For nearly 150 years during the 18th century and the early 19th century, smuggling was an important element of the local economy along the south coast of England with all classes of society involved and the New Forest was no exception. Smuggling (or Free Trading as it was known) was a natural and inevitable result of punitive taxation that had been imposed by a succession of British governments, each more desperate than the last to pay for costly wars in Europe. This heavy burden of taxation was unpopular with most of society and widely resented by a rural population often close to starvation. As a consequence, this illegal trade along the English coast grew at a prodigious rate. In particular, according to some contemporary estimates, 80% of all tea drunk in England had no duty paid on it – hardly surprising when in 1742 the price of a pound of China tea with duty paid was £1.60!
In his definitive work of 1863, “The New Forest – its Scenery and History”, J R Wise wrote “In the New Forest itself, till the last thirty years, smuggling was a recognised calling. Lawlessness was the rule during the last century. Warner says that he had then seen twenty or thirty waggons laden with kegs, guarded by two or three hundred horsemen, each bearing two or three tubs, coming over Hengistbury Head, making their way, in the open day, past Christchurch to the Forest. At Lymington, a troop of bandits took possession of the well-known Ambrose Cave, on the borders of the Forest, and carried on, not only smuggling, but wholesale burglary“. According to local folklore, a cave near Lymington known as Ambrose Hole was used as a storage depot by a violent gang of thugs who dabbled in smuggling, but were best known for brutality and murder. Apparently, the bodies of their victims were thrown down a nearby well.
The universal involvement in the ‘free-trade’ by members of society, made it difficult to identify the smuggler as there was generally a well organised structure involved. Firstly, there was the “Venturer” who was generally a wealthy individual and landowner with the ability to provide a sum of cash to fund the cargo of contraband. Secondly, there was the “Captain” of a fast armed boat capable of outrunning and fending off the Revenue cutters. He received cash from the Venturer in agreement for a cargo to be purchased in France, whose authorities actively encouraged the trade. If the cargo was intercepted on its way back to the south coast, the Venturer lost his money but such were the potential returns, it was a risk worth taking. When the contraband was put ashore, it became the responsibility of the “Lander” and his team, most of whom came from the ranks of local craftsmen, foresters, gamekeepers or farm workers who could earn more from a night’s smuggling activities than they would receive for their week’s work. In the mid 1700s wages were very low for the majority of the local population – by way of example, farm labourers earned around 10p a day. As a consequence the “free traders” were never short of assistance.
The contraband generally included brandy, tobacco, tea and lace which were subject to the highest taxes. The Lander’s role was to move this cargo safely away from the shore and inland to various clients or safe hiding places as quickly as possible without attracting the attention of the Revenue men. The many secluded coves along the Hampshire/Dorset coast provided ideal landing points and the maze of criss crossing tracks through the New Forest provided excellent cover to move the contraband safely. Pubs and churches were often used to hide it, with wagons and horses “borrowed” from local farmers to transport it as swiftly as possible. The hardy New Forest ponies also came in handy for this purpose. Most smuggled cargo got through safely as the Revenue men were often quite inept and sometimes corrupt. Large rewards were offered but seldom claimed despite the whole adult populations of towns and villages having full knowledge or some involvement in the trade.
Once safely hidden, records needed to be kept and as both the Captain and Lander together with their crews were mostly illiterate in those days, this duty fell to the “Clerk“. The Clerk generally came from the ranks of bank clerks, church clerks, wine merchants’ clerks or sometimes even school teachers. Their role was to keep records of all smuggling activities and sales. All of this activity was summed up well in verse by Rudyard Kipling:-
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!
In addition to the term Free Trader, another euphemism for smugglers was “Gentlemen of the Night”.
