Wight Life

Running the Cargo

The fringe benefits of living near the sea!

Written and drawn by A H Wakefield

Drawing of Running the Cargo

UNTIL ABOUT 150 years ago, people on the mainland of England regarded the Isle of Wight as a country almost as foreign as France or Holland. They looked upon its inhabitants with suspicion and some hostility — sentiments which were of course reciprocated with interests — the Island folk scathingly nicknaming mainland people 'Overners'.

It is probable that the people chiefly respon- sible for this situation were those in the community of the Undercliff — that southern coast-line stretching from Blackgang to Bonchurch, cut off from the main plateau by inland cliffs that rise in places to two hundred feet and climbable only here and there in the major `faults'. This curiously isolated stretch of land was regarded with some fear even by other Islanders, and perhaps with good reason, for it contained as lawless a community as any in the country.

It is not surprising then, that smuggling was carried on there for a hundred years or more with an ease and expertise unsurpassed along the English Channel. This contraband traffic reached its peak between 1780 and 1840, when it is said that four of every five Undercliff residents played some part in it.

To be fair, it is likely that, to many participants, the full illegality of the proceed- ings was never appreciated. But those who did understand the full implications tacitly ignored them, the love of adventure and excitement being a sufficient incentive for many, especially among the younger members to whom any scheme that dispelled the monotony of country life was welcome. But, of course, the prime attraction was the considerable additions to an otherwise precarious livelihood. And, since all classes became involved in some capacity or other, to be 'taken' red-handed brought little social stigma upon the offenders.

At first there was little difficulty and comparatively little danger, for the Preventive Service was weak and inefficient. It was difficult to recruit men to it, the pay being grossly inadequate and the work exacting and tedious. Those who did join, in the early days, were usually drawn from ill-educated classes and were known, on occasion, to covertly acquiesce and sometimes even to share, in the profits obtained from the smuggling ventures themselves.

Nor were the courts any great help at first. When a case was, occasionally, brought to court, the law found difficulty in obtaining any conviction owing to prejudiced juries. This situation was demonstrated on several occasions by repeated trials of two notorious smugglers, Boyce, who lived at Ryde, and Hatch, from Berry on the mainland about half a mile from Stokes Bay. They made fortunes out of smuggling. Boyce not only built the magnificent Appley House, but had £40,000 (about twelve times that value now) invested by the time of his final conviction.

In fact, the Boyce and Hatch trials became notorious since they gave rise, in 1733, to the Statute of George III commonly called the Balloting Act'. Prior to this Act the procedure had been for the Sheriff to summon twelve men to form a jury. On more than one occasion positive proof of the activities of Hatch and Boyce achieved no conviction because, not only did they bring witnesses well-bribed to swear their innocence, but also, since they had prior knowledge of the identity of the jurymen, they had been able to bribe them too! Even the Under-Sheriffs were suspected of being influenced by corrupt means, to summon men who were in the pay of the defendants, to try the case.

The 'Balloting Act' ruled that the Sheriff should command no less than 48 nor more than 78 `competant' men to attend at the assizes of each county. The names of these men, written on 'separate parchments or papers' were placed by the Marshalls in a box and `when any case is brought to trial, some indifferent person shall, in open Court, draw twelve of the said parchments or papers only; and the Persons whose names shall be so drawn shall be the Jury to try the Cause.'

So Hatch and Boyce were eventually convicted.

The economics of each smuggling foray followed a standard pattern, based on co-operative principles. Each village had a trusted leader, selected for his skill, energy, judgment and presence of mind; he carried out all the preliminary organisation as well as leading the actual 'run'. Each shareholder would subscribe a sum to cover a share of the expenses together with whatever investment. they required in spirits, tea, tobacco, silks or whatever goods they wanted.

Most money was made on spirits which would usually be obtained in four-gallon casks at a price of fourteen shillings on the French coast. The expense of the outgoing run was standard at three shillings a cask and a further three shillings per cask was charged for the homeward run and the subsequent landing of the cargo. Thus, four gallons of proof spirits would cost one pound on delivery to its appointed cellar in the Island. Each four gallons would then be diluted with an equal quantity of water, burnt sugar being added as colouring. The original investment of twenty shillings would now be worth fifty shillings, but the probability was that a large amount of it would be readily sold by the bottle at half-a-crown, which would return an even larger profit.

