Tales of Island Smugglers

From the I.W. County Press Christmas Supplement – Saturday December 10th, 1927

The allegation has recently been made that smuggling by means of aeroplanes is being carried on on the Sussex Downs. It is stated that aircraft cross the Channel under cover of darkness with the valuable cargoes of silk and jewellery, which are dropped on broad spaces of the Downs, from whence the goods are taken to London in fast motor-cars.

Whether this be fact or fiction, the story is at least feasible now our shores have been almost denuded of coastguards, and this talk of ultra-modern methods of cheating H.M. Customs is, perhaps, a convenient peg on which to hang a few tales of Island smuggling days picked up at random during a fairly close association with those big-hearted folk who dwell along our Channel coast.

It may come as a surprise to many that there are still a few Islanders surviving who actively participated in this thrilling game. One such, a fine old Seaman of 80 years, who resides in the Western Wight, is one of my informants. He and one or two others had spoken with first-hand knowledge, others “told the tale as ‘twas told to them”. It is no easy task to collect such stories. The men who ran the cargoes a century or less ago were the men who were bred or themselves became the gallant lifeboatmen of the present generation. It is the same spirit of do or dare, the same dogged pertinacity and bravery, which has resulted in both tasks – the illegal and the legal – being so efficiently done. It is not surprising, therefore, that the fisherman lifeboatman of today should cherish and jealously guard his knowledge of the deeds of the fisherman- smuggler of yesterday. My experience has been that the mere mention of smuggling to the men most likely to know of it is generally met with a wide smile and a tantalising wink. However, a few have been ready to talk, and here are some of the tales they have told.


Brighstone boasted the champion smuggler of the island some eighty years ago in a red-headed giant, who is described as a man who would stop at nothing to land a cargo of tubs of spirit, but was as gentle as a lamb with his family at home. He and two other men owned a stout little sailing-vessel – a real flyer for her class – which ostensibly did duty bringing goods across from Southampton and Portsmouth to Cowes, but her most profitable work was running cargoes of smuggled brandy, etc. across the Channel to a spot near Atherfield, where the spacious barn of a well-known farm served four years as a store and clearing house. This “Brighstone bootlegger”, as he would be called today in America, was well known to the preventive men as a smuggler, but they could never catch him. This story, one of many which could have been told of him, will show why. To escape the attention of the coastguards he would leave his cottage at Brighstone under cover of darkness, walk to Bembridge during the night, and swim out to the vessel, which his confidants had brought across from the mainland in readiness. Then up would come the anchor, and heigh- ho for France! The return journey had a very similar ending. On arrival of the Island shore, where the goods were to be delivered, he would wait for a signal from friends ashore that the coast was clear, and then swim ashore with a line attached to his body. The tubs were hauled ashore with the line, and safely hidden, and the next day he would be seen quietly tending his garden at Brighstone. He is reputed to have repeatedly brought off this coup, and at all times of the year. He was endowed with almost super-human strength and endurance, and as a swimmer would probably have been able to tackle the Channel had he chosen to try. His swimming ability saved him from certain capture on one occasion. Somehow or other the preventive men heard that he had left on one of these cross-Channel trips, and on his return, a revenue cutter was awaiting his vessel outside the Needles. A chase ensued in the gathering darkness. The smuggler ran for Atherfield, the tubs were thrown overboard en route, and the Brighstone man took a header over the side and safely reached the shore. His confederates, who were unknown to the local preventive men, then allowed the cutter to come alongside, but nothing but fishing-tackle remained on board, and the man they were so anxious to capture was probably by this time enjoying a pipe at his fireside. I hope I am not revealing this fine fellows identity by mentioning that he afterwards became a very gallant lifeboatman.


My second story is told by the daughter of a former Coastguard at Brook, who was, by a strange chance, the witness, or rather the frightened hearer, of a pistol battle between preventive men and a band of Smugglers, near Clammerkin Bridge, when a girl of seven. I will give it in her own words “I shall never forget that night. My father was acting as a servant to the chief preventive officer in the Island, Lieut. Gould, who resided at Brook. He used to make tours of inspection of the Island stations in a pony cart, and on this particular occasion he was returning from Newtown, through the woods, at dusk. He was driving, my father was sitting by his side, and I was wrapped in a rug in the back of the pony cart. They had taken me out for a ride which I greatly enjoyed until the exciting incidents I am about to relate occurred. Soon after leaving Newtown the Lieutenant saw a figure in merge from the trees at the roadside, and by the light of the carriage lamps immediately recognised him as a notorious Freshwater Smuggler. His character was such that the Lieutenant immediately drew his pistol, fearing an attack, but the smuggler shouted ‘Put it away, sir. I want to tell you something’. The man approached the trap and told the preventive officer something in whispers, which I afterwards gathered was that other men engaged in smuggling had treated him badly, and he, out of revenge, told the officer that at a certain time that night they were coming to remove 50 tubs of smuggled liquor which had been hidden in the creek below Clammerkin Bridge. The officer immediately sent my father back to Newtown to summon the other preventive men, whilst he and the smuggler carried on a whispered conversation. After a time a number of coastguards, armed with pistols, arrived from Newtown, and the party proceeded towards Clammerkin Bridge. Sure enough a band of eight or nine Smugglers soon appeared with a wagon, and, led by the Lieutenant, the preventive men rushed to capture them. Some were armed, and a regular pistol battle ensued for a few moments, but I do not know whether there were any casualties, as I was cringing in the back of the trap, with the rug over my head, frightened to almost death by the din. However, I remember that several Smugglers were caught and taken away by the preventive men, and that the Lieutenant ordered others of his party to keep guard over the tubs until they could be removed the next day. We then commenced our return to Brook, and I remember how I thought, as we rumbled along through the darkness, what brave men my father and the officer were.”


This triple heading indicates three of the chief incidents in the following stories of the West Wight smugglers polled by an esteemed resident of that district referred to above, whose genial, peaceloving life in later times makes it hard to realise that he was captured as a smuggler when working a cargo with his father some 65 years ago. Firstly let me give a view of his reminiscences of his father. He was a qualified pilot, working the Needles Channel, but lost his certificate as a result of a mysterious landing of smuggled liquor. Although this incident placed him under constant suspicion, he managed to make a living, and a good one at that for many years afterwards, chiefly by smuggling. He was a Confederate of the Brighstone smuggler referred to in my opening story, and an equally fearless and resourceful man. In a 20ft. wherry he and three other West Wight stalwarts made several trips across the Channel from Yarmouth to Barfleur, rowing the 75 miles across in a night and a day taking in a cargo of brandy and rowing back as soon as it was shipped. No better evidence than this feat is required to prove the metal of these old-time Island sea-dogs, but in his case pluck and endurance are even more clearly shown by the following incident. On one occasion when he and the others were hauling tubs of smuggled liquor up the cliffs at Watcombe Bay, the party was surprised by coastguards. The smugglers took to their heels as the coastguards opened fire. The hero of this story received a bullet in his thigh, but this did not stop him until he reached the shelter of Wilmingham Copse, where he bound up the wound and waited until nightfall before venturing home.

On reaching his abode he dare not call in a medical man, so he hacked out a bullet with his penknife! Later, business having prospered, he became the owner of a 30-ton cutter, in which he carried on the “trade” for some years, until eventually he was caught and his smuggling career abruptly closed. It was the trip which ended so unluckily for him in which my informant took a somewhat unwilling part, and I will give the story of it as he told it. “I was about 16 at the time and getting a pretty handy chap on a boat. Father said to me one morning that he wanted me to go with him to Redbridge, Southampton, to pick up a load of 15 tonnes of gravel. As we left Yarmouth he mentioned that he was taking a passenger in the galley, and I asked no questions. It was not wise for children to ask too many questions in those days, at least, not of men like my father, for an answer would often be either a weighty blow or threats of something worse. Well, we soon ran up to Redbridge and took in the gravel, which I might have noticed was only about half a cargo to serve as ballast, but I did not. The passenger showed himself during the return trip down the Solent, and I recognised him as a Freshwater man whom I had often seen in my father's company. However, I was still unsuspicious until I could see the lights of Yarmouth Harbour. I waited in vain for the starboarding of the helm to take us towards the harbour lights, and eventually I ventured a question as to what the game was. With a grunt I was told we were going to France, and this was accompanied by a warning to hold on, as we were approaching the Needles bridge reef and there was a nasty sea on. I did not profit by the warning, for a few minutes later we shipped a big one, and I was washed aft to where my father was standing at the tiller. He rewarded me with a lusty kick, ’just to teach me to keep my feet another time’, as he put it, so I did as I was told for the remainder of the ill-starred trip.

