Smuggling in Jane Austen’s Time

The real cause of the present high price of provisions, or, a view on the sea coast of England, with French agents, smuggling away supplies for France by James Gillray

Smuggling could be the effort of individuals seizing an opportunity, or a professional, large-scale planned venture. The majority of fines and penalties were, unfortunately and perhaps unfairly, paid by the opportunists, who could come from any class-a desperate individual, a shop keeper willing to become part of a distribution chain, or a fashionable lady unable to resist the lure of hard-to-find fabrics or trimming. Professionals frequently had the backing of well-heeled sponsors and could afford to consider fines the cost of doing business. A new ship could be purchased after a few successful runs.

Smugglers brought in goods subject to tariffs and taxes-silk, lace, brandy, etc.-for sale. Import restrictions and blockades made certain goods hard to come by, and taxation was heavy on those goods that were available legally. Individuals in all classes would take advantage of a consignment filled by smugglers to avoid paying these heavy duties. Once a cargo was landed, it was brought overland in well-planned routes that made it almost impossible to know if an item was smuggled or legitimately obtained by the time it reached a market place.

All coastal areas were affected by smuggling, including the Scilly Isles, Kent (especially Romney Marsh), Cornwall, Sussex, and Whitby in Yorkshire. Some communities along the coast were in league with smugglers, with an entire community potentially dependent on smuggling, first to obtain goods not otherwise available to them, and then as participants in the landing, concealing and moving the goods. Foreign smugglers also contributed, such as the Dutch smugglers who brought gin and other goods into Whitby. Ultimately, smuggling was virtually a national industry, and involved numerous gangs, moving alcohol (gin, wine and brandy, among other beverages), tea, silk, lace, tobacco and other popular items. It is not impossible that the shops frequented by Jane Austen in London may have carried smuggled goods.

Smuggling went both ways during Napoleonic wars with refugees, goods and information moving into England, while escaped prisoners, money and information moved into France. In the last years of the war, Napoleon accommodated smugglers in Dunkirk and Gravelines, and encouraged them to make the trips back and forth. (Such a journey could be accomplished in 4 or 5 hours, weather and other conditions permitting.)

Politicians and the monarchy were acutely aware of a depleted treasury (war and the Prince Regent were both very costly), and worked hard to suppress smuggling. Taxes of course were no more popular in Jane Austen’s time than they are today. The wars drew away troops, leaving fewer available for the preventive service for much of the coast, although fears of a French invasion kept attention focused on the coastline, especially the south-east coast-it’s no coincidence that militia units were stationed in coastal areas such as Brighton (the possible deterrent to smugglers may have been as much a motive as a deterrent to invasion).

After Waterloo ended the war in 1815, there was an upsurge in smuggling due to men being released from military (especially from the navy) unable to find jobs. (A lack of excitement after wartime may have also been a factor.) However, it was reduced by the 1820’s due to activities of Customs, Preventives and Coast Guard. Smuggling methods had to adapt (contraband had to be concealed-hidden under a legitimate cargo or in clever hiding places). The Coast Blockade established on land on the east Kent coast 2 years after Waterloo consisted of land patrols that were an effective deterrent, in spite of clashes with smuggling gangs, and the temptations of bribery.

Sources include:

Adkins, Roy & Lesley. JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND. 2013: Viking, New York, NY.

Blue Anchor Corner. “A bullish attitude towards smuggling in the 18th century,” posted by Philip Atherton 12/11/2014. http://seasaltercross.com/2014/12/11/a-bullish-attitude-towards-smuggling-in-the-17th-and-18th-centuries

Border Force National Museum. Maritime Archives and Library Information Sheet 24. “History of Smuggling.” (PDF) Last revised May 2010. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/pdf/24-History-of-smuggling.pdf

English Historical Fiction Authors Blog. “The Lesser Known Smugglers of the North” by Nick Smith, posted 9/17/2014. http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-lesser-known-smugglers-of-north.html

Regency Reflections. “Smuggling in Regency England,” posted by Naomi Rawlings, 4/23/2012. http://christianregency.com/blog/2012/04/23/smuggling-in-regency-england

Smugglers’ Britain. “Britain’s Smuggling History Expansion…and Defeat.” (No author or posting date shown.) http://www.smuggling.co.uk/history_expansion.html

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2 Comments

Filed under 17th century England, Georgian England, History, Jane Austen, Regency era, Smugglers

2 responses to “Smuggling in Jane Austen’s Time

  1. The Regency black-market–great post!

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