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The Rose Inn, Peldon

A well in the middle of this pond at the Rose in Peldon on Mersea Island concealed sunken tubs of contraband spirits. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: The East Coast


The Reverend Baring-Gould chose this area as the setting for his epic novel of smuggling and intrigue. In Mehalah:a story of the salt marshes we read that...

The mouth of the Blackwater was a great centre of the smuggling trade: the number and intricacies of the channels made it a safe harbour for those who lived on contraband traffic. It was easy for those who knew the creeks to elude the revenue boats and every farm and tavern was ready to give cellerage to run goods and harbour to smugglers. ...Between Mersea and the Blackwater were several flat holms or islands...and between these, the winding waterways formed a labyrinth which made pursuit difficult.

Mersea Island and area

Mersea island TM01 is about 6m S of Colchester via the B1025. The Dog and Pheasant is on the outskirts of East Mersea. The Peldon Rose red map button is on the Mersea-Great Wigborough Road at TL989168. Fingringhoe is some 4M SE of Colchester at TM0320 red map button (map 168).

Two pubs in this area were certainly more than happy to conceal the smugglers' stock in trade, though not necessarily in the manner that Baring-Gould described: on Mersea Island, the Dog and Pheasant pub is a 17th century tavern that was much used by smugglers, and the nearby mainland pub the Peldon Rose, which was built 200 or so years earlier, was also involved in the free-trade. Storage at the Rose was not the cellar but the pond alongside — there was a large well hidden in the middle of the pond, and weighted tubs of spirits could be lowered down this on ropes until the revenue men had completed their searches.

At Fingringhoe en route from Mersea to Colchester there's a grisly reminder that not all smuggling trips ended in success and wealth for the participants: a local smuggler was hanged just outside the churchyard there, and buried on the spot. An acorn placed in the mouth of the corpse grew into the spreading oak tree that now stands there. [235]


TL9513 red map button , 4m E of Tiptree on minor roads

The twin villages of Salcott and Virley also feature in Melhalah: the marriage of the principal characters Mehalah and Elijah Rebow takes place in the now-ruined church at Virley. The churches are also steeped in legend associating them with non-fictional smugglers; from the church towers, signals could be flashed to Tiptree Heath, and to Beacon Hill on the other side of the Blackwater estuary. There was always a good turn-out for the service at Virley because the congregation was swelled by local smugglers who aimed to keep an eye on the contraband they had concealed in various parts of the church [236!

According to one local fable, villagers found an customs boat floating off nearby Sunken Island with a crew of corpses — all 22 men had their throats cut from ear to ear. The bodies were buried in the local graveyard, with the hull of their up-turned boat over the graves.


TL8916 red map button 9m SW of Colchester on the B1022. The heath is on the S side of the town. Paternoster Heath is 2m E of Tiptree at TL9115 red map button , N of the B1023 Tiptree road (map 168).

Smugglers moving their goods inland used the heathlands around Tiptree to trade and store their goods, and possibly to rest their horses before moving on to the larger market in Colchester. Tiptree Heath was notorious, and gypsies and squatters held auctions of smuggled goods there [237. For storage, they dug shallow holes in the sandy soil, and covered the packages with turf and brushwood.

There were many other safe houses and storage depots in the area: On Paternoster Heath at Tolleshunt Knights a pond was used for sinking tubs as late as Victorian times.


TL9009 red map button 3.5m E of Maldon on the B1026 (map 168)

Goldhanger was sufficiently distant from Maldon to escape the attentions of all but the most diligent officers stationed there. A favourite trick of the Goldhanger smugglers was to float rafts of tubs down the Blackwater, and land them at Mill Beach opposite Northey Island. In 1960 one local man described the route that smugglers used to bring goods inland:

'They used ter (sic) go up Blind Lane into Wash Lane then up to Witham. Or Green Lane, down on the beach, up there, through Long Wick Farm to Tolleshunt Major, either to the Church, the Bell Inn, or Rentner's Farm. Up Joyce's Creek they'd come, and land their Hollands, lace and tobacco, and shove the brandy down in the cellars at Joyce's Farm, or Cobbs.

