Smuggling and North Devon
At the start of the eighteenth century Bideford was a booming and nationally eminent port. The trade with the colonies, Western Europe and more locally with South Wales and Ireland was thriving. However, as we may expect, there was a black underside to the ‘Little White Town’ and the ‘ Golden Bay ‘ it superintended. There were those opportunists who exploited this and sought to maximise their own profits through evading customs duties: Smuggling.
On top of the usual problems of loosing evidence and records over several centuries as an illicit activity there is obviously not a plethora of factual evidence to provide neat and tidy stories and answers to the multitude of questions which smuggling triggers.- What was the extent and what was smuggled? What were their methods? Who were the smugglers and what was their nature: opportunists, self justified free traders or violent criminals?
As such it means that the start of investigations begins with preventative laws, seizures of smuggled goods (so failed attempts) or with the local romanticised legends or folk stories that the south west coast is famous for accompanying those of piracy and wrecking.
This further raises the fact that smugglers have long been prone to the ‘Robin Hood effect’; seen as “the only honest thief…. …rob[bing] nothing but the revenue”(Lamb p.698). These images have often veiled the reality of smuggling to later generations but also provided both shields and justification to contemporaries. This defence was especially strong when import taxes were imposed by a faceless government in order to raise revenue for a series of unpopular wars. This in turn makes attempting to assess the true volume of smuggling and the number direct and indirect (those who bought the prohibited goods or aided the smugglers) participants practically impossible. Were we a “nation of smugglers”? (Gaydon p.65)
The most famous of the Bideford based smugglers. Despite his story displaying him as being selfish and ruthless his infamy stands as testament to how subsequent generations have regarded his daring and sheer audacity against the British government. Ironically it was the governmental laws and systems of patronage enabled his career as a merchant- privateer, which in turn facilitated his felonies. He was eventually exposed and his tale highlights key points and themes in smuggling and how his Bideford setting enabled it.
Thomas Benson inherited the large family fortune, estate (Knapp House, Northam) and business valued at an estimated £40 000 in 1743 aged 36. From this juncture his ambitious and daring personality led him to increase his wealth and influence to become Sheriff of Devon in 1746 and MP for Barnstaple in 1747, the same year he began a lease of Lundy.
The position of Lundy, made it ideal for his purposes, 13 miles of Hartland point, it was away from prying eyes, whilst still being conveniently located for the local and international trade that used the Bristol Channel . Benson unloaded many of the convicts he was supposed to be transporting to America on Lundy. At this point he then used them to hide his other smuggled goods, largely tobacco from the colonies.
His eventual downfall came after he ‘scuttled’ an old, barely seaworthy boat the Nightingale in order to gain the insurance for both the boat and the contents he had supposedly lost. In fact he had unloaded these on Lundy the day previously. Benson and his crew thought they had pulled off the ingenious scam, but instead they met their downfall after the inebriated boasting of one of the crew James Bather to one of Benson’s rivals Matthew Reeder.
This was the catalyst which served to expose a whole plethora of Benson’s crimes over the preceding two years, which included smuggling 99 000lb of British Colonial tobacco and a debt to the Crown of £8229. When Benson realised that he could not evade punishment he used his mercantile contacts and fled to Oporto in Portugal , then Viga in Spain where he comfortably lived out his life.
Of the others involved, only a few served gaol time and it was only Lancey received a sentence. This may seem more surprising given the number of witnesses bought into Lancey’s trial who were not part of the Nightingale Crew but who worked for Benson and give themselves away as being aware of what Benson was up to on Lundy. This may have been affected by the 1746 Indemnity Act which pardoned those who gave information which led to the capture of other smugglers. Further given the scandal caused- a corrupt Mp and County Sherrif acting in total disregard to the law it could well be that Lancey’s harsh punishment was indeed to be an example of him.
The Heyday of Smuggling
Who were the smugglers up against?
