I’m delighted to welcome Helen Hollick to the blog today to tell us a little about her new book. Helen is a great champion of historical fiction, and now has turned her researcher’s eye to bring us two great non-fiction books – one on Pirates, and the latest on Smugglers. Over to Helen!
THE FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT SMUGGLERS by Helen Hollick
What comes to mind when you think of an eighteenth or nineteenth century smuggler? A Ross Poldark-type figure, dashing and handsome, carrying a keg of brandy on his muscled shoulder across a wide, secluded beach, or storing contraband in a secret cache beneath the floor of the parlour? Or do you think of gangs of rough, tough, men hauling barrels of contraband ashore, and eager for a fight with the Customs and Excise if they dared to intervene?
Depending on where the smugglers operated would depend on which one of the above is more accurate. The quiet coves of Cornwall and Devon did indeed have a more laid-back approach to smuggling: probably the most well-known smugglers’ inn, Jamaica Inn, is on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall – made famous by Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name. But for Kent, Sussex and Dorset, smuggling was Big Business and gangs, sometimes of more than 100 men, were responsible for ensuring the illicit cargo was brought safely ashore – and woe betide anyone who stepped in their way!
We only know about the smugglers who got caught, the ones who were tried and sentenced to either hang or to transportation – to the American Colonies as indentured slaves until Australia was discovered. Except, prior to the early 1800s many a smuggler who was caught was released to smuggle again another day. Several escaped prison, most were ‘let off’ … why? Because the constables and magistrates relied on the smuggled goods, the cheap brandy and tobacco!
Other commodities were also highly taxed so were enthusiastically smuggled (for a profit, of course). Lace, wool, tin, salt, leather, spices, tea… when the tax was eventually dropped on tea the smuggling of it ceased almost overnight.
There were several pre-arranged cunning ways to alert an incoming boat that the ‘coast was clear’. (Yes, the saying comes from smuggling!) A lamp glowing in a seaward-facing window, cows grazing in a certain field, laundry spread to dry on bushes, a small boat up-turned on a beach. And if the Excise men were spotted? Quick! Hide the goods – and the quickest, easiest way to do so was to drop the cargo overboard then come back to collect it later. ‘Sowing the crop’ as it was called.
There was one gang who outsmarted the Revenue by sailing their boat through shallow water over some shoals, their boat being not as large as that of the King’s Men. As the smugglers sailed cheekily away one of the crew dropped his breeches and exposed his bare backside to the pursuers who were stuck fast.
Adds a whole new meaning to ‘moonlighting’ doesn’t it?
© Helen Hollick
Read more about the fascinating exploits of smugglers in Helen’s new book:
Available from bookshops, online and Amazon mybook.to/Smugglers