smuggling started in the reign of Edward I, about 1300, when a customs duty
was placed on the export of wool, which was in great demand in Europe. This
was the first permanent customs system established in England, and until it was set up
all trade in and out of England was free.
The initial duties started quite small, but as the Hundred Years War progressed,
so the tax went up, to help pay for the troops and fighting.
Initially the Customs Service was only there to collect the duties at the ports, and not to
prevent smuggling. Chichester was the only port in Sussex where importing and exporting
goods was allowed. However the merchants of our area found it easier to land the
goods in the local Cinque Ports where there were few Customs Officials.
In 1357 a court was held in Rye to try a number of merchants who were smuggling
goods through the port of Pevensey.
In 1614, the export of any wool was made illegal, and so the volumes being exported
increased the smuggling of wool was known as Owling (After the owl like noises
made by the smugglers to communicate with each other). As time went on and
the smuggling became more profitable, so the smugglers were able to bribe more of
the port officials, which in turn allowed more smuggling.
In 1661 the illegal exporting of wool was made punishable by the death sentence, this meant
that the smugglers started to arm themselves, and the only way they could be stopped
was by the army.
Before 1671 the collection of Customs Duties was generally let out to private individuals.
During 1671 Charles II created the the Board of Customs.
The Romney Marshes became the centre of smuggling and the records show that in the 1670's
20,000 packs of wool were sent to Calais annually. The smugglers were now building fast
and armed ships to carry out their nocturnal runs.
During the 1680's the Revenue Officers were provided with Customs sloops to enable them to
patrol the coasts, and catch the smugglers.
In 1698 the government decided to take action. An Act was passed stopping people within 15 miles
of the sea from buying any wool, unless they guaranteed that they wouldn't sell it to anyone
within 15 miles of the sea. Also any farmers within 10 miles of the sea had to account for
their fleeces within 3 days of shearing. A further change was the introduction of a number of
officials who were paid to prevent smuggling. The initial effect of these officers was to limit
the smuggling of wool which they had sent into serious decline by 1703, but the officials became
corrupt, and smuggling returned.
In 1714, the local records show that the majority of the population within the area was
involved with smuggling. The main wool smugglers ( owlers ) from 1710 in the area were
the Mayfield Gang , but they were stopped by their leader being arrested in 1721. By 1724,
the number of wool smuggling runs was reducing , as the French could get wool from Ireland
for about the same price, but with less problems.
The 1730's brought the major smugglers into the area , 1733 the Groombridge Gang started
smuggling tea and brandy through the Ashdown Forest .
Between 1735 and 1749 the area was terrorised by the Hawkhurst Gang , who controlled the
smuggling in a large part of the south coast. Originally known as the Holkhourst Genge,
they were based in the Oak and Ivy Inn in the village of Hawkhurst on the Kent border.
They roamed from Herne Bay to Poole in Dorset, but they frequented the Mermaid Inn in Rye,
where they "would sit and drink with loaded pistols on the table". A further
reference to the gang was in 1740, at Silver Hill in Robertsbridge where Thomas Carswell
(a customs officer) was shot and killed while trying to apprehend some of the smugglers.
One of the guilty smugglers George Chapman was gibbetted on the Village Green in the village
of Hurst Green .
In 1784 the duty on tea and French wines was reduced by the government, removing the
incentive to smuggle these items, but those for spirits and tobacco still remained.
The Napoleonic Wars 1797 - 1815 saw a number of increases in duty to try to pay for the War,
but this along with the decline in the local iron industry provided more reasons and better
incentives to smuggle.
The Aldington Gang probably formed by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars survived
until 1827 when their leaders were found guilty and transported.
In 1831 the Coastguard took over the coastal policing, and from 1832-33 a number of violent
events occured, culminating with a fight at Pevensey in 1833, which seemed to be the end of
the smuggling in this area.
Rudyard Kipling from Burwash wrote a poem about the smugglers
The smugglers Song
You wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen
Trotting through the dark - Brandy for the
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the
Gentlemen go by!
round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of
Don't you shout to come and look, nor take 'em
for your play;
Put the brushwood back again, - and they'll be
gone next day!
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm - don't you ask no
you meet King
George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is
If they call you 'pretty maid,' and chuck you 'neath
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no
and footsteps round the house - whistles after
You've no call for running out till the
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how
dumb they lie -
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go
you do as you've been told, likely there's a
You'll be give a dainty doll, all the way from
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood -
A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall, my darling, while the
Gentlemen go by!