21^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:38.
  • 22^^Boxer, C. R.,
  • 23^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles, page:14.
  • 24^^Cullen “ The smuggling trade in Ireland, page:151.
  • 25^^
  • 26^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:89.
  • 27^^ Ibid: page:23.
  • 28^^ Ibid:
  • 29^^ Ibid: page:32.
  • 30^^ Ibid:
  • 31^^
  • 32^^ Ibid:
  • 33^^Ni Mhurchadha Maighread, The Customs and Excise Service in Fingal- 1684-1765- Sober, Active and Bred to the Sea page:21.
  • 34^^ Ibid:
  • 35^^Doe, The Mariners Mirror Vol, 94. No, 4. ( Nov 2006) (Nov 2006) ‘The Smugglers’ Shipbuilder: The Customers, Trades and Vessels of a Mevagissey Shipyard, 1799-1816’: page:427-442.
  • 36^^ Ibid: page:429.
  • 37^^ Ibid:
  • 38^^ Ibid: page:434.
  • 39^^Rodger, The Command of the Ocean page:422.
  • 40^^Doe, Jane Slade of Polruan
  • 41^^ Ibid: page:14-18.
  • 42^^ Ibid: page:22.
  • 43^^Ni Mhurchadha, Customs Service Fingal page:7-65.
  • 44^^ Ibid: page:12.
  • 45^^ Ibid: page:12-13.
  • 46^^ Ibid:
  • 47^^ Ibid: page:45.
  • 48^^ Ibid: page:29.
  • 49^^ Ibid:
  • 50^^ Ibid: page:37.
  • 51^^ Ibid: page:41.
  • 52^^ Ibid: page:29.
  • 53^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:112.
  • 54^^ Ibid: page:125.
  • 55^^ page:19.
  • 56^^ Ibid:
  • 57^^ page:ix.
  • 58^^ page:304.
  • 59^^ Ibid: page:306-307.
  • 60^^ Ibid: page:312.
  • 61^^Cullen, Journal of the Galway archaeological and historical society Vol, 27, (1956-1957) Five letters relating to Galway smuggling in 1737: page:10-25.
  • 62^^Cullen, The Galway smuggling trade in the seventeen-thirties Journal of the Galway archaeological and historical society Vol.30, No 1/2 (1962),: page:7-40.
  • 63^^Cullen, Journal of the Galway archaeological and historical society Vol.30, No 1/2 (1962), The Galway smuggling trade in the seventeen-thirties: page:7-40.
  • 64^^ Ibid: page:37.
  • 65^^Cullen, Five letters relating to Galway page:21.
  • 66^^Cullen, Galway smuggling seventeen-thirties page:26.
  • 67^^ Ibid: page:29.
  • 68^^Cullen, Five letters relating to Galway page:25.
  • 69^^ Ibid:
  • 70^^Winfield, British warships in the age of sail 1714-1792 Design, Construction, Careers and Fates page:298.
  • 71^^Syrett, Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815 page:409.
  • 72^^Cullen, Galway smuggling seventeen-thirties page:28.
  • 73^^ Ibid: page:39.
  • 74^^Davis, The rise of the English Shipping industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries page:31.
  • 75^^Cullen, “Galway smuggling seventeen thirties” page:28.
  • 76^^ Journal of the house of commons 1792-1794. Vol, 15. Appendix N.L.I. IR328i17: page:153-168.
  • 77^^ Ibid:
  • 78^^ Ibid:
  • 79^^ N.A.I. CSO LB 417. Chatham, 30-01-1790, p.140 Beresford, 8-07-1791, p.142-143 Westmoreland 15-07-1791: page:141.
  • 80^^ N.A.I, CSO LB 417 Chatham 1790:
  • 81^^ N.A.I, CSO LB 417 Beresford 1791:
  • 82^^ Ibid:
  • 83^^ N.L.I., IR328i17, p.136, Newry. IR328i17: page:146.
  • 84^^ Ibid:
  • 85^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:133-134.
  • 86^^ N.L.I, “ Hibernian Chronicle” Jan –April 1793. N.L.I, “ New Cork Evening Post” Jan-April 1793. Llyods List 2467-2503, 01-01-1793- 29-04-1793.:
  • 87^^ Fortress Ireland-The story of the Irish coastal forts and the River Shannon defence line page:57-121.
  • 88^^Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles page:136.
  • 89^^Green, Old Malahide page:42.
  • 90^^ Ibid:
  • 91^^Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England page:467.
  • Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England page:467.

End of citations END
Posted in Stories
0 comments on “Smuggling in the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century
1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Smuggling in the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century"
  1. […] Smuggling in the 18th Century – On-line Journal of … – The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are described as the golden age of smuggling. […]

Thank God, we are surrounded by water