As we can see from Benson’s case smuggling was able to occur under the guise of legal trading in the eighteenth century. This was not necessarily on the scale of Benson, but Customs records are littered with small scale seizures as well as ‘mistakes’ and discrepancies in the ships papers, suggesting that low volume smuggling was indeed widespread and common. This was largely enabled through the inefficiency and potential corruption of Customs.
Firstly, customs were based in Bideford itself yet were required to monitor a huge estuarial and coastal area. In the eighteenth century the port of Bideford also superintended Appledore, so subsequently the entire estuary and all the small creeks and inlets (including several which ran to Benson’s property). On top of this the jurisdiction also stretched all the way out to Hartland, including the harbour of Clovelly and the multitude of secluded grey pebbled beaches, where one would assume a level of smuggling could have been sustained, untraced and unrecorded for years.
Secondly, Customs was made up from a hodge-podge of posts and often with inadequate personnel. [Unfortunately, Bideford’s customs records were lost in a fire in the nineteenth century, but in looking at our neighbours Barnstaple’s customs records we can gage what the situation would most likely have been like and often there is an overlap between the two ports, so we can find evidence related to the Port of Bideford within them.] Barnstaple ‘s Custom records clearly show that its staff were often not up to the task throughout the eighteenth century:
• In 1727 two tidewaiters in were ‘suspended for absence from the ship they were supposed to be watching. Went on Appledore Quay for a cupp of beer’.
• 1799- the acting collector called all officers to the custom house for a collective charge of neglect.
From these types of charges, which frequently crop up it is evident that even if the customs officers were not actively and deliberately aiding smugglers, through neglect they certainly passively helped the ‘free traders’. Moreover we see (and can often infer) from the customs records that the officers were not averse themselves to taking advantage of contraband and unaccustomed goods:
• In 1804 the Betsey was seized just off Appledore (it was hotly contested between Bideford and Barnstaple as to who had rights over it). On seizing the vessel the Barnstaple Collector and Controller ‘dealt out the wine and spirits as he chose’. The next day one of the officers, the tidewaiter Perryman had been found dead alongside the boat. Matthews then asserted that he had died by ‘falling overboard in a state on intoxication’ and further insisted that as only 2 out of 100 large casks and 16 out of 442 of the ‘small easily moveable casks’ were missing, that this was a small enough discrepancy to ‘prove no embezzlement’ on their behalf.
• However this case takes on a more sinister and puzzling turn as the Bideford Collector (who had also sought the prize) claimed that Perryman was found “floating dead with wound in neck and face and eyes much bruised” and further “a Boat came alongside the Prize and was laden with part of the cargo, which was carried into the port of Bideford…no doubt the officer….lost his life by not acceding to the measure”.
Quite what the real truth of this event was, we will probably never know but it does clearly illustrate a high level of ineffectiveness and fraud within the institution which was meant to prevent smuggling and clearly does not show them to be figures of respect within their communities.
However to explain the rise of the ‘heyday’ of smuggling and what propelled the more traditional image of the smuggler, he who worked by moonlight in deserted beaches, we need to look at national changes and how they manifested themselves in Bideford. Ultimately it boiled down to war.
War and smuggling had an antagonistic relationship. For the most part war was unpopular, damaging trade, draining resources and press gangs forcing men into service. Press gangs were particularly prominent in Bideford and the surrounding area due to the large number of seafaring men, one only needs to look at the Beaver Inn, Appledore which stands as testament. Trade and resources diminished increased demand for goods and the government raised customs and revenue taxes in order to fund increasingly expensive wars. This high taxation of course increased incentive (and the potential profits) to smuggle and also heightened resentment towards the increasingly centralised, bureaucratic government. This is particularly prevalent to Bideford who by the mid 17 th century had lost much of its input in the national government. This as a mercantile class were starting to supplant the traditional aristocracy and Bideford was had been losing its relative national importance as a centre of trade. On the flipside it was this very distance from authority which also helped to facilitate smuggling and the wars helped masked much smuggling and privateering.
