decorative top bar graphic
blank spacer

Read the book! This fascinating book by award-winning author Richard Platt tells the story of British smuggling Click here to buy

Coloured engraving of Robin Hood's Bay
Robin Hood's Bay. Click picture to enlarge  


Smugglers Britain logo

Guide-Book: The East Coast


The principal north Yorkshire smuggling ports towards the end of the 18th century were Staithes, Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay. All three were close-knit communities where the inside information essential for successful action against the smugglers was hard to come by. At Robin Hoods Bay the local free-traders enjoyed the support of the alum-workers from the nearby quarries, and even itinerant labourers were happy to throw in their lot with the local people and form a temporary, but effective, alliance. In 1779 the building of a sea-wall brought hundreds of workers into the area, and these men lived in Redcar, Coatham and Easton, where they joined local smugglers and formed large gangs to ship goods inland virtually unopposed despite the efforts of the local customs officers.


NZ8911 red map button 17m NW of Scarborough. Church Street is at the heart of the old smuggling district (map 94).

At Whitby, subterfuge was the rule in distribution of the contraband. The housewives of the town would go to market wearing loose-fitting garments, and return with buttons bursting, having stuffed their clothes with contraband goods. Mrs Gaskell, who lived in Whitby for some time, commented on

'The clever way in which certain [Whitby] women managed to bring in prohibited goods; how in fact when a woman did give her mind to smuggling, she was more full of resources, and tricks, and impudence, and energy than any man'.

She also observes that even a couple of quaker brothers in the town bought smuggled goods, and that

'Everybody in Monkshaven smuggled who could, and everyone wore smuggled goods who could' [289]

Engraving of Whitby Harbour
Whitby harbour Click picture to enlarge 

The modus operandi of the local smugglers in the late 18th century was to 'hover' off the coast in large ships (itself an illegal activity) and send signals to the land. Fishermen would then sail out in their small boats, a design known locally as cobles, to pick up the contraband goods. In this respect the methods and organization of the Yorkshire smuggling groups paralleled that of the gangs in the South of the same period.

One collector of customs at the town summed up the situation succinctly in 1783:

Very great quantities of prohibited goods have been Run, spirits, tea, etc., are loaded into boats and cobles which are guarded by a great number of armed men who are totally defiant of the [customs] Officers, and the Country People, many of whom follow no employment but this illicit practice, are constantly in waiting, and being armed with Bludgeons, etc., and provided with Horses, immediately convey the Run goods to some distant place. Vessels are generally of the Cutter or Lugger kind, which we have reason to believe are often built in Kent, and are generally between seventy and one hundred and fifty tons, with crews of 15 to 25 men.

The revenue men stood little chance of success when faced with such opposition: 18 six-pounders carriage guns was not an unusual compliment of arms. The master of one of these ships was asked whether he didn't fear the customs cutters, and simply tapped his pistols in reply.

Saltburn and Redcar

Redcar (map 93) lies 6m NE of Middlesborough NZ6025 red map button Saltburn is 4m to the E (map 94).

The section of coast between Saltburn and Redcar was almost as notorious as the Whitby area, and some of the coastal towns were turned over almost entirely to the free-trade, smuggling principally brandy. The preventive forces naturally did all they could to stamp out the traffic, but the honest officers must often have felt they were fighting a losing battle.

Two Redcar officers had particular reason to feel bitter. They heard gunfire one spring night in 1779, and headed for the beach to see a smuggling vessel lashed to the revenue cutter that had captured it. As they watched, though, a small boat, heavily laden, set off from the ships, and headed for the beach. There, the crew unloaded some 200 gallons of spirits, but fled when the riding officer and his boatman appeared.

Delighted, and eagerly anticipating a supplement to their meagre pay, the pair counted the barrels, then one set off to fetch a cart. His colleague, left to guard the haul, was somewhat dismayed when he saw to his astonishment that the revenue men were rowing a party of smugglers to the shore. The group landed and soon collected their tubs, threw them back into the boat, and headed off along the shore. Clearly this was not what the revenue had in mind, for a revenue boat set off in hot pursuit. However, when they caught up with the small boat, the customs men set the smugglers free with half their haul of tubs — satisfied with the reward for the remainder of the cargo on board the confiscated lugger (336 half-ankers of spirits). It emerged that the smugglers had come to an agreement with their captors, and the riding officer and boatman left without reward or arrest.