Two kinds of boats were used on these ventures. Most frequently in demand along the Undercliff coast were lightly built, broad beamed, four or six oared rowing boats. These in reasonable weather, could make the crossing in a few hours. The second type were the sailing vessels of from 10 to 40 tons, which gave a stowage for 100 to 250 casks, and normally hailed from Bembridge or St Helens. The rowing boats could manage a return journey with as many as 40 of the four-gallon casks. The outward trip was usually accomplished without incident but, on the return, known as `running the cargo', a very strict watch had to be maintained for coastguard cutters which might be on the look-out for them, having probably been warned of the absence of their boat.

There were many suitable landing places along the Undercliff coast, all of which were used at one time or another. Any beach which afforded shelter for the landing party and a relatively easy ascent of the cliffs to quick hiding would do.

Luccombe Chine was used on innumerable occasions despite a climb of over 200 steep and uneven steps. Many of those steps are still in place to-day exactly as they were two hundred years ago and a climb up them will prove the amazing strength and fitness of our ancestors. Try them sometime carrying two four-gallon buckets of water (although something stronger might help) and remember that the smugglers ascended the whole flight from bottom to top at a steady trot in, probably, pitch darkness. Luccombe however, in smuggling days, boasted more than one capacious cave at almost sea level which afforded safe, if temporary, shelter so that the bulk of a haul could, occasionally, be stored for final distribution later on. Also, until about a hundred years ago, a group of fishermen's cottages used to stand on the shelving land just above high water beside the outlet of the chine.

Three brothers named KingswelI lived there and each had excavated the soft sandstone to form a sizeable cellar under his front room floor. For many years a good laugh could always be had with the story of how Excise officers paid Charlie Kingswell a 'surprise' visit only to find his wife, 'Old Hannah', suffering from a fit of 'spasms' and groaning loudly as she rolled from side to side in her chair. To relieve the severity of her pains she had been given a stiff tot of brandy, of which she had managed to spill a deal on the floor, which apparently accounted for the strong smell of spirits in the room. The officers searched the cottage, apologised for their intrusion, wished `Old Hannah' a speedy recovery and left without noticing the trap door beneath her chair. Nor did they hear her groans turn to chuckles once they were out of earshot.

Monk's Bay at Bonchurch, too, had a cave which has long since disappeared. This was one known as 'Old Jack' and more than five hundred gallons of smuggled spirits and other illicit goods are known to have been stowed away there at a time.

Precautions against discovery while 'running the cargo' were many and varied. Perhaps the most effective was the 'outboard warp' which consisted of a rope lashed right round the gunwales of the boat. The casks were fastened to it by their individual slings while cork floats, to act as buoys, and stone sinkers were also attached to the warp at intervals. In an emergency the whole cargo could be sunk out of sight by giving the warp one smart blow with a machete. The next day the cargo could be gathered, along with the crab pots from another row of cork floats bobbing nearby.

The usual 'beat' of the coast guards had been well plotted before-hand and the times at which they usually passed the appointed landing place noted. The carefully hidden landing party, posted on the night of the run, would show a light towards the incoming vessel 'when the coast was clear'. The craft would then approach as close as possible to the beach and the casks untied and dragged ashore. The landing party then took over, lashing the casks together in pairs, using the 18-inch thongs of the sling harness round each one. Every man would shoulder a pair of kegs or, if the landing party was able to use horses, each animal would be loaded with six- and, in a matter of five minutes, the whole cargo would be on its way into hiding.

But the danger was by no means over at this stage. It might be a matter of seconds to cut a warp and sink a cargo out of sight at sea but it was another matter to dispose of two casks if you came face-to-face with a Preventive man, or to hide a horse-load in the darkness of a country lane.

Most of the ghost stories that abound along the Undercliff originated from the smuggling era. The moving of contraband to the cellars of the 'rightful subscriber' always presented problems and the fewer people who knew about it the better. It was early found that fear was the greatest emptier of the lanes and byways at night. Thus, instead of surreptitious approach, smugglers on such nocturnal missions would often intentionally add mysterious noises that soon became widely known as 'such and such' a ghost on the prowl again.