The government of course tried to prevent smuggling as it obviously drained the government’s revenue and resources and we see more and more draconian measures and Acts passed during the eighteenth century. This included a Hovering Act in 1718 to deter small vessels from hovering near the coast, waiting to pick up contraband goods and Indemnity Acts in 1736 and 1746 which made smuggling a capital punishment, though pardoned those who provided further information on fellow smugglers. These proved to have limited success and instead began a vicious cycle: the stakes were raised, so the smugglers responded with more cunning, daring and violence. This cycle escalated, fuelled by other factors such as an increase in consumerism: those goods which had once been luxuries were now perceived as necessities, such as Tea.
For the government smuggling was not only an economic drain but also perceived as an attack against the government and the country itself, an internal war raging alongside those externally. This image of a fight against a monolithic government was only to become more potent as in the mid eighteenth century, outside of war time the government employed naval vessels to defend against smuggling. Furthermore was the introduction of Excise Officers, who were far more regulated and centrally controlled than the Customs officers and one can imagine the kind of reception a governmental stranger would have had in relatively small and close knit communities. They were more successful and on capturing a smuggling vessel it would then be taken as a revenue vessel or broken up, visualising the destruction of the smugglers’ trade. However, again these officers had huge distances to patrol, so despite an increased efficiency their total success was limited and a cat and mouse game ensued.
This whole situation was exacerbated during the American war of Independence . Economically, as the colonies were Britain ‘s biggest trading partner (indeed it had made Bideford’s fortune a century before) and consequently by the early 1780’s it was estimated that two thirds of the tea drunk in England was smuggled. Also it was ideologically damaging as the Colonies were fighting against their centralised control in Britain . This heightened fears of smuggling and caused the image of the smuggler to become more politicised, illustrated by Lord Pembroke in 1781, “Will Washington take America or the Smugglers England first?”. With this in mind it is not surprising that the next law against smuggling, ‘The Act of Oblivion’ in 1782 entailed that a smuggler could clear his name if he served in the Royal Navy.
Following defeat, defeat more preventative measures were taken and duties were slashed in 1784, most importantly on tea, from 119% to 12%. This was clever move as due to teas’ light bulky nature it was often used to hide other smuggled goods within the ballast or hold. Correspondingly, although it had been a small proportion of the seized goods, there are no more seizures of tea during the period in the North Devon Customs records after 1784, but this does not apply to other items.
By this point ‘smuggling has for some years been increasing…and carried on at present on the Coasts of Devon and Cornwall to such an alarming Extent and in such a systematic manner’. The evidence available corresponds with the imagery that the southwest remains famous for, utilising isolated areas, stealth and violence when necessary. The Customs records in 1804 give us a wealth of circumstances:
• In summer these goods were landed in summer along the coasts of north Cornwall and North West Devon whereas in winter, further east in safer water. Further, on landing these goods they are ‘conveyed into the interior, by Land, after night, on horses…in a body of 20 or 30, very strongly guarded’.
• Smugglers were using vessels, ‘being of the description of vessels employed in the limestone trade…[with]..limestones on deck’. -The bulky cargo was used to hide goods, whilst the chemical composition of limestone itself required to be unloaded by the limekilns which were numerous around Bideford and in isolated locations.
• There have been reports of ‘smugglers conveying Goods by Land after night, to cross the River in Various places with their Horses in low water to avoid entering town over the bridges
Running parallel to the legends of smuggling are those more sinisterly of wrecking. This is a grey area of smuggling as the goods had, ‘escaped the degradation of the gauger’s brand’. A good wreck season was seen much like a good mackerel season, God given ‘to alleviate the harsh and meagre existence of the dwellers along the coast’. If there were no survivors it was believed that the cargo was no one’s property and eerily a local superstition was that ‘a life saved from the sea brought no one any luck’ (Smith p. 65) Recorded events and acts do indeed imply a malevolent picture and not necessarily just cases of salvage:
• In January of 1737 the ‘ Golden Mary of Bristol , stranded at Saunton Sands and all men lost’. Some of the cargo was salvaged by the Customs but over the next five months there are reports of Customs finding and confiscating more of these goods in the hands of local merchants.