The Ship Inn at Saltburn was the centre for the free-trade on this stretch of coast, and landlord John Andrew was 'the King of the Smugglers'. He also owned the nearby White House, and in the stables there hid contraband in a chamber under one of the stalls. When the place was to be searched, the stable lad had strict instructions to put in that stall a mare that could be counted upon to kick viciously at any stranger. Adjoining houses were reputedly linked to the pub by a tunnel.

The smuggling landlord owned a cutter called the Morgan Rattler, (though this may have been a mis-reading of the Morgan Butler that operated from Stockton around the end of the 18th century). In the course of a long career landing illegal cargoes, he had many brushes with the law and spent a spell behind bars when caught on a run at Hornsea. He died in 1835.


North of Newcastle, the character of the free-trade begins to change, and the influence of Scotland becomes apparent. Much of the contraband activity in the border areas consisted of through transport of scotch, but there was also a thriving trade in gin from Holland, and in salt.


NU2614 red map button 3m NE of Alnmouth (map 81)

This tiny village probably owes most of its notoriety not to actual smuggling exploits, but to a local rhyme that commemorates the trade. It begins...

'Jimmy Turner, of Ford didn't think it a sin, to saddle his horse on a Sunday and ride to Boulmer for gin'.

Succeeding verses feature other Boulmer smugglers: one of the best-known was the gypsy 'Wull Faa', who was famous not only for the cargoes of gin he brought in, but also for his skills in the boxing ring and on the violin. His promising musical career came to an untimely end, though, on a smuggling trip that went badly wrong. Pursued by the customs men, Will urged his horse over a wall near Little Mill, only to find its hooves effectively anchored in a bog. Will turned to fight, holding off the custom's man's cutlass with his cudgel. Only when this had been whittled to a match-stick and his right hand cut to the bone did he surrender, with the plaintive cry 'Ye've spoilt the best bow hand in Scotland'.

This led to the verse...

There is a canny Will Faa o' Kirk Yetholm,
He lives at the sign o' the Queen;
He got a great slash i' the hand
When comin' frae Boulmer wi' gin'.

One of the local tracks that the Boulmer men used is still in existence — it leads from Kirk Yetholm up the valley of Bowmont Water to Elsdonburn, to College Valley, Kirknewton, and then to Boulmer. [290] Carrying the goods across the Cheviots, the team were frequently guarded by a pair of bulldogs, one at the front and one bringing up the rear. [291]

The Fishing Boat Inn at Boulmer was the HQ for the local smugglers, and the landlord owned an armed smuggling lugger called the Ides, which he operated with a crew of two dozen. To unload the ship demanded considerable man-power, and since a large band of smugglers would have been conspicuous in such a small village, the carriers hid in the dunes while waiting for the ships to arrive from the continent: the signal to get to work was a fiddler parading round the streets playing

'O but ye've been lang awa'
Ye're welcome back again'.

Beadnell, Bamburgh and Spittal were favourite landing places. Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton Tolls were 'notorious depots' [292]

Jimmy Trotter was another legendary smuggler in the area, and he was condemned to death for the theft of a horse. His strength was legendary, and it is said that when chained to a huge block of stone in jail, he jerked the chain free of the block, and carried it across the cell to block the door. He escaped from the jail, but was recaptured when he dallied to thank the jailer's wife for her kindness. [293]

Though Boulmer is best remembered for its gin trade on account of the rhyme, salt for curing pork or fish was also regularly smuggled both across the border, and from the coast inland, and there are many local stories that centre around salt smuggling. One author wrote in 1909 that a friend recalled childhood memories of a women of the village appearing at the door, to announce simply 'He has come' before hurrying on to tell others that the salt man had arrived in town.

Salt was retailed by the local women who would carry it round in sacks on their backs: if the excise man caught them, a deft slash with a knife would spill the cargo. The contraband goods travelled as discreetly as possible, and a path among the hills near Newton Tors was known locally as Salters' Path. [294]

[289] Chadwick, Ellis H, 1913 Mrs Gaskel Haunts, Homes and Stories

[290] The Countryman Summer 1981 David Fergus

[291] The Countryman Summer 1981

[292] Sheldon, Frederick, 1849, History of Berwick on Tweed

[293] Jean Lang — A Land of Romance

[294] Nevill, Hastings M, 1909, A Corner in the North — Yesterday and Today with Border Folk