Smugglers: brutal thugs or jolly free traders?

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For much of the 18th and early 19th century, Britain’s coasts were the setting for a vast smuggling industry. In some areas huge gangs of men regularly unloaded contraband in full view of the outnumbered and outgunned customs authorities. Whole communities shared in the risks and profits of these illegal free trade enterprises.

The traditional story-book image of smugglers is of generous, jolly, harmless chums who just enjoyed a drop of untaxed brandy and used peaceful persuasion to get the co-operation they needed. But just how accurate is this cosy stereotype? Were real-life smugglers actually more like today’s Mafia or Triads?

In an illustrated talk at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall at 6.30pm on January 28th, Richard Platt will compare the grim facts with the romantic legend.

Richard is the author of two books on this topic Smuggling in the British Isles and The Ordnance Survey Guide to Smugglers’ Britain.

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Heckstall-Smith and du Boulay on the origin of 19th century racing yachts

Wood engraving The Yacht Race – A Sketch from the Deck of a
Competing Yacht
, was published in Harper’s Weekly in  1872.
Taken from the Wikimedia Commons

Although Charles II was almost as enthusiastic about yachting as he was about his many mistresses, his collection of 16 yachts do not seem to have had much of an influence on later racers.

From their researches including studying Clark’s History of Yachting up to the year 1815, Heckstall-Smith and Du Boulay say later racing yachts derived their form largely from revenue cutters.

They write: ‘the fashionable type of cutter was about three and a quarter beams to her length, her midship section was so round it might have been drawn with a pair of compasses. She had a nearly vertical stem, and a  short counter high above the water. The greatest breadth was just abaft or close abreast of the mast. The bow was therefore bluff, and the run long and often not ungraceful.’

The type was known as ‘cod’s head and mackerel tail’ and had evolved  in competition with the craft used by smugglers. This seems to me to be a case of a rather imperfect form of evolution, if faster boats could have been achieved by moving the greatest beam aft, but there are some good stories about how the same boat builders worked for both smugglers and  the revenue men.

Living in Kent as I do, this one from Heckstall-Smith and du Boulay appeals to me particularly: ‘it has been recorded that Mr White of Broadstairs, whose descendants afterwards moved to Cowes, used to lay down two cutters side by side, very much as 19-metres and 15-metres are laid down today, and the Government officials used to puzzle their brains to puzzle out which would turn out the faster, knowing that whichever boat they bought, the other would be sold for smuggling.’

For more on revenue cutters at, click here.

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