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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Dispelling Some Myths: Wreckers and smugglers

Updated: Jun 1


Wrecking is the practice of taking valuables from a shipwreck which has foundered or run aground close to shore. Wrecks were frequent in Devon and Cornwall where the rocky coastline, and strong prevailing onshore winds helped scupper many merchant ships and warships. A tradition still exists that, during the 17th- and 18th-centuries, wreckers deliberately decoyed ships on to coasts using tricks, especially false lights, so that they ran aground for easy plundering. While this has been depicted in many stories and legends, there is no clear evidence that it has ever happened probably because such tricks simply would not work. Naturally enough sailors are wary of running aground so in all probability false lights would be interpreted as indicating land and thus avoided if they cannot be identified. Moreover, a burning beacon or lantern cannot be seen very far over water at night, unless they are large, fitted with mirrors or lenses, and mounted at a great height – like a lighthouse. If anything the opposite ought to be true such that wreckers would surely have extinguished any warning lights to increase the chances of a ship foundering.

To prove the point, in episode 2 of the first series of the 2005 BBC documentary “Coast”, the team attempted to replicate the conditions of wrecking by rigging a false light. The experiment concluded that a single-candle lantern onshore would be insufficient to lure a boat into dangerous water on a dark night. Indeed, the boat crew did not see the light until they got within 150m of it and at which point the dangers of being too close to the shore would be apparent. Yet despite the evidence, or lack thereof, in 1735 it was made an offence to make false lights. Ultimately no one was ever prosecuted under this law, but in 1769 William Pearse was hanged at Launceston in Cornwall for stealing from a wreck. Note, however, that the offence was stealing not wrecking.

Rather than a deliberate act, the temptation to plunder wrecks has remained a strong motivation for Britons living in coastal communities. Wrecking was a major activity of the inhabitants of Stroma Island in the Pentland Firth off the north of Scotland. It was also well known on the Goodwin Sands off the southeast of England where over 2,000 wrecks have occurred. The boatmen of Deal, who took supplies to ships at anchor off the coast, would plunder any wrecked vessel. None of which should be surprising as, throughout history, ordinary folk have always tried to improve their lot by fair means or by ‘bending the law’. According to UK law the goods from wrecks are supposed to be reported to the "Receiver of Wreck" and finders will then be given a reward. In January 2007, however, the container ship MSC Napoli, seriously damaged in a storm and sinking, was deliberately beached off Branscombe in Devon. When some of its cargo was washed ashore, many people, some travelling long distances, plundered the cargo regardless of attempts to prevent them. Even so, and although it has a long history, wrecking has never been as prevalent as one might think, and the lurid tales might suggest.


On the other hand, the evidence for Britons engaging in smuggling throughout the centuries is rife, with smuggling and wrecking inextricably linked. In Cornwall, for example, the sight of a ship foundering would bring the nearby population to the beach. With pickaxes and hatchets a ship would be dismembered and any goods on it carried away. Likewise, any goods washed ashore from a wrecked ship were regarded as common property and, in Cornwall, would quickly become part of the Cornish smuggling trade.

According to Historic UK contributor Ellen Castellow, at one point ‘it was estimated that more illicit spirits were being smuggled into the country than came through London Docks’. But why should this be so? To set the scene, we should consider what life was like for the common folk in 17th- and 18th-century Britain where an untimely death was ever-present. For example, it should be no surprise that the plague outbreak that struck London in 1665 resulted in more than 7,000 fatalities. Yet other diseases also took their toll. Smallpox was prevalent, killing thousands and disfiguring many more. A significant number of people throughout the country who had survived the disease would have been recognisable from the unmistakable “pockmarks scarring their faces (Rennison, 2020). According to contemporary records for London in the late 17th-century just over 100 deaths were ascribed to ‘spotted fever’; 134 to ‘consumption’; 64 to ‘convulsion’; 51 to ‘griping in the guts’ and some 43 women died in childbirth (Rennison, 2020). Added to that were the records for one-off accidents: one man was ‘burnt in his bed by a candle at St Giles Cripplegate’ while another was ‘killed by a fall from the belfry at All-Hallows-the-Great’ (Rennison, 2020).