At night, my mother used ter tell me, they'd ride up Fish Street carrying brandy on horses whose hooves had been muffled with cloth. But them days has gone. They went out about 40 years ago with the fishing. They're all buried now like my granfather's stuff under the gardens of Goldhanger Hall...' [238]

Many of the place names mentioned in the account can still be picked out on the map

Photograph of a hidden well at the Spread Eagle, Witham
The hidden well at Witham's Spread Eagle. Click picture to enlarge


TL8215 red map button 15m SW of Colchester (map 168).

Though much extended, the 16th century Spread Eagle pub in Witham town centre still retains a reminder of the cunning of the smugglers who would have been innocently refreshing themselves at the bar when the revenue man walked through the door. A concealed well that was once accessible only from the roof pierces the pub from attic to cellar. Climbing on the tiles, the smugglers would lower their goods down the shaft on ropes. To make the shaft visible to present-day drinkers, a small window has been installed in the bar. [239]

A pub at nearby Braxted was the headquarters of a gang of smugglers operating in the mid 19th century. Led by the pub landlord, they used a Maldon smack called The Providence [240], which berthed at Tollesbury.


TL9612 7m E of Maldon on the B1023. Old Hall Marshes are on the peninsula NE of the village — turn N off the B1023 along North Road then turn right off the road a mile or so along — signposted Old Hall Farm. This leads to Old Hall Creek TL968118 red map button (map 168)

Like so many of the ports and landing-points on the Blackwater, Tollesbury supports a wealth of legends about smuggling. For a long time, the nearest custom house was Maldon, and the staff there were greatly overworked, so the Tollesbury smugglers would have been free to come and go pretty much as they pleased. When the authorities became more vigilant, contraband was simply thrown overboard at one of the many creeks and inlets punctuating the estuary, to be collected when the coast was clear.

There was always a chance, of course, that goods hidden in this way would fall into the hands of 'honest' men, and be turned in to the authorities. In 1819 one such man, Daniel London, was dredging (probably for shellfish) and hauled up a large number of tubs of spirits that had been sunken in Old Hall Creek. He spent most of the night loading the tubs into his boat, and in the morning he sailed up to the Maldon custom house with 152 tubs. For somewhat suspect reasons, though, he overlooked 11 more, leaving them in Mill Creek, where they 'were liable to be found by any other dredger, of which there were many near'.

When he got home a reception committee of smugglers was waiting for him, and not unnaturally wanted their property. Being reasonable men, they offered to pay him half of what the goods were worth, but Daniel foolishly declined. At this point the angry mob threatened to lynch him and his son, so the pair of them retreated indoors. When the Maldon comptroller of customs arrived, Daniel — now in fear of his life, no doubt — owned up to the other 11 tubs, and was promptly accused of smuggling and thrown into Chelmsford Gaol. In gaol, things went from bad to worse: the other prisoners assaulted him, and he eventually lost his boat, the George and Anne.

The story is told [241] in letters and petitions to the customs authorities, and 170 years on it's hard to unravel the truth. The authorities were evidently convinced that London was in league with the smugglers, and pointed out that he had a previous conviction for the offence. On the other hand, the unfortunate dredger was clearly not popular with the smugglers, either!

Old Hall Creek is now heavily silted, but at one time there were wharfs there, as rotting timbers and skeletal boats in the mud testify. When business was thriving, there was a waterside pub that had huge cellars for storage of contraband — the sea-wall hid the free-traders from view as they unloaded. The pub was long ago converted to houses as the torrent of thirsty smugglers turned — like the waters in the creek — to a trickle.

