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Cuckmere river, sunset
From Cuckmere Haven Contraband was shipped up the beautiful Cuckmere River to Alfriston. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England


Inland gangs weren't the only Sussex smugglers, but after two centuries, they are perhaps the simplest to identify. Consequently, it's only too easy to focus land-based companies, and overlook the vast volume of small-scale smuggling that went on all along the east Sussex coastline.

As in other parts of Britain, wholesale customs evasion was probably almost universal here until preventive efforts were stepped up. While it was safe to land goods openly, Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne beaches were all widely used, and there were dozens more suitable sites stretching away to the west: Pevensey Bay was a popular spot, as was Norman's Bay (then called Pevensey Sluice).

The modern visitor to many parts of this stretch of coast — especially the towns — might have difficulty in picturing a smuggling run amid the piers and ice-cream stalls. However it's important to remember that the area was virtually untouched in the 18th century: the resorts and spas for which the south coast became famous did not really develop until sea-bathing became fashionable in the early 19th century. Throughout the 18th century much of the Sussex coast was relatively isolated, with just small hamlets looking out towards northern France. On the quiet sand or shingle beaches, landing uncustomed goods would have been almost a leisurely affair.

With increasing preventive efforts, though, the local free-traders had to become more wily and resourceful, making landings less public. Usually this simply meant bringing the goods in at a time when the neighbourhood riding officer was known to be occupied elsewhere on the coast, but as the net tightened, the Sussex smugglers went to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection and capture. Derricking, for example, was a technique used to bring goods up a cliff from an inaccessible beach below. The contraband was landed on the beach, and stacked in baskets or on some sort of pallet — often a farm-gate. Using a horse-driven winch or windlass on the cliff top, the smugglers then hauled the contraband up the face, and unloaded at the top. The derrick itself was purpose-built, and could be trundled quickly into position, or wheeled off equally rapidly at the sign of danger. There are records of this happening at numerous spots, but notably Rottingdean, Newhaven, and Birling Gap.

When derricking was impractical, tubs of spirits were slung across the shoulders of the smugglers, and carried up the cliffs on swaying rope ladders — a hazardous business that claimed the lives of many men.

Engraving of Pevensey Bay
Despite the watchful gaze of the preventive forces in their Martello towers, Pevensey Bay continued to be used for landing contraband as late as 1833.Click picture to enlarge

Cuckmere Haven

The most attractive approach to Cuckmere Haven is from the overlooking South Hill, and there is a car park there, close to Seaford golf course. red map button However, the route to the spot passes through a maze-like residential estate, and it is easier to park on the A259 Seaford to Eastbourne road at the Seven Sisters Country Park visitor centre (TV520995) red map button and walk along the valley of the Cuckmere River (map 199)

This beautiful bay is probably one of the best-preserved smuggler's beaches on the east Sussex coast. Cuckmere Haven figures prominently in the records of the customs authorities right from the earliest days, when wool exports were more important than import smuggling. Goods were landed there throughout the 18th century, as this extract from a letter, dated Sept 18th 1783, illustrates

'On Tuesday evening, between two and three hundred smugglers on horseback came to Cookmere (sic) and received various kinds of goods from the boats, 'till at last the whole number were laden, when, in defiance of the King's officers, they went their way in great triumph. About a week before this, upwards of three hundred attended at the same place; and though the sea ran mountains high, the daring men in the cutters made good the landing...' [33]

Even in the 19th century, when preventive efforts were at their height, the smugglers still favoured the flat beach at Cuckmere. By that stage, though, a little friendly persuasion was necessary if the goods were to come in safely, as this description of a bribery attempt (told by a local customs man) illustrates:

I was posted as sentinel on duty at the point near the mouth of Cuckmere Haven when two men came up to me. One of them, who has since called himself John Clare, laid money on the beach, desiring me to pick it up. I told him I did not want it. The two men then sat down for some time underneath the cliff when John Clare put on a lump of chalk £20 and pointing to it said there should be twenty pounds for me and a cart in readiness to carry me to what part of the country I pleased admitting them to work tubs, asking me at the same time which was the most convenient place for that purpose.[34]