Tuberculosis was another prolific killer, its symptoms exacerbated by the smoke and poor air blanketing London making the city quite the unhealthy place to live. Pollution of all kinds was ever present, and smog was not just a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. The burning of sea-coal in domestic fires meant that 17th- and 18th-century London was as foul-smelling and filled with sulphurous smoke as the later Victorian city. Adding to the general malaise would have been the mostly narrow, packed, and filthy streets. Drainage was poor - in some areas non-existent - and faeces, both human and animal, befouled the roads (Rennison, 2020). The same poorly lit streets were also a haven for footpads and robbers. For ordinary Britons struggling to survive in a dangerous world, one in which life was cheap and death could be just around the corner, and with few legal protections but a myriad of laws carrying the death penalty, it is easy to see why “breaking the rules” might seem an attractive, perhaps even necessary, proposition.

A coastal tradition

As Britain became embroiled in a series of Continental Wars during the 18th- and into the 19th-century, high duties were needed to finance a number of extremely expensive wars with France and the United States. The high rates of duty levied on tea, wine and spirits, and other luxury goods imported from mainland Europe at the time made the clandestine import of such goods and the evasion of the duty a highly profitable venture for impoverished fishermen and seafarers. In certain parts of the country such as the Romney Marsh, East Kent, Cornwall and East Cleveland, smuggling was for many communities more profitable than farming and fishing. Allied to this “the shortage of able-bodied men for home service, coupled with official corruption, allowed smugglers to do very much as they liked, and so they carried on their job in open defiance of the law” (Castellow, 2023).

So, during the 17th- and 18th-centuries, especially in southern England, smuggling was simply a part of daily life and traces of the illicit trade can be widely found. Poole in Dorset for example, with its convenient harbour, was one of the greatest smuggling towns on the southern English coast during the 18th-century. Tea was landed from passing East Indiamen and brandy, silk and lace arrived in huge quantities from France and the Channel Islands all to avoid paying import taxes. The men of Poole even colluded with smugglers in Sussex and with those from the West. When a seizure of tea was made in 1747, it was the Hawkhurst gang from Sussex who openly attacked the Custom House in Poole and recovered it (Castellow, 2023). Further east, when the Peter Boat Inn at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex was reconstructed about 80 years ago, a warren of secret chambers was discovered that were clearly intended to store smuggled goods. Elsewhere in Essex, and for centuries until the 1800s and early 1900s, a favourite landing place for contraband was Brandy Hole Creek on the River Crouch. The location was well known for the smuggling of wine, brandy and even tea. Indeed, once landed, the brandy (hence the name "Brandy Hole") was taken south and east across Daws Heath near Rayleigh in shrimp-carts and from there onward to London.

Lurid tales and ghost stories were employed to disguise smuggling activities or discourage the inquisitive. During the 19th-century, secret chambers in the ruins of Hadleigh Castle in Essex were supposed to have been used to hide smuggled goods. It was during this time that the castle got a reputation for being haunted by the “White Lady”. She would reputedly appear before a shipment of illicit liquor arrived, and miraculously disappear when all the contraband had been moved on.

The Revenue men

The job of combating smuggling was entrusted to Revenue Officers (also known as Revenue Men, Customs Officers or Customs Men). Under the "Excise Ordinance" of 1643 [1], the Long Parliament established both the Board of Customs responsible for collecting duties levied on imported goods, and the Board of Excise responsible for raising revenue from inland taxes. While it was from this point that the raising of excise duties began, the levying of customs duties has a far longer history. Originally, the term “customs” meant any customary payments or dues of any kind paid to, for example, the king, a bishop or the church. Later the term became defined as duties payable to the king on the import or export of goods. The first written reference to customs duties occurs in an 8th-century charter of King Aethelbald, but the first centralised English customs system can be traced to the reign of King John. The Winchester Assize of Customs of 1203 established that customs were to be collected and paid to the State Treasury. His Majesty’s (HM) Customs was established on a more permanent basis with the passing of legislation known as the nova custuma of 1275 in the reign of King Edward I. The nova custuma levied duties on exported wool and leather, and alongside this duty was also levied on imported goods which, from the 14th-century, became known as tonnage and poundage [2].

