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Old Hunstanton revenue officer's grave
At Old Hunstanton you can still see the graves of revenue officers shot in stand-offs with smugglers. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: The East Coast


Northern East Anglia would seem to be ideally placed for trade with the low countries, but apart from the usual official records of the customs and excise authorities, smuggling stories are few and far between. Perhaps the sparseness of the population accounts for this: the tight-knit communities would be reluctant to spill the local secrets to a stranger even a century or more later. Perhaps the thinly-scattered villages made too lean a market for the smugglers; or maybe the Norfolk free-traders were simply better at concealing their activities than their colleagues elsewhere in Britain.

There are a couple of exceptions to the conspicuous Norfolk silence about the free-trade — and significantly, both of them were men of the cloth...

Engraving of the beach at Yarmouth
Smugglers mixed with sea-bathers on the beach at Yarmouth. Click picture to enlarge

Yarmouth and Gorleston

TG5207 red map button 18m E of Norwich. Corton Cliffs are adjacent to the golf course at Gorleston (map 134)

Now a southern suburb of Yarmouth, Gorleston was the home of the Reverend Forbes Phillips, who wrote widely about the free-trade. His most notable work was The Romance of Smuggling , which he penned under the pseudonym of Atholl Forbes in the early years of the 20th century.

In the book he refers to the High Street vicarage where he lived:

I live in a house that was constructed with a view not only of the Yarmouth Roads and the North Sea, but a further one of plundering the Revenue...Beneath my feet as I write are large and roomy cellars, once used for the storage of imported goods, and until a few years ago a subterranean passage connected these with a landing stage by the waterside; and let the full truth be told, the designer of all was the vicar of the parish.

Forbes Phillips relates various anecdotes about local smugglers, and his predecessor at the vicarage features prominently. One tale tells how, in the course of a landing, a newcomer to the parish arrived, and was horrified to find that goods were being illegally landed...'Smuggling! Oh, the shame of it! Is there no magistrate to hand, No justice of the peace?...Is there no clergyman, no minister?' The innocent man's enquiries are silenced when one of the locals points out the vicar holding a lantern.

Engraving of Gorleston
The smuggling vicar of Gorleston equipped his manse with huge cellars and a tunnel to the waterside. Click picture to enlarge

The author asserts that all the stories in the book are true, and there are a few other local yarns that support the smuggling reputation of the stretch of coast between Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Just a little to the south of Gorleston, the south end of Corton Cliff was a popular landing spot, and during a run there, the landing party detained a preventive officer whom they caught snooping by pushing his head down a rabbit hole, then hammering a stake into the ground between his legs to prevent his escape. [269]

Yarmouth proper was a local centre for the revenue services, and the scene of much activity and battling between the preventives and the free-traders. Much of the contraband came ashore in the treacherous Yarmouth roads, where smuggling vessels would sink the tubs for local fishermen to collect. [270] An alternative strategy that was employed farther up the coast was to simply wait for low tide, when the sea ebbed away a mile or more. A beached smuggling vessel would then appear in toy-like scale on the horizon and kegs of brandy and parcels of tea could be tossed overboard with impunity, to be carried back to the shore hidden under cart-loads of kelp. An approaching customs man could be spotted long before he reached the rendezvous.

At Yarmouth ended the bloody skirmish which began at Robin Hood's Bay between the Revenue cutter Ranger and a heavily-armed smuggling vessel. The two ships were fairly evenly matched, in terms of arms and crew. The Ranger fired over the lugger's bows (a signal that they should stop and prepare for customs inspection) but the lugger instead returned fire. The fight continued for 90 minutes, and the Ranger got the upper hand, so the smugglers abandoned ship. They left behind a substantial cargo, valued, with the vessel, at £10,000: 507 Ankers and 945 half-ankers of geneva; 206 bags of tea; 9 boxes of playing cards; 27 bales of tobacco; and 47 bales of silk bandana handkerchiefs.

In the course of the battle, two smugglers and three revenue man were killed, and seven preventives were wounded, three so seriously that they had to be pensioned off. The bodies of the three officers were taken to the Wrestler's Inn, which can still be seen in Yarmouth market place [271], and were buried the following Sunday in St Nicholas's Churchyard. Despite a £500 reward the smugglers were never captured.