Engraving of Hastings
Hastings Old Town is substantially unchanged since the days when smugglers fought customs-men on the beach. Click picture to enlarge

Hastings and St Leonards

TQ8109 24m SE of Tunbridge Wells (map 199). Old Hastings Housered map button is at the top of the High Street, close to the junction with The Bourne. The Hastings Armsred map button in George Street, and the Stag Innred map button stands on on All Saints Street.

Some of those smugglers crippled by cliff falls and derrick accidents were 'electrified' by John Banks[35], a Hastings schoolteacher, (and evidently a man of many other parts) who had the foresight in 1871 to set down many of the smuggling stories associated with the town [36]. He had plenty to choose from: one native of the town [37] commented

'No business carried on in Hastings was more popular and extensive as that of smuggling. Defrauding the revenue, so far from being considered a crime, was looked upon as a laudable pursuit, and the most successful 'runners' were heroes. Nearly the whole of the inhabitants, old and young and of every station in life, were, to some extent, engaged in it.'

From his own experiences, John Banks paints a vivid picture of smuggling in an era when prevention was at its height, but he also reminisces about the earlier era when most of the smuggling activity at Hastings and St Leonards took place on the beach. In these colourful tales the smugglers rely for their safety and that of their cargoes on their traditional allies of darkness, brute force, and the incompetence or corruptibility of the revenue services. The custom-house officers could usually be expected to make themselves scarce at the prearranged time of landing, but things didn't always go according to the prearranged timetable. Banks describes one embarrassed encounter and the final resolution, with characteristic humour.

The boat landing the goods near the centre of St Leonards was owned by one Jemmy Roper, and he made the mistake of beaching the boat before his reception committee had arrived. Worse, a custom-house officer appeared. The two men exchanged curses, and the officer told Jemmy he was a fool for arriving early, and that he would now be obliged to seize the cargo. Jemmy replied 'If you be a man, act like one'. In the meantime, the owner of the cargo had arrived, and negotiations began. The custom-house officer agreed that in exchange for seizing ten tubs of spirits, he would allow the crew to ship the rest inland. The boat was quickly unloaded, and when the 'gentlemen' had melted away into the darkness, the officer fired his pistol into the air to summon help in carrying the seized goods back to the custom house.

This transaction must surely have been typical of many thousands such 'accommodations' reached between the opposing forces of smugglers and preventives, but not all encounters were so amicable, and there was violence on both sides.

Engraving of Hastings Chop-Backs by Paul Hardy
The smugglers of Hastings had an ugly reputation. They earned the nickname "Chop-backs" after one of them split the spine of a Dutch sea captain. Click picture to enlarge

During the early 1760s a gang of Hastings smugglers and privateers, 'Ruxey's (or Ruxley's) crew' was particularly notorious. Led by the eponymous Ruxey (Stephen Bourner) they would board ships in the channel with the pretense of doing legitimate business (then a common practice). Once on board they would lock up the crew, kill anyone who resisted, then remove the cargo, and scupper the boat with all hands. Such behaviour was perhaps not all that outrageous at a time when a license to attack foreign vessels could be bought from the government (this indeed was the essence of privateering). However, the gang stepped over the mark when they attacked a Dutch ship and were beaten off. In their haste to escape, they left behind one of their number, Stephen Taught. The Dutch captain decided on summary justice, and prepared to hang Taught from the yard-arm. This so enraged his comrades that they attacked again with renewed fervour. This time they prevailed, cut down Taught, and then took their revenge by breaking the captain's back with an axe. Drunken bragging about 'How the Dutchman wriggled when they cut him down the backbone' [38] caused public outrage, and the Hastings population persistently demanded to know what was going to be done. When the mayor could not come up with a satisfactory reply, he was attacked violently. In response the government stationed a man-of-war offshore, and sent in 200 dragoons. The gang was arrested and tried in London (the authorities feared that a local jury would not dare convict) and four of the crew were hanged as pirates at Execution Dock.

