The Smugglers of Poole

This description of The Smugglers of Poole was  first published in 1905 by Charles Harper as chapter five in his book ‘The Dorset Coast’. 

The smugglers of Poole are famous in the long history of smuggling days. Their operations were favoured not only by the intricate channels of the harbour, but by the wildness of the uninhabited heaths which stretched from the waterside, far inland. Their smuggling of all kinds of dutiable goods into the country was conducted on a very large scale, by organized gangs, who were not merely chance confederates, but were leagued together in a businesslike way, in vast enterprises, and set about their business in no very secret fashion. Their importing organization and their arrangements for distributing the goods far inland, were perfect through long practice, and the whole countryside, save the magistrates and others, who, from their official positions, were obliged to be hostile, was actively or passively in league with them. The Revenue authorities grew almost powerless in face of the large and armed bodies of men, horsed and provided with pistols and cutlasses, who protected the landing of excisable goods which never yielded to Caesar, and were very often compelled by the dictates of prudence to look on at a distance, afraid for their very lives to interfere, while rich consignments of dutiable goods were put ashore by the ” free-traders,” as the smugglers styled themselves, not only under cover of night, but frequently, with the greatest impudence, in the broad eye of day. The daring deeds of the Poole smugglers culminated in 1747 in an armed attack made by them on the Poole custom house. It arose from the success at sea of the Swift privateer, which had captured a heavy consignment of tea shipped in the September of that year from Guernsey, and had lodged it in the custom-house on Poole Quay. This capture meant a great financial disaster for the smugglers, who had already paid the Guernsey shippers for the consignment, and they determined not to lose their property, if by any means they could recover it. Accordingly, a body of no fewer than sixty of them, armed and mounted, set out from Charlton Forest for Poole, posting half of their number on the roads to keep watch. The other thirty pushed on, and reached Poole on the night of October 6th. Taking the Custom House officers wholly by surprise, they broke open the building and seized all the tea stored there, with the trifling exception of one bag, weighing five pounds.

The next morning this audacious band returned at leisure, through Fordingbridge, in sight of hundreds of people, and safely distributed the tea in their usual channels of business. Here we are done with them, but it may be noted that it was this stirring affair which led to the barbarous incidents of the ” murders by smugglers,” that even yet cast an historic gloom over Rowlands Castle and the Portsmouth Road in the neighbourhood of Rake.

Those murders, committed by smugglers and their friends, not only, in their hateful details, disclose the lonely nature of the country, but prove the sympathy of the peasantry with those illegal traders and the terrible vengeance they were ready to wreak upon informers.

Five miles inland from Poole, at the tiny village of Kinson, across Canford Heath, within the Dorset boundary, in a district even yet more remote and lonely than its mere distance in miles would indicate, is a striking memorial of those times, in the shape of a tombstone to the memory of one of these daring smugglers. Robert Trotman, who is thus commemorated, lost his life in 1765, in an encounter with the revenue officers along the then lonely shore. ” Murder,” the tombstone calls it, and the ^epitaph, with others of like sentiments and language, at different points of the coasts of England, thus shows how the different professions of smuggler and revenue officer were popularly regarded in those ” good old days.”

Kinson was in those times a district particularly well affected towards the ” free-traders,” and the vicar himself must have been one of those many parsons who, while knowing nothing, were never surprised to find a keg of hollands or brandy placed in their pulpits by way of thank-offering for the use of the belfry as a storehouse of smuggled goods that had never, and would never, pay duty to King George. Those good, unquestioning clerics took the goods the gods provided and, without a qualm, either of conscience or of stomach, consumed them with much satisfaction. Here at Kinson the sturdy old tower used by the smugglers remains, while the body of the church has in modern times been rebuilt. It is a quite remarkable tower, less notable for its beauty than for its extraordinary broad-based massiveness, and for the size and rugged character of the blocks of rich brown ferruginous sandstone of which it is built.

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