Engraving by Paul Hardy of a parson finding a smuggled tub on his doorstepWeston Longville

TG1115 red map button 9m NW of Norwich (map 133)

James Woodforde was the parson at Weston Longville at the very height of the smuggling era, and he famously kept a careful diary in which he noted every detail of life in a rural community in the mid-18th century. Today it makes fascinating reading, if only for the matter-of fact way in which he deals with aspects of life that are now remote and almost forgotten. This approach extends even to smuggling and smuggled goods. Like the clergy elsewhere in Britain, Parson Woodforde was not averse to a little smuggled tea, though as far as we know he was simply a customer of the smugglers, and did not provide any sort of help and assistance to them. We read that in March 1777...

Andrews the smuggler brought me this night about 11 o'clock a bag of Hyson Tea 6 Pd weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the parlour window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid for the tea at 10/6 a Pd.

The parson regularly bought smuggled gin, brandy and tea, not only from Richard Andrews, but also from Clerk Hewitt of Mattishall Burgh, and from the blacksmith at Honingham, Robert 'Moonshine' Buck. Not all of Woodforde's suppliers of brandy and gin were as happy to show their faces as those that he names in his diaries. On at least one occasion the parson describes how a knock took him to the door, and he discovered a couple of kegs waiting for bottling: by the time he peered out into the night, whoever delivered them had melted away.

The Norfolk Broads

Horsey Mill is 9m NE of Acle at TG457222 red map button on the B1159. Sutton Broad is at TG3723 red map button some 6m W (map 134).

Once contraband had been landed on the Norfolk shore, the Broads provided an intricate system of distribution. Barges plying a perfectly legitimate trade were happy to take on board a little extra cargo that provided a higher return than a hold full of coals. The wherrymen who plied the Broads evolved an ingenious semaphore system to warn of the approach of the customs authorities:

Watercolour painting of windmills on the Norfolk Broads by Ernest W Haslehust
Smugglers used Norfolk windmills as a secret signalling network. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

If a search was suspected by those on the watch...warning was sent by a runner to the nearest marshman. If his mill was turning he would stop it at the St Andrew's (diagonal) cross, then wait until those at the next mill had seen him and done the same. Then he would let the mill turn again. If there was no wind the boy would be sent up to climb on the sail, and his weight used to turn the mill to the required position...The clear signal would be telegraphed using the St George (square) cross on the mill sail. [272]

Horsey Mill was reputedly used in this way: a message could travel from Yarmouth to Horsey in a quarter of an hour — much faster than a customs man could ride. [273]

When a wherryman saw the sails stop turning, he would sink his tubs in the broad, marking the spot with a float made of reads. The marshman at the mill would pick up the contraband later, and share in the proceeds. There was a risk attached to this procedure — sometimes the kegs would drift free and be lost. This possibility was avoided by lobbing the tubs into a drainage ditch: the mill gradually pumped the water along the ditch, so that the tubs were delivered directly to the marshman.

Mills were useful for other purposes beside signalling: in communities where no-one ever locked their doors (if the doors had locks at all) mills were among the few places that could be secured without arousing suspicion. Close to Stalham Dyke a mill was used as a storage place in this way: the contraband hidden there came into the country between Horsey and Happisburgh. When space ran out at the mill kegs were sunk in nearby Sutton Broad. [274]

The Smugglers' Roads of North Norfolk

The last part of the route described below is still marked on large scale OS maps as 'Smuggler's Lane'. To reach it, leave the A1075 at Shipdham on the Bradenham Road, and just before the Lord Nelson pub, fork right along Mill Street. Cross the first ford, then fork right and continue up the hill past the grand entrance to Bradenham Hall. Opposite the farm offices take the minor road on the left, and follow it straight down, past some derelict farm buildings. At the T junction turn right, then left, skirting the wood. At the end of the wood, Smugglers' Lane crosses north to south at TF915115 red map button (map 132).

Overland transport of contraband was a technique used when waterways were unavailable, but was generally regarded as unreliable. When they did travel overland, smugglers favoured green lanes and ancient trackways, out of sight of the main thoroughfares. Peddar's Way [275], which runs south-east from Hunstanton, was widely used, and the section north of Massingham used to be known as Smugglers' Way for this reason. The same label was attached to other routes:

Across the barren wastes of Bodney there is a sandy trackway known as the 'Smugglers' Road' which appears originally to have been ...connected with the road from Swaffham to Hillborough, with a junction about a mile north of the above-named place...A Smuggler's Way...left Peddar's Way at Pettigards, but is lost before crossing the Necton-Hale reappears as a grass lane to the Hale Fox again lost, but continues as a lane which runs into West End, West Bradenham, where it turns sharply north east, follows the highway to the cross-roads, and runs for some distance as a sunken starts again inside the edge of Bradenham [Great] Wood, whence it runs to Fransham and Litsham. [276]

If convoys of wagons and horses rolling along these roads attracted too much attention, old superstitions provided plenty of ways of discouraging further interest: Old Shuck the ghost dog is a persistent Norfolk legend that, like the cannibals of Clovelly, the smugglers exploited. Shuck is an enormous black dog with one glowing eye, and fiery breath. Anyone who sees Old Shuck is sure to die within a twelve month. Norfolk smugglers took advantage of the gullibility of the villagers and tied a lantern round the neck of a black ram, sending it running off to frighten nosey locals when a run was due. [277].


