The eighteenth century is regarded as the golden age of private, duty-free enterprise, otherwise known as smuggling. Any coastal area appears to have involved itself in the trade when a man could earn more from a packhorse load of merchandise than he could from a week’s wage.
The Holderness coast is just a hop and a skip away from Holland across the cold and grey North Sea facilitating this brisk export and import business and the remote flat beaches of are made for discreet landings on a still, dark night.
Large boats called coopers,bristling with guns, hove-to off shore like floating cash-and-carry warehouses whereupon local folk from the Holderness villages would venture out in smaller boats to acquire merchandise for further distribution to friends, family and valued customers.
It was the job of Revenue men assisted by the Navy to intercept and capture the smugglers at sea and they had a hard time of it. In 1777 Captain Mitchell of the Revenue cutter Swallow met a notorious smuggler called Stoney in his schooner Kent, just off Spurn Point. Captain Mitchell sent in this report of the encounter:
“as their (the Kent) guns were in readiness, and at the same time waving us to go to the Northward, we were, by reason of their superior force, obliged to sheer off, but did our best endeavours to spoil his Market.”
This was not the first time that Captain Mitchell decided it was better to render himself able to “fight another day”; he was either very prudent or very timorous and perhaps not without cause. The smugglers, despite the romantic view presented in fiction, were dangerous, ruthless and violent men.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for those on land who stored the cargoes either. Take the incident of the hurricane, the church roof and the Parish Clerk. It occurred in the little town of Hornsea at a time when there was no resident vicar for the church only a curate who visited now and again to save the souls of the town dwellers. The Parish Clerk, clearly a man of enterprise, conceived the idea of storing contraband in the crypt of the church. On Christmas Eve 1732, perhaps in anticipation of the festivities, he opened the door to the crypt just at the moment when the town was struck by a hurricane. The force of the hurricane ripped the roof off the church and as it went flying away, the Clerk, huffing and puffing over his brandy kegs, keeled over with a stroke. For weeks after, he lay in his bed, paralysed and completely mute until one night he finally cocked up his toes and breathed his last.
Since hurricanes are definitely not the norm in these parts some might consider that Him (or Her) Up There was not best pleased at the use to which His (or Her) House was put and we can only speculate whether the good folk of Hornsea enjoyed a pipe of baccy and a glass of brandy that Christmas – all duty free of course.
“Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!”
(From: A Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling)