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Bristol docks
Smuggling was rife in Bristol docks before silting put the port out of action. Click picture to enlarge.

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Guide-Book: South-West England


After the desolation of the Exmoor coast, the sheltered waters of the Bristol channel are a haven of tranquillity. Bristol was for centuries England's second largest port, and in the 18th century handled the bulk of the transatlantic trade. So the majority of the contraband landed in the Bristol Channel came from the West Indies and the American colonies.

The simplest way to land goods illegally was of course to bribe the Bristol officials, and this practice certainly went on. However, when corruption was impossible or too costly, the small ports to the west of Bristol were happy to harbour the smugglers, and buy their goods.

Not all the tobacco that came ashore in the Bristol Channel appeared by the usual (if illegal) route: some bobbed up on the beaches without the benefit of a boat. In 1736 the tide washed up hundreds of bales that had been tossed off the decks of in-bound ships. News of recent legislation to prevent smuggling reached the incoming vessels as they approached the coast, and the seamen, fearful of stiff penalties when they arrived, threw the goods overboard. Though the bales penetrated by sea water were of course worthless, dry bales were eagerly picked up by the local population, and sold off.


ST0844 red map button 15m NW of Taunton (map 181). St Audries Bay at ST1143 red map button is now approached across private land. Small entrance/parking fee for day visitors

This quote from a history of Somerset tells the whole story, without need for amplification:

'Sir William Wyndham patronised the smugglers, the port of Watchet, his town, being used to escape the customs house at Minehead, and growing exceedingly rich from that cause. Col. Luttrell, who owned Minehead, was similarly indisposed to help the preventive officers ... A century later the trade had reached formidable proportions when there was much smuggling from Ireland, Lisbon and the West Indies, and one hundred horses were sometimes waiting for the arrival of the cargoes, temporary hiding places for the goods being found under the floors of barns, in the thickness of farm-house walls, and in caves and holes along the coast.' [164]

Contraband was landed not only at Watchett itself, but also at other accessible places nearby on the coast, including St Audries Bay.

Weston super mare

To reach Sand Point at ST316659 red map button , leave the M5 and approach Weston on the A370, then turn off to the right and follow signs to Sand Bay. At the coast turn right (signposted Sand Point). Limited parking, then a walk.

Close to Bristol, the channel coast has some features that enabled the Weston smugglers to run rings around the preventives: the peninsula of Sand Point juts out into the Bristol Channel, giving the land party a clear view of vessels approaching from all directions. The point was clearly visible from inland, too, and was therefore used as a signal station. The beaches at Middle Hope to the east of Sand Point were frequently used for landing contraband, and a scout group camping here in the 1930s discovered a secret tunnel. Unfortunately, they were made to fill it in before it could be investigated thoroughly.

Another signal point was at Uphill: smugglers there lit beacons at the church, or on Worlebury Hill, to guide ships to an unguarded section of coast. [165] And at Worle the Church of St Martin's contains a staircase that rises to an octagonal turret — according to local tradition smugglers stored contraband in a hiding place (now disappeared) in the church roof. The church was originally 12th century, though now much altered.


Bristol was for centuries a centre for illegal import in the west. It was a port of considerable importance, although today silting of the docks has made normal trade virtually impossible.

Early Bristol smugglers were nothing if not brazen. In the 16th century, when Britain was at war with Spain, Bristol merchants were shipping out canon to the enemy. 'Culverin' guns were exported from the port by the shipload, along with ammunition. These guns were made in the Forest of Dean iron-foundries, and fetched a high premium abroad. The Spanish Armada was quite literally armed by the country it was fighting.

In the Elizabethan era, Bristol was famous for wine smuggling from France and the Mediterranean: according to some reports only half the wine landed there paid duty, and the customs officers pocketed a £30 bribe for each ship that landed. It appears, though, that the income from this illegal source was not fairly divided: when a clerk threatened to inform on his superiors, he spent 18 months in prison on a trumped-up charge of debt, and even when he reported the illicit dealings, no action was taken.

Attention in the 17th century, though, focused on the tobacco trade with Bermuda and Virginia, and the Bristol Customs authorities were quick to profit from it. William Culliford investigated the port in the 1680s, and found a rat's nest of fraudulent officials. The only tide-waiter considered to be honest was blind!

The standard way to smuggle goods in was for the ship's master to keep two sets of accounts. One showed the true cargo: this was for the benefit of its owners. A second set of books was presented to the customs authorities with a nod and a wink. One example was a ship called the Bristol Merchant, which docked with 9¼ tons of tobacco on board. It cost the crew £80 to get the customs officials to turn a blind eye, but this was less than half what they saved in duty. Pay-offs took place at Mother Grindham's Coffee House on Bristol quayside.

[164] The History of the County of Somerset By The University of London Institute of Historical Research

[165] Knight