TG3731 red map button 6m NE of N Walsham (map 133)

The manor house here was the headquarters of a smuggling gang, and an early 19th century apparition that troubled Happisburgh might well have been dismissed as the gang's attempts to frighten off unwelcome attentions — had it not been for the grisly sequel. The ghostly figure had no legs, and his head was almost severed, hanging by a thin strip of flesh. Dressed as a sailor the ghost approached from Cart Gap on the coast, and 'walked' along the main street, carrying a bundle. Two of the braver farmers followed the ghost, and saw it disappear down a well. The following day a volunteer was recruited, and was duly lowered down the well on a rope; he returned to the surface clutching a sack, tied at the neck. The sack was opened, revealing a pair of human legs, hacked off at the thighs. Further descents (involving a different volunteer!) revealed the remainder of the corpse, dressed exactly as the ghost had been, with his neck almost cut away, so that the head dangled on a thread.

By piecing together other evidence the local people deduced that Dutch smugglers had landed at Cart gap, and in a drunken quarrel one of their number had had his throat cut with unnecessary vigour. His murderers has cut off his legs to make transport of the body simpler. [278]


TG2440 red map button, 2m E of Cromer. Mill House is at TG254404 red map button on the B1159 coast road, close to a communications beacon, and on the coast side of the road. Mill lane is now a footpath leading up the hill opposite (map 133).

The Old Mill House, Overstrand had a squint placed so as to provide a view of the sea in the direction of Holland. Outside the house, it was at head height, but indoors it would have been inconspicuously at floor-level, perhaps concealed by a flap in the skirting board.

The fruits of the landings close to the Mill House were often buried in a ploughed field on the right hand side of Mill Lane at the brow of a hill. The field was known locally as Hickerman's Folly after a riding officer from Cromer who was rash enough to try and impound smuggled goods that were being 'harvested' from the fresh-turned earth. For his troubles he was pulled from his horse, gagged and blindfolded, and tied to a gate as the contraband was ferried down Hunger Lane, and possibly on to a Rookery Farm at Gimmingham, where there were secret hiding places under the lawn. [279]

At Gimmingham there is today no trace of Rookery Farm, though the lawn at Rookery Farm in Trunch nearby bears traces of uneven grass growth that suggests tunnels and hidden caverns.


TG1143 red map button 3m W of Sherringham (map 133)

The coast between Sherringham and Weybourne was popular for landing goods because ships could anchor closer to the shore than anywhere else in the area. There was also a convenient gap in the cliffs through which goods could be easily transported [280]. On Weybourne beach there was so little cover for the waiting land party that the men were reputed to bury themselves neck-deep in the shingle until the smuggling vessel appeared on the horizon [281]. This story perhaps stretches the credulity to the limits, but the fact that it is also told of Suffolk locations adds at least a little weight:

'A boy going down to a lonely part of the beach one evening was asked by a man if he would like to earn a sovereign...the latter forthwith dug a hole in the beach and making the boy lie down in it, covered him up to the chin with beach. 'There' said he 'You lie there and don't move till you hear a whistle blow and then do you get up and do the same as others do'. By and bye the whistle blew, and jumping up the boy saw...hundreds of men unseen before coming up out of the beach all round. Then a boat ran ashore and her cargo was unloaded and carried away inland.' [282]

The owner of much of the inland areas at Weybourne (William J Bolding) reputedly turned a blind eye to goods landed on the beaches bordering his property, and was rewarded with a couple of tubs left discretely on his doorstep. [283]

Stiffkey area

TF9743 red map button 4m E of Wells (map 132)

Smugglers around Blakeney and Wells during the early 19th century were nothing if not brazen. In the Stiffkey district, they were led by a man called John Dunn. Dunn arranged a landing on one occasion in 1817 on the sands at Wells during a race meeting — at that time the horses ran on a track along the sand. The preventive men saw the landing, but when they tried to seize the tubs, they were attacked by the gang. Heavily outnumbered, the customs men appealed for help from a yeomanry major in the crowd. With mounted friends he formed an improvised cavalry charge, and succeeded in clouting with his riding whip — among others — the local baker. The smugglers escaped with all but six tubs despite this spirited opposition. On his family tree website Mark Henderson provides a fuller account of this incident, along with a lot more fascinating information about John Dunn, who was the brother of his great-great-great-great-grandmother. [284]