In 1779 the windows of the pub would have commanded a good view of a large cutter landing goods at one of the wharfs, and perhaps one of the drinkers was the customs officer from Tollesbury, Edward Abbot. He intercepted a labourer called William Tabor, who was carrying tea and gin which had been unloaded from the boat. Tabor tried to negotiate freedom from prosecution, but this was refused and the labourer was convicted and fined. To get his own back, Tabor accused Abbot of embezzling some of the seized goods (which the revenue man quite likely did). His attempt to discredit the officer failed, however, and when asked to appear before the local collector of customs, the smuggler lost his nerve.

Modern Tollesbury is a working waterfront. Pleasure boats are today much in evidence, but there are some working vessels too, and four beautifully restored traditional yacht stores form the centre-piece of the waterfront, reminding the visitor of the long-standing links with the sea.


TM02 N Essex. Old Heath is at TM0123 red map button on the SE outskirts of Colchester (map 168).

The customs authorities in Colchester had a doubly onerous job. In addition to the town's local small-time smuggling villains, they also had to put up with the attentions of free-traders whose goods had been confiscated some considerable distance away. The 'desperate villains' who used a combination of low cunning and brute force to gain access to the customs house in 1748 were probably members of the Hadleigh gang but since they were never caught, there is no way of knowing for sure. However, what is clear is that they were determined to reclaim 60 oilskin bags containing 1,512 lbs of tea, which had been seized earlier at Woodbridge Haven. They did so by the elementary device of impersonation. In the early hours of the morning, two men claiming to be customs officers arrived at the Hythe quay in Colchester [242] and asked to be taken to the custom house. There they were joined by 30 armed smugglers, who broke open the custom house and took away the tea.

The most notorious of the home grown Colchester smugglers (if only because a tract [243] was published describing his life and crimes) was probably John Skinner, alias Saucy Jack or Colchester Jack. As the tract explains...

Skinner was accounted as great a smuggler as any in the county of Essex; tho' the better to difguife his Way of Life he rented two Farms, known by the Names of the Tan Office and Cox's Old Heath.

Skinner's nickname 'Saucy' was well-earned. He was by all accounts quite a rake, and on one occasion ...

'...had been at a Bawdy House for ten Days fucceffively, and had fpent 60 or 70l, when he fhould have been at home minding his Bufinefs.'

Skinner spent money wildly, working his way through his wife's substantial fortune, then casting her on the parish, where she went to work in the poor-house. When he'd squandered his wife's money, he bought the King's Head Inn at Romford...

'and had a very pretty trade, particularly among smugglers. Understanding what large Profits were gain'd in the Smuggling Way he left his Inn and commenc'd smuggler'.

This trade apparently went well for Saucy Jack, but in the end, his violent temper was his undoing. He had smuggled some goods in May 1744 in partnership with his servant, one Daniell Brett, and it appears that Brett had cheated Skinner by betraying where the contraband was hidden. When Skinner discovered this, he flew into a rage, and swore he would kill Brett. One witness testified...

'he anfwered this Examinant in a great paffion, and fwore bitterly that let him find (Brett) where he would he would fhoot him dead that night.'

Saucy Jack returned home to Old Heath just before midnight in a confused state, then rode off to Colchester to fetch a surgeon. While he was gone, Brett appeared with a stomach wound: from the description, he appeared to have been shot at point-blank range. However, the loyal servant would not reveal who had shot him. Despite medical attention, the man died the following day, and Saucy Jack was tried for murder and found guilty. In jail, Skinner made a vain attempt to cheat the gallows, and stabbed himself in a rather inexpert way with a small knife. He was nevertheless hanged, but was too weak to utter any Last Words, which must have come as a blow to the printer of the tract, since the cover page (perhaps printed in advance of the contents) clearly promises the reader a gallows confession.