The most celebrated example of violence at Hastings, though, was perpetrated by the preventive forces. Joseph Swaine, a fisherman, was shot in 1821 by an exciseman who was intending to search his fishing boat. There was a struggle, during which the excise officer's gun went off (accidentally, he claimed). The incident was the flash point for seething discontent among the fishermen, in a dispute that was focused on the searching of their boats. The increasing vigilance of the government's anti-smuggling campaign had forced the free-traders to rope together tubs into rafts, which were anchored off-shore and (allegedly) recovered by the local fishermen. Fishing boats were so numerous that a thorough and methodical search of each one was impossible, so the customs men resorted to poking a metal spike through the piles of net to feel for barrels concealed beneath. According to the fishing folk, the prodding damaged the nets, and Swaine was shot while trying to prevent such damage to his tackle.

Smuggler's barrel concealed at the Hastings Arms
At the Hastings Arms concealed barrels under an upstairs window supplied spirits to a tap in the bar. Click picture to enlarge

Swaine became a local martyr, with the Hastings mob baying for blood. The exciseman, George England, was convicted of murder, despite desperate and heart-rending pleas from the dock as the sentence was read:

' be taken from hence... Consider I was in execution of my duty... to the place whence you came.. .Gentlemen of the Jury, pray consider your verdict again. ..and from thence to the place of execution, on Friday next, where you are to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul... Oh Gentlemen of the Jury, pray consider your verdict again !'

The sentence was never carried out, for England was reprieved soon afterwards, much to the fury of the residents of Hastings. After the shooting there had been considerable civil disturbance locally, and dragoons were sent in to restore order. The reprieve caused a renewal of rioting, and if England had returned to his former posting, the mob would almost certainly have taken the law into their own hands and carried out what they saw as a just sentence. Instead, England was discharged from his job and spirited out of harm's way.

Wood engraving of barrell by Thomas BewickFor the visitor to modern Hastings, there are still plenty of reminders of the smuggling era. The Smugglers' Adventure, in St Clement's Cave on West Hill, offers and engaging interactive recreation of the smuggling era. The Old Town retains many of the buildings that would have been part of Joseph Swaine's landscape, and the fishermen's net houses remain in their original condition. Up above the beach, two local pubs have smuggling associations. The Hastings Arms in George Street has a brandy barrel concealed under a window ledge on the first floor (not in a public area, unfortunately) which was once linked by pipes to a tap above the bar so that 'genuine Crowlink' could be dispensed from the wood without attracting undue attention. And the cellars of the Stag Inn on All Saints Street were once linked by a tunnel to cave on the hills towering above.

John Collier

Hastings House, at the top of the Old Town facing the church, was the home of one of the most resolute opponents of smuggling. John Collier was mayor of Hastings, and surveyor-general of the Kent riding officers for 15 years from 1735. Over this period he was a prolific correspondent, and the 2000-odd letters he wrote form perhaps the most important surviving account of 18th century smuggling and its prevention.

[33] Parry, 1783

[34] Sussex County Mag; Smuggling in Sussex 100 years ago, BF Richards. Quoted by Hufton and Baird.

[35] There is a photograph of Hastings smuggler Philip Kent in Sussex County Magazine vol 4 page 421

[36] Banks, John, 1873

[37] Alfred Bryant of Enfield, quoted by Cousins, Henry, 1911

[38] Fleet, 1878, and Historic Hastings by J Mainwaring Baines (FJ Parsons Ltd., Hastings, 1963) page 233. Nb. Ruxey's name is a mystery, but is probably a nickname: the Oxford English Dictionary gives "rux" as nautical slang for a disturbance or uproar. Thanks to Hastings resident Marcus Weeks for stimulating me to flesh out the details of this story.