There was the case of the 'phantom horseman of the Lower road' which, for a long time, was the terror of Bonchurch. It used to pass at a regular time on certain nights, a silent gleaming apparition of ghostly demeanour. In fact it was no more than farmer Mackett's gentle old mare laden with panniersof contraband, its hooves well muffled with straw and sacking and enveloped overall in a canvas shroud, stained black and then cunningly daubed with phosphorous, producing the most startling effect in the darkness of night. Bonchurch also had a 'Ghost Coach'. This was often heard rumbling through the village to halt at a house opposite the pond and then move onwards, the sound gradually fading in the distance. No coach was ever reported to have been seen but the old manor house facing the pond was known to possess spacious cellars and tradition records it as having an underground passage leading to the shore below.

Even Niton church had an intriguing ghost legend in those days, for the local smugglers were not at all disturbed at using the family vaults. On one dark night four locals, led by a character called Mussel, moved silently along the lane towards the Star Inn, laden with tubs of spirits and sacks of tea destined for that ancient hostlery. Suddenly they heard the hoot of an owl nearby, repeated a moment later.

They knew it for a warning that they were heading towards a trap and turned to retreat through the churchyard. Among the tombstones they heard another owl hoot twice and knew they were surrounded. Mussel quickly whispered instructions and they made for the great square 'altar' tomb in the shadow of the yew tree close by the church porch. They hauled the stone slab on top of the tomb to one side and climbed in, tubs, sacks and all. In the hours that followed they heard the Preventive men meet and beat around like hounds thwarted of their prey.

In the early hours of the dawn a labourer crossed the churchyard on his way to work. His progress stopped mid-stride when he saw the top of the great tomb slowly move. To his horror he watched a face appear in the gap and heard a voice say 'Ahoy there, mayor, what time do it be?" The labourer turned and ran, loudly proclaiming that the dead were rising from their graves!

Among other notorious smuggling localities St Lawrence was active for many years. One of the leaders there, 'Captain' Harvey, lived at `The Duck', a way-side unlicensed house known as a shebeen or pop-shop, where all the 'ne'er- do-wells' of the district congregated and where a continuous trade was done in many kinds of smuggled goods. The 'Duck' still exists, now called Spring Cottage and looking so prim and respectable that no one would ever guess its lurid past.

St Lawrence was the scene of one of the last seizures of contraband on record. A very beautiful yacht anchored close inshore while its owner was visiting with friends in one of the great houses thereabouts. The yacht's steward organised the offloading of cargo whilst several locals watched from vantage points along the cliffs. One of these happened to be a recently recruited Preventive Officer who gained high commendation for having the quick wit and unusual enthusiasm to look more closely at the cargo being landed. He found a large assortment of silks, tobacco and spirits amongst them and the steward was eventually convicted and spent a year in prison.

Another much-used landing point was Binnel Bay below Old Park where an underground passage led a long way up from the shore, opening amongst the dense undergrowth at the foot of the inner cliffs, enabling the proceeds of a 'run' to be removed from view in a very short time.

More inland settlements, such as Whitwell, also took their share in smuggling activities. Thereabouts Ralph Stone, whose father and many relations had been actively connected with contraband in their day, became locally known as 'The Great Smuggler'. He always dressed as a gentleman farmer in loose velveteen shooting coat and waistcoat, a white hat, fancy trousers and wellington boots. His manner was so quiet, his conversation so easily disarming and he had so much tact, energy and foresight that he became a commanding figure in local history, never suggesting the desperate risks he often ran. lie was a wonderful seaman but, even so, his vessel was seized on several occasions and he passed many periods as a 'debtor to the Crown', imprisoned in Winchester gaol. Despite this, he left a considerable fortune on his death, saved from the illicit trade he had carried on so long.

A year in prison was a frequent sentence for those caught on these occasions, but any offenders who could not hide the fact that they were experienced seamen (and most of them had been that since birth) were dragged off to spend five years on board a man-of-war. There were, of course, side issues to the smuggling racket. For instance, quite frequently homeward-bound ships received visits from shore boats whose crews made purchases of tea, silks, gloves, tobacco and similar luxuries at duty-free prices. Such goods were much in demand inland. Tea, as an example, sold at about eight shillings a pound (well over £4.50 in today's money).

By the late 1850's the Coast-guard Service had so greatly improved that contraband was becoming a highly dangerous profession and a reduction in excise duties was ruining the profits. So smuggling was killed .... or did it just change in its methods?

Drawing of Luccombe Cove

Luccombe Cove, 1820, showing Charle Kingswell's Cottage (centre)
After a Brannon engraving