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Wells beach with rainbow
On this beach at Wells, smugglers landed a cargo during a horse-race across the sands. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: The East Coast


East-coast smugglers dealt mainly with Holland and northern France: trade links with Holland in particular had historical connections dating from the time when English wool was systematically smuggled out to Holland to avoid the legal staple in France. In the golden age of import smuggling the most important commodity was over-proof gin: enormous quantities came over from Schiedam, where the stills produced several million gallons of spirits a year. However, the east coast trade in strong 'Geneva' was not to the exclusion of other products — most of the heavily-taxed products that made up the smugglers' stock-in-trade elsewhere in Britain were landed here too.

The Dutch applied their legendary business skills and trading acumen to smuggling with as much alacrity as they did to any legal venture: the bulky tobacco took up too much space in the ships' holds, so the companies supplying the contraband found it profitable to invest in tobacco presses for compacting imported leaves into smaller bales. When British ships proved inadequate to the task of ferrying goods across the North Sea the Dutch bought their own. Trade in the contraband then took place either afloat, or at the destination in England. [220]

The pattern of landing and distribution in England along the east coast changed with the evolving policies of prevention. For example, the Suffolk coastline was well-supplied with good beaches which suited the open landing of contraband — a technique that worked well in the 18th century while the preventives dozed in the distance or were open to bribes. As the net tightened in the early nineteenth century, though, smuggling intensified among the creeks and estuaries of Essex, where activity was less easily observed, and where tubs could be secretly sunk in the murky waters for later collection.[221]

Although tactics changed with time, the general character of the free-trade in the east of England did not. Here the local population was most often involved as haulage contractors, landing goods that were brought to the country by foreign entrepreneurs. This was in marked contrast to the south-east, where the whole operation, including financing, was the concern of big smuggling companies. Perhaps because of this, east-coast smuggling was not marked by the same violence as its counterpart south of the Thames.

However, the scale of the smuggling operations was similar. Some indication of its extent may be gleaned from a document which relates to the period May 1st 1745 to January 1st 1746. This details only the runs which came to the attention of the customs officers — the total must have been much more. The area covered was the county of Suffolk. 4,550 horses are mentioned, and based on the assumption that a horse could carry 1.5 cwt, the loss of duty would have been over £58,000, and the amount of currency sent oversea to pay for the goods, £43,000.[222] In today's currency, this would have amounted to some £26 million.

[220] Benham, Hervey, 1986 p19

[221] Benham, Hervey, 1986 p18

[222] East Anglian Magazine 1969 vol XIX (Jan & March). Article by Brown, A Stuart: Smuggling in Suffolk