Nostalgia: Smuggling in the Sid Vale in the 1800s

Caves at Ladram Bay.

Caves at Ladram Bay. - Credit: Archant

The swashbuckling image of smugglers playing cat and mouse with the authorities has more in common with Hollywood than with reality, write Sidmouth Museum’s Rab and Christine Barnard.

The illegal trade was strongly linked to the duties and taxes on imported goods. The Napoleonic wars provided another cause, making many items scarce and subsequently, extremely desirable. On top of this, living conditions in agricultural districts were very bad and over-priced food and shortages were common. A series of Acts of Parliament failed to stem the contraband tide.

Free-trading, as it was also known, took place throughout England, not just on the coast, and ran through all levels of society - the sheer variety of items smuggled was mind-boggling. If caught, the penalties were severe, impressment and transportation being just two of the likely outcomes. The forces of law and order didn’t have it easy either. In a period of poor communications, the policing of the coast and shipping lanes was a major headache.

In East Devon smuggling was common. Our coastline offered the perfect cover with its many coves and bays. Areas such as Salcombe Regis beach and Ladram Bay were favoured as they were hidden from the prying eyes of the law, who were stationed at Sidmouth and Exmouth. There are many reports of small boats landing goods at these spots.

A smuggling gang could be 70 - 100 men strong and could easily outnumber the small contingent of law enforcers. The officers often worked in small groups, or even initially on their own, with instructions to summon reinforcements if needed - leaving them vulnerable to attack, or worse.

The contraband cargo usually originated in France and was transported to our coast where it was off-loaded into smaller vessels for landing.

To get 100 kegs ashore and unloaded would require 50 men, each carrying two kegs holding four gallons each. Getting such a large number of men to the landing place without attracting attention was the greatest difficulty.

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The coastguard had a beat just like the police and the smugglers needed to evade detection, so they would usually travel separately. Once at the landing site, the boats would be called in using a number of different signals, sometimes a match struck and held in the hand or a coloured light waved from the land. Once ashore, the cargo was shouldered up the cliffs and passed to a small army of accomplices to dispose of it.

Inland, the rural nature of the county offered many routes for dispersal and isolated villages and farmsteads were popular staging posts for smugglers. Sidford, in particular, played an important part. Situated on roads leading to major towns and cities, it was well placed to funnel this traffic.

Whole communities were involved and family units could comprise generations of smugglers. In the Sid Valley, the names Bartlett, Northcote, Rattenbury, and Mutters occur frequently throughout the period and can be tracked around the area. Most of the local smuggling exploits revolved around tobacco and spirits. One of the earliest reports was a rarity - an occasion when murder was committed by smugglers, unusual because Devon smugglers were considered less violent than others.

Free-trading eventually declined in the late 1850s. However, in the local neighbourhood it was replaced by illegal stills. The product, known locally as ‘grammer’s pins’, was sold in cider and beer shops and was usually 15 per cent or so stronger than the regular spirit. No wonder the authorities clamped down on the process.

Further details and stories can be found in our booklet Brandy for the Parson, on sale in the museum shop and local bookshops.