The same Major Charles Loftus related that he chanced upon 15 carts standing by near Morston. The smugglers informed him that they'd been expecting a signal all afternoon from a smuggler off-shore, and had sent accomplices to the Swan at Cley to get the dragoons there drunk. The men commented 'We can tie up the preventives but we don't like them dragoons' pistols and swords'. [285]

There is ample evidence to suggest that the revenue services were as unpopular in North Norfolk as they were elsewhere in the country: the usual stock of local stories portray the customs and excise service as fools or worse. One enduring story concerns a farmer from Blakeney who had had several good horses confiscated when he was caught carting smuggled goods up from the coast. The beasts were due to be auctioned, and the astute farmer went along, knowing that at that time, his animals would be starting to moult. Counting on the ignorance of the sea-faring customs men (obviously not a riding officer) he pulled at the hair of one of the horses. Naturally it came away in his hand and he told the supervising officer 'Whoi, the poor brute have gotten t' mange and all tudderuns'll ketch it ef you int keefful' Naturally, an examination of the other horses proved that his worst fears had been realised, and he was able to take the horses off the man's hands for £5 before the mange spread to the mounts of the riding officers themselves! [286]. Another version of this yarn has it that the horse belonged not to one farmer, but to the whole village — everyone had lost horses when the run was raided.

Old Hunstanton

TF6740 red map button 14m NE of King's Lynn. Snettisham is some 4m S (map 132). Both graves are clearly marked with white-painted boards.

The antagonism between the Norfolk smugglers and their opponents in the revenue services ran much deeper than punch-ups on the beach and harmless tricks involving horses. A visit to the church of St Mary the Virgin at Old Hunstanton illustrates this. In the graveyard are buried two soldiers who were killed in battles with smugglers. The epitaphs read:

Photograph of the tombstone of William Webb in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Old Hunstanton
William Webb's grave at the church of St Mary the Virgin. Click picture to enlarge

In memory of William Webb, late of the 15th D'ns, who was shot from his Horse by a party of Smugglers on the 26 of Sepr. 1784
I am not dead but sleepeth here,
And when the Trumpet Sound I will appear
Four balls thro' me Pearced there way:
Hard it was. I'd no time to pray
This stone that here you Do see
My Comerades Erected for the sake of me.
Here lie the mangled remains of poor William Green, an Honest Officer of the Government, who in the faithful discharge of his duty was inhumanely murdered by a gang of Smugglers in this Parish, September 27th, 1784.

Two smugglers were caught in the battle that killed Webb, and when brought to trial there was, according to contemporary accounts 'no doubt' of their guilt. Nevertheless, against all the evidence, a jury found them innocent. The prosecuting counsel demanded and got a new trial, but again the new jury displayed its sympathy with the smugglers and returned a second not guilty verdict. [287]

Another tale from Snettisham, set in 1822, illustrates how much support the free-traders enjoyed. A smuggling boat landed 80 tubs, and when the preventives impounded them, the local population turned out in a band of over 100 people to rescue the goods...'armed with bludgeons and fowling pieces'. The smugglers escaped along the Old Peddar's Way, at a time when virtually nobody else used the track.


Like Kent, Lincolnshire was a major sheep farming area, and early smuggling in the two counties ran on similar lines, even down to the 'owlers' nickname. The principal haunts of these 17th century smugglers were coastal hamlets such as Grainthorpe and Saltfleet, and villages in the marshes not far from the sea — Irby in the Marsh was one such depot.

In common with other areas, import smuggling in Lincolnshire gradually superseded wool exports. Dutch gin was a favourite commodity, and Dent's Creek on the Humber saw so many Dutchmen passing through that locals called the area Little Holland.

19th century smugglers, though, favoured tobacco. This was imported in convenient-sized bundles weighing 50-100lbs, making the bales easy to distinguish from the legal stuff, which was packed in vast hogsheads weighing 1300lbs.

The illegal tobacco was frequently disguised as legitimate cargo, and man-handled from the coast to Lincoln for manufacture into cigars or snuff — the villagers of Louth and Horncastle were especially adept at this journey. Transport by cart was less energetic, but required more care: the convoy had to travel by night, with the contraband stored in safe houses during the day. Places of concealment included: a hen house at Stewton close to Louth, on Vicarage Farm; at a house between Ashby and Horncastle; at Claxby under a potting shed in the Hall gardens; and between Horncastle and Wragby the Midge Inn was a refuge. Routes inland led from Mumby Chapel to Claxby, following Burlands Beck; and from Theddlethorpe to South Thoresby, then over the Wolds.

