A few months ago I posted about hunting in Georgian and Regency England and about how the peace that followed the Napoleonic Wars impacted the economy and hunting laws of England.
I’ve been researching the topic of smuggling in England during the Georgian era and reading Smuggling In Kent & Sussex 1700-1840, by Mary Waugh. The numerous wars England engaged in during this period served as incentives to illegal trading.
1. High taxes needed to pay for war created incentives for “free-trading”. Some items were subject to both an import duty and an excise tax originally imposed to pay for the Civil War of the seventeenth century. Like any profitable tax, it became indispensable, doubling or tripling the cost of some goods.
2. To protect the English textile industry, it was illegal to export wool. The illegal export of wool was called the owling trade and for a time was a capital offense.
3. Tea, tobacco, and spirits were favored contraband. Americans familiar with the Boston Tea Party know about the high duties that followed the Seven Years War, known to those of us who studied in U.S. schools as the French and Indian War. Apparently duties were high in England also: In 1784, William Pitt cut the duty on tea from 129% to 12.5%! Officials estimated that over two million pounds of tea had been smuggled in the three years preceding this reform.
4. After the French Revolution, smuggling loads included people. Smugglers brought in aristocrats fleeing the guillotine. Later, French war prisoners held in hulks were helped to escape and smuggled back to France.
5. French brandy was banned during the wars with France, and gin imports were heavily taxed. Thus they became popular illegal imports, with special handling required. Here is Ms. Waugh’s description:
The spirits came packaged for handling (and sinking when necessary) in small kegs known as tubs. A tub normally held one half anker, or between 3 ½ and 4 gallons, and to increase its value further, the spirit was usually 70 points over proof. It had therefore to be ‘let down’ after landing, by the addition of water and caramel colouring, an operation which could create problems. It also meant that enthusiasts for the raw spirit sometimes died of alcoholic poisoning after a cask was broached.
6. Smuggling cartels were well organized and able to take orders for a variety of luxury goods. Besides the staples mentioned above, seized loads included spices, coffee, chocolate, playing cards, and jewelry.
7. After tea duties were reduced, tobacco replaced it as the profitable illegal import.
8. Smuggling operations involved the seamen who brought contraband to England in luggers, cutters, or galleys, and the organized rings who moved the merchandise cross country, as well as the bankers who funded the enterprises and the merchants who received the goods.
9. Between 1700 and 1746 penalties for an unarmed man caught smuggling escalated from imprisonment, to transportation, to death. As in the Ellenborough Act of 1817 to combat poaching, the Smuggling Acts of 1736 and 1746 increased penalties and ramped up the violence surrounding this activity.
10. The end of the Napoleonic wars and the return of soldiers unable to find employment caused another peak in smuggling. The end of the war also freed up military and naval resources to combat smuggling.
My Work-in-Progress includes a secondary character involved in smuggling, thus my interest in the subject. I’m still working my way through this fascinating book. For authors of historical fiction, it has a wealth of detail about this colorful period in England, and includes places to visit, important dates and key players, and a detailed bibliography and index.
Many novels include smuggling or smugglers in the story. Do you have any favorites? I would love to hear about them!
All Images: Wikimedia Commons