Along the coastline from Bourne Heath (uninhabited at the time but now better known as Bournemouth) to Southampton Water, the smugglers were spoilt for choice of landing spots which they continually varied to keep the Revenue men guessing. At this time the sheltered harbour Christchurch at the mouth of the Avon valley, was a favourite haunt for smugglers as was the nearby town of Lymington. Indeed, it is said that free trade resulted in the accumulation of considerable wealth for the latter and the building of many fine large houses in the town. There are unproven stories that under the High Street are smugglers’ tunnels which run from the old inns down to the Town Quay. During this “golden era” of smuggling Daniel Defoe wrote of Lymington that “its waterfront was teeming with smugglers and all sorts of desperadoes” and added “I do not find they have any foreign commerce, except it be what we call smuggling, and roguing, which I may say, is the reigning commerce of all this part of the English coast”.
Contraband was usually contained in “tubs”, small barrels which were concealed in false bottoms in the smugglers boats, which would be unloaded and carried ashore, or anchored offshore and bought in later. “Tubmen” guarded by “Batmen”, armed with cudgels and sometimes even with muskets, would make their way down to the beach to collect the tubs and carry them back to various hiding places frequented by smugglers or load them directly onto ponies and pack horses for transport inland as quickly as possible. The tubs were then distributed and hidden in recesses in walls, chimneys, holes in floors and other hidey-holes.
Against this background of sheltered coves and smuggler friendly harbours backing onto a vast area of woodland and heath, it is hardly surprising that the New Forest became a smugglers’ haven. Indeed, at this time, the Forest wilderness was a lawless area that few outsiders, including officers of the Crown, would venture into for fear of their safety. Once under cover of the Forest, the smugglers knew that they and their contraband were safe. There was much at stake for the smugglers who armed themselves with pistols and swords and they were not afraid to confront anyone who stood in their way with violence. By way of example, the London Magazine & Monthly Chronologer reported in 1743 that, “a body of 60 smugglers went to Chewton Bunny (Highcliffe) between Lymington and Christchurch where a great quantity of tea was delivered to them out of a cutter and when the yacht that cruises the Sussex coast to prevent smuggling endeavoured to detect them, a large three mast vessel fired on her, and made her desist after which the smugglers carried off their goods on 39 horses“.
The Beaulieu River with its difficult entrance that deterred the Revenue men also provided an ideal smugglers route into the heart of the Forest and beyond. Bucklers Hard was the HQ for operations in this area. One of its cottages (now the Chapel) was where the local free traders’ accounts were kept and future ventures planned. It is also rumoured that the cellars of the ruined Abbey at nearby Beaulieu were used as storage for special consignments of Cognac. Not only did the smugglers use the former monks’ cellars but the old pilgrims’ road to Beaulieu Abbey served as a useful route through the Forest to distribute contraband, passing through Pilley, Boldre, Sway and Burley on the way to Ringwood and beyond.
Along this pilgrims’ way stood Boldre Church which was a well known store for any contraband goods coming from east to west and also from north to south. Situated close to the Lymington river, it was also easily reached a few miles upstream from Lymington. A little further along the pilgrims’ route, Sway was another notorious New Forest smuggling village and the large cellars of Sway House (now called Sway Court) were reputed to contain a tunnel leading down to the sea, four miles away.
Perhaps one of the best known smuggling villages in the Forest is Burley. At the time, Burley was a very close-knit community and a village which the Revenue men didn’t chose to enter if they could avoid it. The local villagers were able to raise an armed mounted troop of men at short notice who were quite capable of seeing off the King’s officers. At the heart of the village was the Queens Head Inn and during the latter part of the 20th century a secret smugglers’ room was discovered in part of the old cellars when alterations were being undertaken. The room contained many items of the period including pistols cutlasses, brandy bottles and coins plus several straw hats from Italy!
From the nearby hamlet of Knave’s Ash which lies to the west of Burley, runs an uphill track across the heath which originally led to the turnpike road (now the A31) at Picket Post and also to Ridley Wood just beyond. This track still exists today and is known as Smugglers Road. Knave’s Ash was at a congruence of a number of Forest tracks, all of which provided good routes for moving contraband up from the coast around the Christchurch/Mudeford area. Under cover of the beech trees in Ridley Wood a regular market was held which attracted buyers not only from within the Forest but also from Salisbury and Winchester. It is highly likely that the smugglers’ finer wares, such as silk, lace and embroideries, were sold there. Situated at one of the highest points in the Forest, lookouts would have had early sightings of any approaching unwanted attention.
