Many Dorset families, my own included, can point to a connection with smugglers somewhere in the past. The following article was originally published in Notes & Queries for Somerset & Dorset in 1893
There are many old men still living who could, if applied to, relate some very interesting and thrilling narratives connected with smuggling; but they are now fast dying out and soon they will become an extinct race;—hence the importance of obtaining all the information possible before it is too late.
I lately met with an old man who had passed all his life in the Isle of Purbeck, and who evidently knew a great deal on the subject referred to. It may now be said that smuggling belongs to a past generation. I was not previously acquainted with the modus operandi of it, and probably many of your readers who, like myself, belong to a later generation, are not much better informed. It seems a pity that there is not more information forthcoming on this point. My informant told me that the Smugglers first of all went over to the coast of France in small sailing vessels, and took on board the tubs or kegs of brandy, &c., then they waited for a moonlight night to enable them to land their cargo in small boats on the Dorset coast; a moonlight night being always chosen to enable them to see their way in the better. When their vessels arrived sufficiently near the Dorset coasts, then they had to wait for a favourable opportunity to enable them to run in with their small boats without attracting the attention of the Coast Guard. Their comrades at home who were expecting them, and who understood pretty well where they would land, were also keeping vigilant watch, and if they discovered any of the Coast Guard about, or saw any danger of discovery, a fire was lighted on the cliff and so long as such fire was kept burning no attempt was made to land on that part of the coast.
It was a serious offence in those days for any one to be concerned in aiding the Smugglers by means of signals or otherwise, and the county gaol at Dorchester frequently contained many inmates charged with offences connected with smuggling. If the Smugglers met with any obstacle or were disturbed in the act of making for the shore, it became necessary for them to throw their cargo overboard. This was done in such a way, however, as to prevent any ultimate loss, if possible. Before the tubs of brandy were thrown into the sea they were tied together, particular notice being taken of the spot where they were deposited, and I believe some kind of a floating mark placed there. When a favourable opportunity offered itself, a return was made to the spot referred to, and the smugglers got up the tubs again, some iron rakes which were kept on hand being used for the purpose. Sometimes, however, a passing ship ran foul of the tubs and the crew secured the hidden treasure, or part of it, for themselves, much to the loss and chagrin of the original owners.
A further difficulty was experienced after the brandy was brought to land, in finding a safe and secret place in which to store it until a purchaser could be found. Sometimes it was placed in a cave by the sea shore, known only to the Smugglers, and at other times it was hid away in dwelling houses, outhouses, wardens, &c. Frequent searches were made by the excise officers to discover contraband goods, and many were the expedients resorted to in order to frustrate such searches. If the goods were placed in an outhouse, the door of which was not locked, it seems the owner or occupier was not liable to any penalty.
The profits obtained by the Smugglers were not at all commensurate with the tremendous risks they ran, and the wonder is that so many were found willing to engage in such a ha2ardous undertaking. An Englishman’s natural love of adventure must doubtless have had a great deal to do with it. They might also have indulged in the thought that “stolen fruit was sweet.”
My informant related many thrilling incidents connected with smuggling in past days, one of them being as follows:—
About 50 or 60 years ago an attempt was made to land some smuggled brandy near St. Alban’s Head. It was a beautiful moonlight night and all seemed to go well, until the smugglers, in their small boat, had just run into the creek which had been selected for the purpose of landing. Then it was discovered that two officers of the Coast Guard were watching- the whole proceeding from the top of the cliff under which the boat had put in. One of these officers had not been long in the neighborhood, but he had been there quite long enough to have earned for himself the reputation of being very harsh in the discharge of his duties; his colleague was of a milder disposition. The first mentioned officer at once raised his musket, or pistol, to fire on the unfortunate men in the boat, but his colleague, to whom the men were well known, implored him not to do so, but all to no purpose; the fatal shot was fired, one of the men immediately fell dead in the boat whilst another was seriously wounded. The survivors or survivor at once returned with all speed to their vessel and the corpse and the injured man having been taken on board, the party returned to the coast of France where the dead man was buried and the other remained until he had sufficiently recovered to enable him to return home. No official enquiry was ever held as to this tragic occurrence, but the natives (a large number of whom was then, in some way or other, connected with smuggling) soon knew all about it, and the Coast Guardsman who had fired the fatal shot found the neighborhood too hot to hold him, and he did not long remain there.
I was much struck with the knowledge my informant possessed of that part of the coast near where he lived. No map or other publication that I know of affords so much information as he was able to give. He could tell the name of every rock, cave, creek, &c., and could run them off without much hesitation in consecutive order. He evidently knew every inch of that part of the coast, but then he came to a certain point his exceptional knowledge ceased and he knew no more of the coast beyond than an ordinary observer.
Many of the names of the rocks, &c., which he gave me I had never heard before. Some of them were very suggestive of the past, and would no doubt well repay further investigation as to their origin, &c. Similar information could, no doubt, be obtained as to other parts of the Coast from old inhabitants, who, like my informant, have probably spent all their lifetime in the same neighborhood; but in these changing bustling times this kind of information is every year becoming more difficult to obtain.
It might also be useful to consider what effect smuggling has had on the language, manners, and customs of our Coast population.