Smuggling in south Lincolnshire seems to have continued very much longer than in southern England, perhaps because of the isolation of the most popular landing beaches, and the difficulty of patrolling the long coastline from preventive stations that were frequently undermanned.


19m NE of Boston (map 122). The Vine Inn (now Hotel) is at TF564620 red map button . Leave the town centre travelling S on Drummond Road. After 3/4m, you'll see the hotel signposted to the R.

Here the task of prevention fell on the shoulders of a riding officer from Boston; his other responsibilities meant that he was unable to visit the town daily. If his inspections coincided with a run, he might find himself entertained at a local hostelry, while the locals unloaded the small boats that were beached between Seacroft and Gibraltar Point. These vessels plied between the beach and the smuggling cutters, unloading various contraband cargoes, typically gin, tobacco, snuff, tea and sugar.

The haunt of the Skegness smugglers was The Vine inn, and here in 1902, building work revealed a skeleton dressed in uniform with brass buttons carrying the royal crest. This was probably the body of a revenue man who disappeared in the early years of the 19th century. It was in the Vine that the unfortunate man was last seen alive. The room where the skeleton was found is now the Grill Room.

The most notorious of the Skegness smugglers were Thomas Hewson and James Waite. Hewson was a tailor by profession, but left his family in his native Anderby to take up the free-trade. Among other dark deeds, he was suspected of the murder of a young man of Sloothby: Hewson was known to have lured the lad away from his employer, and was caught with a watch belonging to the youth. However, the body was never found. James Waite was caught for smuggling numerous times, and had three boats confiscated and sawn in half: when he was not awaiting His Majesty's pleasure he lived at Ingoldmells, in a house picturesquely named Leila's Cottage (now a prominent pub called The Ace). Waite's renown can be judged from the fact that Skegness Coastguards at one time carried in their watchboxes a portrait of the man, captioned 'James Waite, the notorious smuggler'

The coast north of Skegness to Saltfleet was another popular stretch for landing goods. Boats were unloaded on the beach, and the contents transferred to carts. These were then hauled through gaps in the sand dunes, known as 'pullovers'. Ingoldmells was for a long time a favoured landfall, and as late as 1846 Dutch vessels were still landing tobacco on the beach there.


TF5085 11m E of Louth (map 122). Bleak House is at TF493871 red map button in North End.

Contraband landed on the beaches here could not always be spirited away immediately, and tubs were frequently buried in the dunes to await later collection. Early in the 20th century a partly decayed barrel of tobacco was unearthed in the sands: the owner had clearly been unable to return to claim his cargo, or perhaps had failed to take accurate bearings to locate the hiding place among the drifting sand-dunes.

Oliver's gap was a regular highway for smuggled goods, and two local smugglers had houses near here: Ned Bell lived at Bleak House, and is reputed to be buried in the family plot at Theddlethorpe St Helens some three miles north [288]; a direct descendant still lives in Bleak House. William Twigg lived at North End Farm, which also still stands. To the north a mile or so, a brick cottage called the Curlew, half hidden by the dunes, was home to another smuggling family, though it was demolished in the last century.

[269] Eastern Daily Press, 29/12/1926; Smuggling in Norfolk by 'Suffolk Coast'

[270] Eastern Daily Press, 18/10/1963; Against the Law by Ward, Anthony John

[271] Great Yarmouth 842915

[272] Eastern Daily Press, 18/10/1963

[273] National trust booklet

[274] Suffling — History and legends of the Broad District

[275] Peddar or pedder is synonymous with, and predates the modern 'peddler' or 'pedlar'.

[276] Eastern Daily Press or Norwich Mercury (unattributed on cutting supplied) 14/4/1970

[277] Dutt

[278] Suffling — History and legends of the Broad District

[279] Dutt

[280] Norwich Mercury 21/07/1923; Smuggling in Norfolk by JH

[281] EEN? 1/10/1973; reported by Clarke, David, in Norfolk Contraband

[282] Eastern Daily Press 29/12/1926; Smuggling in Norfolk by Suffolk Coast.

[283] EEN

[284] East Anglian Magazine Vol 3 p160 Earnest Read Cooper

[285] East Anglian Magazine Vol 3

[286] East Anglian Magazine, July 1956 Vol XV

[287] East Anglian Magazine 1969 vol XIX

[288] Personal communication with Bell's great-great nephew