TM1515 red map button 15m SE of Colchester (maps 168/9)

The heyday of smuggling in the Clacton area was in the 18th century, before prevention had really gathered momentum, but goods continued to be landed openly and in daylight until well into the 19th century. There was good access to the shore, especially via Holland Gap, making it easy to assemble a large and mobile force of men on the beach to unload the goods. Though the runs themselves were largely unopposed, the local preventive officers nevertheless succeeded in recovering some of the contraband — particularly if it had been hidden nearby or buried. Some of the discoveries were involuntary: in 1721, the ground gave way under the feet of customs officer D'Oyley, revealing a cache of 19 half ankers of Brandy!

The smugglers seem to have enjoyed genuine partnership and cooperation with the farmers and labourers along the coast here — in stark contrast to the intimidation and coercion that was needed to extract 'cooperation' on some other coasts. A story from Great Holland illustrates the way the relationship worked: the farmer was fond of a drop of gin, and a party of London smugglers who worked the area were happy to supply his tipple. He simply asked them to 'leave the lane gate locked' as a signal that his barrel was running low. In return for this kindness, the farmer provided stabling and feed for the smugglers' 15 horses [244].

Payment in goods was the rule — on another occasion labourers working on the sea wall at Christmas time received gin as a reward for helping smugglers land a cargo. The payment was clearly more than sufficient, because one of their number fell off a plank bridge into Holland Brook, and his colleagues were so drunk that they had difficulty fishing him out. Unable to carry the poor man home, they simply propped him up against a hay-stack and covered him up: he froze to death in the cold December night. [245]

One Clacton smuggler prospered more than most. George Wegg the Elder was outwardly a very respectable figure, but was reputed to have made much of his substantial fortune as a smuggler [246] He owned a house next to the Ship Inn in Clacton, called simply Wegg's House. In 1870, renovation to this building revealed enormous cellars, with a concealed entrance reached from a brick kitchen. These cellars would have been used storing the contraband brought from George Wegg's boats, which were met at The Black Grounds, Sea Lane, or The Haven [247] There were other depots pending onward movement to Colchester, at Rill Cottage, and at Dawson's. In the Colchester area, Wegg owned: Jaywick, a farm; Cross House; Millers, and East Hill House.

Dragoon at Harwich
Dragoons like these at Harwich drunk themselves to death on smuggled spirits. Click picture to enlarge

Harwich area

TM2531 red map button 16m E of Colchester. The White Hart is on Maningtree High Street at TM105319 red map button (map 169)

Much of the smuggling on the Stour involved the postal packets based at the river's mouth. Though these ships were supposed to carry only the mail, passengers and their luggage, few would complete a journey without taking on a small private adventure. The passengers were as guilty as the crews of the packets: the collector of customs at Harwich complained bitterly in the mid-18th century about the quantity of lace and needlework brought in by ladies of the court...'enough to supply all the milliners shops in and around London.'

Smuggling also went on in Harwich in the traditional manner: in 1811 a ship ran aground in the shallows off Landguard fort, and the crew threw overboard 600 tubs of spirits in order that the ship would draw less water. The soldiers from the fort took full advantage of the situation, and four of them died of the drink.

Not all the smuggling vessels unloaded their cargoes in the mouth of the estuary, though: some travelled up-stream as far as Maningtree, where the White Hart, a 16th century inn, had a tunnel that led underground from the cellar to the Stour estuary.

[235] East Anglian Magazine Vol 20 1960-61 p534; Smuggling on the Blackwater by Roger Frith

[236] Baring Gould and Whitnall 1965

[237] East Anglian Magazine Vol 20

[238] East Anglian Magazine Vol 20

[239] Roe, Frederick; Essex Survivals

[240] Thornton

[241] Thornton

[242] East Anglian Magazine, July 1956 Vol XV, Smith, C Elizabeth: Tea and the free-traders of East Anglia

[243] The life and behaviour of John Skinner, who murdered Daniel Brett, his servant; anon 1744

[244] Brown, AFJ; Essex People, 1750-1900.

[245] Brown

[246] East Anglia Magazine Vol V. VII, 7/1949.

[247] East Anglian Magazine July 1949 vol XV; Solly, AR; From Smuggling to respectability