Knave’s Ash was home to the Warnes, a well known smuggling family comprising Peter, John and their sister Lovey. One of the best known New Forest smuggling tales involves Lovey Warne who made regular trips to Mudeford and Christchurch on her pony for pre-arranged meetings with ships’ captains moored in the harbours. Once on a ship she would undress and proceed to wrap her body in fine silks and laces from around the world which had been secretly stored on board. Before dressing again she ensured that the fabrics closely followed the contours of her body in order not to arouse the suspicion of the local Revenue men as she walked back along the quay to her pony for the return journey. Once home, her contraband would take the short journey along Smugglers Road to the market in Ridley Wood.
Not far from Burley and just off the A35 between Wilverley and Mark Way inclosures is the “Naked Man”, once known as the Wilverley Oak. It is still shown on the OS map of the area but little of the tree remains today, although the oak stump is fenced off making the tree easier to find. Whether local folklore or just conjecture, this is where highwaymen and smugglers were reputed to have been hung. This historic landmark, is believed by some to be haunted by the ghost of a dead highwaymen who swung from its branches during the eighteenth century!
Perhaps the most infamous event in the history of smuggling in the New Forest area, was the raid by the Hawkhurst Gang on the Custom House in Poole in 1747. The Hawkhurst Gang were named after their home village on the Kent/Sussex border and had a reputation for being the most ruthless gang of smugglers along the south coast. It is said that they were capable of raising an armed band of 600 men at short notice. In September 1747 they were waiting along the Sussex shore for the arrival of a cutter and her large cargo of brandy, tea and rum from Guernsey. However, the vessel was intercepted off the Dorset coast by a Custom’s cutter and after a chase lasting around seven hours the captain surrendered and the vessel with its illegal contents was escorted into Poole, where the contraband was stored in the town’s Custom House.
When the gang got to hear of their cargo’s fate they assembled a heavily armed raiding party of sixty men together with pack horses and made their way across country for Poole to recover their goods. Along their route they passed through Lyndhurst, Minstead and stopped at the Royal Oak in the remote hamlet of Fritham where they ate and rested their horses. The Royal Oak was a well known haunt for smugglers and its landlord, John Parnell, was known to them. From Fritham they rode on through Amberwood Inclosure and on to Fordingbridge where they crossed the Avon for the ride down to Poole. When they arrived there they found the Custom House deserted so they were able to break in, load up their pack horses with the ship’s cargo and make off without encountering any opposition.
Riding through the night, their return journey took them back through Fordingbridge where they stopped for breakfast at the George Inn. By the time they were ready to depart a large cheering crowd had gathered. As they rode off, one of their party who went by the name of “Jack of Diamonds”, tossed a bag of tea to an old acquaintance he had spotted in the crowd in the crowd, a cobbler called Chater. This act of generosity would later prove to be the undoing of the gang. Several weeks later Chater decided to turn King’s evidence in return for a large reward. As a consequence, the Collector of Customs sent an elderly officer by the name of Galley to escort Chater to Sussex for the trial of Diamond who had been arrested on his evidence.
They broke their journey with an overnight stop at the White Hart in Rowland’s Castle near the Sussex border where, unbeknown to them, the landlady had two sons who were smugglers. Suspicious of her overnight guests, she plied them with drink until they divulged the purpose of their journey and were put to bed in an incapable state. By the time they awoke the next morning, members of the Hawhurst Gang were waiting. They captured Galley and Chater and rode off with them tied to a horse. There then followed a chain of events during which both men were tortured and mutilated before Galley was buried while still alive and Chater was thrown down a well and covered in stones. Even smugglers’ supporters were appalled by these gruesome murders and eventually the authorities caught up with those responsible who were tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death. This effectively put an end to the activities of the Hawkhurst Gang.
During the first half of the 19th century, the Coastguard Service was formed in 1831, becoming part of the Royal Navy and this together with a gradual relaxation in taxation on the smugglers’ favoured goods saw the eventual end of this golden era of smuggling over the next few decades. However, whilst goods taxes remain so will smugglers albeit not on the scale of the golden era!