Smuggling in Rye and on Romney Marsh
A Brief History of Local ‘Free Trade’

by Daphne Message

Smuggling is known to have existed in the Rye area since the 13th Century, when Edward I introduced the Customs system.The earliest references to smuggling are a warrant in 1301 to search for wool, hides, bales and all other merchandise and persons attempting to export money or silver.

In 1357 an Admiralty inquest was held at Rye before the deputy Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to collect evidence against Simon Portier and several other men for exporting uncustomed wool from the port of Pevensey.

From the late 1550’s smuggling became much more worthwhile with the introduction of a revised customs tariff and a new series of impositions. Further restrictions on trade, by Customs and also Excise Duties, introduced in the 17th century, made many common utilities such as candles and beer very expensive.

By the end of the 17th century social conditions encouraged the expansion of smuggling into a widespread occupation affecting many of the residents of Kent and Sussex. Living conditions became harder, unemployment increased and smuggling offered an alternative to poverty.

Many smugglers wore a bee-skep, in which eye and mouth-holes had been cut. Such a disguise was an offence, so much so that anyone having his face blackened, masked or otherwise disguised when smuggling contraband goods could be adjudged of felony and sentenced to death.

Restrictions on the export of English wool, first in 1614 and subsequently increased by the late 17th century, imposed to protect the cloth industry had made wool smuggling into a major trade. This was known locally as the ’Owling’ trade. The coastal areas around Rye where the wool was produced were so near to France that even the threat of death was no great deterrent.

The Owling trade expanded into the import of luxury goods from the Continent. Silks, tea, tobacco and brandy were profitable items to bring in to evade the heavy duties imposed by the Government.

Smugglers became large, highly organised and heavily armed groups, based either in convenient landing places on the coast, like Rye, Hastings, Pevensey and Bexhill or strategically placed villages on the roads to London and the interior, like Brede and Bamber. Long before the end of the 17th century import smuggling was so great that the Government was in danger of losing control of the situation. And the most notorious smuggling area of the 18th century was the East Kent coast and in particular Romney Marsh.

By 1700 Riding Officers were appointed, stationed along the coast to control the illegal export of wool. An officer had to provide his own horse to patrol an area of coast at night. He was paid £25 a year plus an allowance for his horse. His job was to listen to rumours, keep a low profile and write a daily record of all he saw. It was not a popular service but continued until after 1850.

Other ‘preventive’ services trying to outwit the smugglers were Customs House Officers, responsible for legal trade, and Excise Officers, whose duty was to collect taxes on manufactured goods later extended to various other imported goods.  Each port had a Customs House Collector supported by other officers ranging from his deputy down to boatmen. In 1822 there were 28 such officers in Rye alone, which gives an idea of the scale of the smuggling enterprise.

Boatbuilders of Rye were especially adept at devising secret compartments to outwit Custom officers when they rummaged cargo.

In addition to the land based officers there was a small fleet of Revenue vessels, cutters and luggers, used to patrol the sea. They were too few to be really effective against larger smuggling boats.

From the 18th century to the early 19th century there were many smugglers in the Rye area. The most notorious and formidable gang was the Hawkhurst Gang. They used the Mermaid Inn, Mermaid Street, Rye as one of their bases terrorising the area of Kent and Sussex and no one dared to interfere with their activities. Its members did not hesitate to torture or murder anyone who opposed their operations.

Rudyard Kipling ‘s Smugglers’ Song begins:

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five-and-twenty ponies, trotting through the dark
Brandy for the Parson, Baccy for the Clerk,
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

The gang was finally defeated in 1747 by the Goudhurst Militia and its members executed in 1749. Rye smugglers were very successful in evading the law since there is little evidence of their being brought to trial. However the Ypres Tower, Rye, used as a prison, is known to have housed smugglers.

A smuggler’s Signaling Lamp (on display in the museum) was found in a hidden room at Iden.The light container was held in the crook of the left arm while the right hand, placed over the end of the light-emitting ’spout’, signaled the message. The single candle’s light inside the lantern could be seen as a pinpoint of light well out to sea.

In 1821 the National Coastguard Service was introduced. This evolved into a disciplined and uniformed body, with shore based patrols, a rowing guard offshore and men on the Revenue cutters patrolling the sea. Coastguard cottages were built at regular points round the coast to house the officers. In the war against smuggling the initiative had passed from the smuggler.

The most important factor in the suppression of smuggling was the enormous reduction and abolition of most of the duties as part of the policy of Free Trade in the first half of the 19th Century. With the wholesale reform of the Customs service in 1853, which ensured a loyal and efficient force, the picture is completed. Smuggling, thereafter, was relatively unimportant. The Coastguards remained, but their work became more of a sea rescue and life saving service.

Close Menu