• In February 1802 the Hope of Penryn, laden with Portuguese oranges, had become a total wreck ‘every person on board perished’ leaving goods to be salvaged. The officers concerned only reported the incident several hours after it had happened by which time much of the cargo had been stolen. More sinisterly, the reports add that with help, rather than the immediate plunder of the vessel, ‘she could have been put ashore inside the bar and probably saved’
• An Act of 1753 made it a non clergyable felony to kill or impede anyone trying to escape a wreck and a capital offence to put a light on rocks and draw a ship to danger.
The proliferation of smuggling did indeed decrease, especially after the Napoleonic Wars, and increase in prevention and decrease in taxation. However the romantic idea of the smuggler has indeed lived on in and around Bideford, as elsewhere in the Southwest by still having a hold over peoples’ imaginations. This is perhaps hardly surprising given both the strong sense of local identity still present and the physical setting. The beautiful awe inspiring coast that surround Bideford and the area under its jurisdiction: the isolated coves and creeks and the majestic, yet threatening cliffs and reefs.
The locally infamous, eccentric Reverand Hawker claimed that on arrival to Morwenstow in 1834 he found a small, poor congregation, ‘whose wretched condition pained him’. They lived alongside ‘the remnants of smuggling days…the love for it still smouldered in their veins’. Further it was claimed the vicarage, which was nearly in ruins was being used as a store for smuggled goods. The extent of truth here is debateable but it is an image which has been handed down. Most notably as Hawker published ‘The Ballad of Cruel Coppinger’, a dastardly smuggler who formed an ‘organised band of desperadoes, smugglers, wreckers and poachers’ after being washed up at Masland Mouth. The common view is that this is an elaborated tale based on an amalgamation of D.H Coppinger who was washed up in Welcombe 23 rd December 1792 and perhaps the mid eighteenth century merchant John Coppinger.
As long as there are restrictions people will smuggle; be it bringing home an extra packet of cigarettes from holiday or a much bigger illicit operation. We cannot generalise or bracket together all smugglers, but certainly in the idea of ‘the honest thief’ is in no danger of dying out, holding particular resonance in this difficult economic time.
Barnstaple Customs Records
The Trial of John Lancy in ‘ Select Trials in the Sessions- House at the Old Bailey’, Vol III ( London 1764) Eighteenth Century Collections Online , pp. 29-48.
Anon, ‘Journal of the time I spent on the Island of Lundy in the years 1752 and 1787′, North Devon Magazine (1824)
Brewer. J, The Sinews of Power (Unwin Hyman: London 1989)
Drake. D, ‘Members of Parliament for Barnstaple 1689-1832′, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 73, p. 185Fielder Duncan , A History of Bideford (Philimore & Co Ltd.: Chichester 1985)
Gaydon. T, ‘North Devon Smugglers’ in The North Devon Magazine (Masland Printers:Tiverton 1989), pp.65-67.
Hawker. Rev. R.J, ‘Cruel Coppinger’ in Complete Prose Works of Rev R.W. Hawker (1893), pp. 95-107.
Lamb, Charles, ‘Old Margate Hoy’, in The Last Essays of Elia. from Hutchinson . T (ed.), The Works of Charles Lamb (Oxford University Press: Oxford 1924), pp. 692-99.
Smith. G, Shipwrecks of the Bristol Channel (Countryside Books: Newbury 1991)
Tenstrom. M, ‘The Ownership of Lundy by Sir Richard Grenville and his Descendants, 1577-1775′, Transactions of the Devonshire Association , 130 (1998), pp.65-80.
Thomas. S, The Nightingale Scandal: The Story of Thomas Benson and Lundy (Myrtle Tenstrom: Cheltenham 2001)
© Rowen McKenzie
Photos curtseyof North Devon Maritime Museum