As dawn was breaking the next morning we ran into Barfleur Harbour, and were soon busy loading tubs of brandy. The fumes of the stuff made me intoxicated, but my father repeatedly sobered me in his very practical way, and in an hour or so we had commenced on the return trip across the Channel. Each of the tubs we carried contained raw spirit which would make 3½ times its measure of liquor when diluted, and I afterwards learned that had we safely delivered the goods my father would have received £200 has his share of the spoil from the passenger, who was really the dealer. However, he was not destined to reap the reward. We ran in through the Needles at dusk, and hove to off Colwell Bay. The dealer and I were given the task of rowing ashore with a long string of tubs on a trailing line behind the boat. Before we started the dealer received a signal from his friends assure that everything was quiet, but although they had evidently contrived to get the local coastguards conveniently out of the way, they were unaware that to preventive men from Cowes were on the watch, the result was that as soon as our boat at the beach, somewhere opposite Brambles Chine, we were pounced on by the two preventive men. We scrambled clear and made a wild dash along the beach in the direction of Totland Bay, and were outdistancing our pursuers when a bullet whistled past my ear, causing me to stumble and sprained my ankle. The dealer ran on and apparently escaped the bullets which were sent after him, but I was helpless and I was quickly hauled back to the boat, which, unfortunately had to my father's cutter’s name painted on the stern. I sat in the boat, a very sad young man, while one of my captors stood over me with his pistol, threatening to shoot me if I moved. His comrade hauled in the long line of tubs, and then they took me to Cliff-end Fort, where they gave me in charge of the soldiers for safekeeping during the night whilst they roused the local coastguards to secure the haul of smuggled liquor. The next day my father was arrested on his vessel of Yarmouth. The result was that his vessel, and the gear were confiscated and we were fined £100. This represented a loss of about £500 to him, but they few months later he bought a fishing smack, with which he carried on legitimate trading. That ended our smuggling adventures, at any rate as principals, but it was not the last time I had dealings with contraband. A few years later I was engaged to row off to a vessel in Yarmouth Roads with food. She had run short of rations whilst becalmed in the Channel, and the skipper, quickly recognising a kindred spirit after a short conversation, confided to me that the ship was packed to the deck with tobacco, to be put on shore near Lymington that night. He offered me good pay to help unload; I accepted, and I had no necessity to buy tobacco for months.” [The informant in this case is believed to be Henry John Brown, who was convicted under similar circumstances to those described in December 1867. He was convicted in the Penalty of £100 and costs of 30/- and in default of payment to be committed to Winchester Gaol. After an agreement between the Prosecution and Defence his father agreed to plead guilty and was fined the same amount, and the conviction against the son was ‘not enforced’. The Penalty was immediately paid, and both were released.]

It is almost unnecessary to add that the illicit landing of excisable goods could not have been carried on to the extent it was in those days without the connivance and tacit support of many who are not actually engaged in the traffic. There were many farmers and other residents with handy hiding-places on their property, who refused to know anything of certain strange men who were busy in their barns and outhouses at night, either secreting or distributing smuggled goods which had been hidden there. These people, so it is said, always knew where to find a cask for their own consumption, and their tobacco pouches were never empty. Arrangements with the coastguards were also not unheard of. For instance, in 1834, according to Mrs Speed of Yarmouth, who wrote an article on smuggling in a magazine some years ago, the Lieutenant in charge and all the coastguards at Freshwater Bay were brought before a Naval on charges of complicity with the smugglers. The evidence against them was that they had been seen drinking with notorious smugglers, and it was alleged that the coastguards received £10 for every hundred tubs safely landed. It was further alleged that on a Sunday morning under the very noses of the coastguards, between 50 and 60 men were engaged in carrying a cargo of tubs from Freshwater Bay to a place in the Norton district. The procession, each man with a tub on his shoulder, was said to have actually passed through the churchyard of All Saints’, Freshwater, whilst the Sunday morning service was in progress. The court of inquiry reprimanded the coastguards and ordered their immediate transfer to another district. [This relates to a Court of Inquiry against Lieutenant Dornford and the Freshwater Bay Coast Guard held in early 1836 at Yarmouth, they were acquitted, but as was the practice in such circumstances, removed to other stations, Lieutenant Dornford moving to Ramsgate.]

One of the most amusing stories I have heard in relation to local smuggling is that concerning a well-known Island policeman of those days, an Irishman who passed away a year or two ago at Cowes. He captured three smugglers somewhere in the Freshwater district, and on the Saturday when they were bought before the magistrates at Newport, the defending solicitor asked the policeman how he managed single-handed to capture three men. In his rich brogue the policeman replied ”Oh! Shure, and I surrounded them sor.”

Attributed to W.C.S.

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1 May 2010