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Engraving of wreckers at work at Beachey Head
Cornwall did not have the monopoly on wrecking. This ship is being plundered at the foot of Beachey Head. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England


Between the River Ouse and Selsey Bill, 19th and 20th century building work has largely transfigured the coastline into an ugly sprawl of housing, and little remains to remind us of the lucrative smuggling runs that took place here. The once isolated beaches are now hemmed in with tarmac and concrete, and it takes a considerable imaginative leap to picture Kipling's “five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark.” However, some of the quainter spots demand less suspension of disbelief than others.


TQ3703 4m E of Brighton (map 198). The picturesque village attracts large crowds on summer weeekends. red map button

Stretching out north from the coast road, Old Rottingdean still retains some of its original character, and when Kipling stayed there the tales of the older inhabitants must have provided ample inspiration for his Smuggler's Song. The windmill was used both for storage and signalling, and the Black Horse Inn on the High Street was an informal HQ for the smugglers. Townspeople of all social classes were deeply involved in the free-trade, from the local vicar, to the butcher, who lived at Whipping-Post House close to the pond, almost opposite the Olde Place Hotel.

Engraving of Brighton
Disguised customs officers in Brighton were warned to beware of attractive women who aimed to distract them from their duties! Click picture to enlarge


TQ3005 (map 198).The Ship Hotel is on the sea front, close to the pavilion (Ship Street) red map button

At Brighton, the lanes remain much as they were in the 18th century, when goods were landed on the beach and carried straight up for sale and distribution from shops and inns among the winding alleys and narrow courtyards. The Old Ship Hotel nearby has changed little since the day of George IV's Coronation in 1821, when it was the scene of an admirable bit of smuggling opportunism. While the town celebrated elsewhere, the free-traders took advantage of the empty streets and moved tubs of spirits out of the pub stables completely unobserved. [39] Today it's one of the town's better hotels, with an air more of smuggness than smugglers.

It's less easy to picture the open runs that took place on the beach at Brighton, and more difficult still to imagine some of the other activity that went on where deck-chairs now stand: in 1794 several officers heard a commotion on Brighton beach, and went to investigate. They found a gang of smugglers landing 4-500 tubs of gin, and with the help of troops stationed nearby, the officers dispersed the freetraders, and seized the cargo. However, en route for the Shoreham custom house, two of the soldiers tucked in to the barrels. They drunk themselves insensible, and were found comatose on the beach the following morning. One, who was due to be married that day, was quite literally dead drunk — he never recovered from his over-indulgence. [40]


TQ2805, W suburb of Brighton (map 198) red map button The church is on Church Road, near the junction with Vallance Road. The Ship Inn is on Hove Street close to the Sea Front.

The coast at Hove, Shoreham, Worthing and Goring was widely used for beaching smuggling ships, but even the beaches themselves scarcely resemble their 18th century counterparts: the sea defences and groynes have turned them from flat expanses of sand and shingle to shelving staircases. It's difficult to believe that coaches would travel along the flat beaches at low tide in preference to the appalling roads of the day.

At Hove, St Andrew's Church and the early 18th century Ship Inn are the only remaining smuggling landmarks: both were used for storing contraband. The church was reputedly stuffed with tobacco and brandy every other week, since the parish shared a vicar with Preston church, and services alternated between the two. Inevitably, perhaps, the story is told of how a confused vicar got his preaching timetable wrong, and arrived at Hove to find a congregation of bales and barrels. [41]


TQ2305 5m W of Brighton (map 198) red map button

Shoreham-on-Sea had long-standing connections with the trade, and a writer noted in 1785 that Shoreham boats no longer went to the Yarmouth fishery, because they had taken up the more profitable pursuit of smuggling. [42] It should therefore hardly come as a surprise to find that there is a crop of local smuggling anecdotes associated with the area — some of them more likely than others. The most fascinating concerns a circus and wild-beast show that visited Shoreham in August 1855. Complimentary tickets were handed out to important folk in the area, and also to the valiant preventives stationed in the town. As the proceedings reached a climax, the streets were emptied of people, so few noticed a suspicious-looking ship on the town quay. Before the tide had even begun to ebb, the cargo of tobacco had been unloaded into barges and was on its way up the River Adur to Beeding. Though the plan was discovered, little of the cargo was ever found, and as a result of their negligence, virtually all of the Shoreham coast guards were replaced [43].

Photograph of the Steyning tomb of the stonemason killed in an attack on smugglers in 1832.
The Steyning tomb of the stonemason killed in an attack on smugglers in 1832. Click picture to enlarge

Worthing and Steyning

Worthing is at TQ1503, 10m W of Brighton (map 198). red map button To reach Steyning take the A283 north from Worthing; in Steyning turn right down Tanyard Lane (signposted health centre and library) to St Andrew's church at TQ178114. red map button William Cowerson's grave is just to the left of the path, a short way from the lower gate.

A local preventive force and a cutter were stationed at Worthing, and an early chronicler of Worthing history [44] recorded that in February 1832 he was...

...aroused by an uproar in the High Street and the sound of firearms. A big cargo of spirits had been landed and was being taken up the High Street towards Broadwater while a number of men armed with stout staves had come down from the country to protect the smugglers and their cargo. The Preventive Force got wind of the affair, and attacked the procession as it made its way up High Street, and there was a running fight all the way up the road. At the top of high street was a footpath leading to Broadwater, closed by a gate which happened to be be padlocked, so that only one man could get over at a time. The staff men, as they were called, closed round the smugglers and laid about vigorously with their staves in order to hold off the Preventive men. The latter drew their pistols and fired into the crowd, hitting and killing a young man named William Cowerson'.

Cowerson, a stonemason, was buried in the churchyard at Steyning, his home town. His grave can still be seen there, though the inscription on the tombstone is now only partially legible. A local churchwarden [45] recalls that it ran:

Death with his dart did pierce my heart
When I was in my prime,
Weep not for me my dearest friends
For 'twas God's appointed time.

Engraving byCharles G Harper of the tomb of miller Oliver at Ferring
The miller's tomb at Ferring.

Goring and Ferring

TQ1203, 3m W of Worthing centre (map 198) red map button

At Goring, Smuggler's Walk is for a change not named on the romantic whim of a modern planner, but actually stands at the centre of an area that was once used for storing smuggled goods. But Ferring, a little way to the west, has some still more tangible links with 18th and 19th century smugglers. In Ferring Street, Smuggler's Cottage and Annex were both used for storage, as was the building that is now The Tudor Close Restaurant in Ferringham Lane. Goods were brought up from the beach along the Rife — a small river that passes close to the building. Landalls, also in Ferring Street, served a similar purpose.

Ferring's major claim to smuggling fame, though, lies buried on Highdown Hill overlooking the village. John Oliver was an eccentric local miller who ran a profitable sideline in smuggling. He died in 1793, but made preparations for his departure from this life some 30 years earlier. He had a tomb built close to his mill on the hill, and his coffin was stored under his bed.

When Miller Oliver died, everything was ready: the funeral was a gay affair attended by 2000 brightly dressed people. Local gossip has it that the miller was buried face down, because he believed that when the last judgment came the world would be turned topsy-turvy — and he would be the only one facing right-side-up. You can still visit the tomb, near Highdown House.

[39] Musgrave, 1981

[40] Musgrave, 1981

[41] Middleton, 1979

[42] Knox, J, View of the British Empire, quoted by Cheal, 1909

[43] Cheal, 1921

[44] Memoirs of Edward Snewin, annotated by Smail, 1945

[45] John Cox, letter in the parish magazine, January 1988