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The Bull Inn at Corringham

Sunken chambers under the yard of the Bull Inn at Corringham provided smugglers with hiding places for contraband.
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Guide-Book: The East Coast


Contraband entering the Thames estuary reached its eager buyers on the north shore along devious routes. Much London-bound cargo would be shipped directly to the city, to be unloaded surreptitiously at illegal quays; or openly, with a payment to ensure that the customs officials turned a blind eye. Other free-traders might 'break bulk' near the mouth of the estuary, and transfer their stocks to smaller boats such as coasters and colliers for transport up the river. One stratagem that was avoided where possible, though, was to unload far from the city, and send goods overland to their destination; transport on water was so much quicker and cheaper than haulage overland that this approach could make a serious dent in the profits of a smuggling adventure.

The contraband that did come ashore on the Essex side of the river was therefore usually destined for consumption locally. Though the banks of the Thames were nowhere near as densely populated in the 18th century as they are today, there were significant markets for the smugglers' fare, notably in the areas of Rayleigh, Leigh-on-Sea, Hadleigh and Southend. Points farther north would have been more easily supplied from the winding Crouch and Roach estuaries.

Canvey Island

Opposite South Benfleet TQ7883 red map button (map 178)

Low-lying Canvey Island is within just a few miles of Rayleigh, Leigh and Hadleigh, and was therefore a convenient spot for landing goods. It was for centuries little more than a glorified mud-flat — unhealthy for living on, and poor grazing land, so smugglers could go about their business watched only by sheep. However, the free-traders of Canvey must have sensed that their isolation was soon to end when the Dutch were invited to build a sea wall around the island.

Though the Dutch influence made Canvey more habitable, the connection with Holland probably increased smuggling activity rather than reducing it. The Dutch engineers who built the dykes were well connected with merchants and manufacturers in the low lands, one of the principal sources of goods smuggled into Britain, and they quickly established a thriving and untaxed business. An additional incentive for the Dutch smugglers was the position of the island, within easy reach of both Kent and Essex coasts, and close to the mouth of the Thames.

All this activity didn't go unnoticed: a writer of the 1860s [223] observed that '...the island 70 years ago was a noted place for smuggling', and that contraband liquor was said to have been stored in Canvey Church [224].

Dutch influence on Canvey persisted for a long time, and much of the architecture echoed the style of Dutch buildings. Only a couple of examples still stand, notably the Dutch Cottage on Canvey Road, which is now a museum.

The Lobster smack [225]

On reaching Canvey Island follow the A130 (signposted Seafront); turn right at the King Canute down Haven Road red map button

This old weather-boarded pub by the sea wall is an enduring link to the golden age of smuggling. It was a notorious haunt of smugglers, who would simply nip over the sea wall to unload the ships as they arrived, then ship the goods inland to Rayleigh and Hadleigh. There has been a pub on site since 1600, and the present building, which was constructed in the early 18th century, is possibly the oldest structure on Canvey.

Dickens wrote innocently enough of The Lobster Smack in 1880 in Dictionary of the Thames from Oxford to the Nore , noting that it was '...comfortable and unobtrusive' and that '...boating men are frequently accommodated with bed and board'. But he adds that 'smuggling still continued and this part of the Essex coast has a history of runs carried out by "gentlemen".'

The pub is also rumoured to be the model for Sluice House in Great Expectations.

Corringham and Fobbing

Corringham is 4m S of Basildon at TQ7083 red map button Turn off the A13 down the B1420 and continue straight on, following signposts. The pub is by the church. At Fobbing, a mile or so to the east, the marshes are not hard to find — park close to the church at TQ718839 red map button and walk down the road until you see footpath signs.

The winding creeks of Fobbing Marshes[226] made navigation hazardous, but unobserved landing correspondingly easier, and much contraband came ashore here to satisfy the thirsts of those gasping for a taste of cheap high-quality spirits from Holland and France. The Bull at Corringham is said to have had sunken chambers under the yard, caverns under the hearth, and other hiding places for illicit goods.

Hadleigh and Leigh-on-Sea

Hadleigh is on the A13 S of Rayleigh. To reach Hadleigh Castle at TQ810861 red map button turn down Castle Lane — near Hadleigh church on the London-bound section of the one-way system that encircles the town centre. Leigh-on-Sea is a district of Southend at TQ8486 red map button Daws Heath TQ8189 red map button is on a minor road that leads north from the Southend-bound side of the Hadleigh one-way system. The heath is about two miles north of Hadleigh, at the point where the road swings round to the left. (map 178)

Slipping in to the nearby marshes around Canvey and Corringham, smuggling vessels kept a sharp eye out for signals from the shore, and the ruins of 13th century Hadleigh castle made an ideal vantage-point for a shore party equipped with a flash. From this commanding position overlooking the river, a lantern was capable of sending messages as far as Cliffe marshes in Kent on a dark night. There were rumours too that the castle had at one time been adapted to better suit the intentions of the smugglers:

'It is said that there formerly existed a subterraneous passage from the castle to the bed of the river, but its mouths are now stopped up, and little or no traces of it are (sic) to be found.' ' seen to great advantage, as well as the estuary of the Thames, and the distant hills of Kent' [227]

The view of Leigh would have been a valuable asset, since the smuggler standing on the crumbling parapets may well have been signalling not only to a ship in the Thames, but to accomplices in Leigh-on-Sea. The town was known to be a haunt of the smuggling fraternity, and when in 1892 the Peter Boat Inn in Leigh High Street burned down, few were surprised to discover a big cellar with direct access to the waterside adjoining the Alley Dock. A path from the dock ran up to Daws Heath — a notorious area for lawless highwaymen, transients and drifters.

[223] Benton Philip, History of the Rochford hundred 1867

[224] Burrows, John William, 1909 Southend on Sea and district: Historical notes.

[225] Harper 190

[226] Martin, Frank, Rogues' River, 1983

[227] A guide to Southend 1824 (by A Gentleman)