Smuggling on the South Coast
- Chris McCooey
15th March 2012
A smuggler ...'honest thief ' or 'wretch'? Opinion was divided some two hundred years ago when smuggling was in its heyday and known as 'that infamous traffick'.
Charles Lamb, the essayist, was in favour when he wrote in the early 1800s, 'I like a smuggler; he is the only honest thief.' The great lexicographer, Dr Johnson, begged to differ when he wrote this definition in his dictionary: 'A smuggler is a wretch who, in defiance of the laws, imports or exports without payment of the customs.' Most people would rather agree with Lamb, but the author shows that Johnson's definition is nearer the truth. The book traces the early history of open smuggling back to the illegal export of Britain's Golden Fleece - the so-called 'owling' of raw wool to the Continent. The violent heyday of the contraband trade came in the eighteenth century when heavy taxes on luxury items made their illegal importation highly profitable. The British love for these supposed luxuries of tea, tobacco and spirits is explained in fascinating detail.
The second half of the book is devoted to the notorious Hawkhurst Gang, who held sway throughout Kent and Sussex and, having bought the contraband in the Channel Islands or the Low Countries, smuggled it ashore along the South Coast. To protect their infamous trafficking, the gang resorted to wholesale corruption, terrorism and murder, the latter invariably a result of heavy drinking. Their enormous crimes are described in detail, as are the trials which finally broke up the gang in 1749. Smuggling on the South Coast is the result of five years' research in which the author has traced the history of an era which was brought to a violent and bloody conclusion in the 1830s. It dispels many misconceptions that the reader may have about the subject and provides a new insight into an intriguing period of our history.