Unlike customs, excise duties are in-country duties levied on articles at the time of their manufacture, such as alcoholic drinks and tobacco. As already mentioned, excise duties were first levied in England in 1643, during the Commonwealth. These were initially on beer, cider, spirits and soap, with duties later levied on such diverse commodities as salt, paper and bricks. For a time, the Board of Excise was also responsible for collecting the duty levied on imports of beverages such as rum, brandy and other spirits, as well as tea, coffee, chocolate and cocoa beans. Before the duty was paid, such commodities were often stored in a bonded warehouse where excise officers could assess and measure them, a regulatory measure that still happens today.

From the early 17th-century, the searching of vessels for illicit goods, known as “rummaging”, was undertaken by customs officers. The flow of contraband continued unabated however until late in the century a concerted effort was made to tackle the growing problem. Land-based Riding Officers were employed to patrol the coast on horseback, while Revenue cutters were provided to enable officers to intercept vessels involved in smuggling at sea. All the while a “cat and mouse” game between smugglers and the Revenue Men played out around the coastline. Ideally, in any such venture, violence was to be avoided but when it could not, many bloody, desperate fights with the Revenue Men took place in lonely creeks (Castellow, 2023). As Ellen Castellow remarks: “an entire boatload of Excise-men were found with their throats cut on the Sunken Island near Mersea [Essex] in the early 1800’s. They now lie buried beneath their upturned boat in Virley churchyard.”

Throughout the 19th-century the organisations or agencies involved in anti-smuggling operations evolved to something resembling that which we have today (see InfoBox opposite). Now operated by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), a fleet of Customs Cutters still operate throughout UK territorial waters inspecting vessels for prohibited and restricted goods. Increasingly these Cutters are also dealing with immigration matters, although border enforcement is primarily the responsibility of the UK Border Force.

Has anything changed?

Some may think that in the present-day smuggling has ceased, but it clearly has not. Illegal drug trafficking, and the illegal arms trade, as well as the historical staples of smuggling, alcohol (rum-running) and tobacco remain widespread. Those involved are able to impose a significant price premium on smuggled goods as they face significant risk of civil and criminal penalties if caught with contraband. Regardless, the enormous potential proceeds from smuggling and the selling on of contraband goods make the risks worthwhile. Profit is also derived from avoiding taxes or levies on imported goods. A smuggler might purchase a large quantity of cigarettes in a place with low taxes, smuggle them into a place with higher taxes and sell them at a far higher margin than would otherwise be possible. Yet beyond the organised smuggling operations, ordinary Britons still find themselves tempted to bend the rules. Over the years how many packs of cigarettes or bottles of spirits have been hidden in an “innocent” holidaymaker’s suitcase? Is this the acceptable face of modern-day smuggling?

As for wrecking, one of the most recent examples to happen in Britain, the container ship MSC Napoli mentioned earlier, is quite revealing. After containers from the wreck began washing ashore, about two hundred people went onto Branscombe beach in Devon to scavenge the flotsam. Goods including 17 BMW motorcycles, empty wine casks, nappies, perfume, and car parts were taken despite police warnings that those responsible risked fines for failing to notify the Receiver of Wreck of the goods salvaged. The "salvage" free-for-all was tolerated for a while until January 23rd, 2007 when the police branded the activity of scavengers "despicable", closed the beach, and announced that they would use powers unused for a century to compel those involved to return the goods they had taken without informing the authorities. These actions, Devon Police pointed out, constituted an offence equivalent to theft under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Ironically, in October 2007, salvagers who had reported their finds to the Receiver of Wreck were told they could keep what they found. Nevertheless, it seems people never really change, and old habits die hard. Britons have, after all, a long history and great deal of experience in the art of wrecking and smuggling.

Bon appétit.



Castellow, E., ‘Smugglers and Wreckers’, Historic UK, Available online (accessed December 13th, 2023).

Rennison, N. (2020), ‘Coffee, plague and the Great Fire: the pleasures and perils of living in Restoration London, BBC History Extra, Available online (accessed December 13th, 2023).


1. Titled “Ordinance for the speedy raising and levying of moneys by way of charge or impost upon several commodities”, the act was passed by the Long Parliament which lasted from 1640 until 1660. 

2. Tonnage and poundage were duties and taxes first levied in Edward II's reign on every tun (cask) of imported wine, which came mostly from Spain and Portugal, and on every pound weight of merchandise exported or imported. 


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