I’ve stumbled into a fortunately not too deep rabbit hole over the issue of smuggling spirits, which led me back to some earlier research that I’ll share a bit further on in the post.
And now, without further ado, I’m very happy to report that the first round of edits have come back on my Macbeth project and the related novella that will be part of an anthology to be released in April 2021. The revisions won’t be too onerous, yay!
Brandy or Gin?
I’m very grateful for the editorial comments I received, and especially the ones related to historical facts. It’s so very easy to get things wrong!
One item questioned in the novella involves the smuggling of spirits, specifically, gin. My hero sees a tub of smuggled spirits and assumes it is gin. The question asked: since gin was produced in England, why would he assume this? He must surely mean brandy.
Uh oh. If I got this wrong, then I have an error in an earlier story–every historical author’s worry.
However, though I’m no expert, I’d researched this topic a few years ago for The Counterfeit Lady. I was pretty sure I was right. But, because I have a terrible memory for details, I went back to my research.
What the sources say
My main source, cited below, says that gin was one of “the most popular items of contraband on the coasts of England nearest to Holland.”
Furthermore, “According to estimates made by Excise officers around 1780, well over half of all the contraband gin brought ashore in England and Wales was being landed in Kent and Sussex, a grand total of 1,808,000 gallons in three years. By contrast 552,000 gallons of brandy were run here over the same period…”
But my story is set in 1815. Would 25 years make a big difference?
I found another source who quotes a visitor to Sussex in 1813. His report: as many as three to four million gallons of gin, rum, and other spirits were smuggled into Sussex annually.
But if gin was produced in England, as it apparently was, why smuggle it in?
Follow the money
In a word, taxes. The British passion for gin is a really interesting topic. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century gin imported from Holland was cheap and untaxed. Then Queen Anne allowed domestic production. Backstreet distilleries produced poor quality gin, Mother Ruin, and the ‘Gin Craze’ wreaked havoc on British residents.
The government imposed stiff licensing fees for distilleries, raised duties on imports, and imposed other restrictions on the sale of gin. High taxes and onerous government regulations are a sure path to black markets. It’s no wonder that Britons continued to turn to smuggling for higher quality, lower priced gin.
I will proceed with my revisions with more confidence.
Here’s more about smuggling from a March 2015 post:
Ten Facts About Smuggling in England
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
English Smugglers, the Channel, and the Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1814, by Gavin Daly, Journal of British Studies https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/508397?read-now=1&seq=7#page_scan_tab_contents