17a. Smuggling in Swansea and Gower

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There remains a popular idea that smuggling is about good versus evil. I think the Poldark novels and the famous BBC television series have a lot to do with this. However, it is fair to say that much of the smuggling that took place around the British Isles was violent and vicious and most smugglers had a standing in society that can be compared with drug dealers in modern times.

Smuggling was a massive trade which permeated all levels of eighteenth century society, even local clergy (e.g. the Rector at Rhosilli in the 1750s). There are many instances of support from local magistrates, tradesmen, local militia and even some of the revenue officers.

The golden period of smuggling in Swansea and Gower was 1750 to 1830. In the 1770s and 1780s, some parts of the country had no control or militia cover at all and smuggling continued unchecked and formed a substantial part of the local economy. This was certainly the case in Gower for much of the eighteenth century.

Customs officers frequently had a hard time in the communities they were meant to police. Distrusted by the population and often obstructed in their duties, it could be a very lonely life.

Although dark moonless nights were considered best for smuggling (at least in the historical novels!), Gower smugglers typically worked in the day although this was less likely by the 1790s when more militia patrols were introduced at Oxwich and Port Eynon.

Gower smugglers would often operate in bad weather when their superior local knowledge and seamanship would give them an advantage should anyone try to pursue them. Bad weather also meant that legitimate traffic was at a minimum reducing the numbers of witnesses to their activities.

Although the small inlet of Brandy Cove is often quoted as a typical smugglers haunt, the preferred smuggling beaches were the wide open ones of Oxwich, Port Eynon or Rhosilli, because it was easy to see strangers from a long way off and impossible to hide soldiers.

The one thing that made the Bristol Channel particularly susceptible to smuggling was its shape, very accessible from the Atlantic and plenty of places to bring goods ashore. In 1636, four Turkish pirate ships plundered 22 vessels in the Channel. It was only in the 1660s that the Bristol Channel was considered free of pirates! It comes as a surprise to many that smuggling in Gower was mainly dominated by Irishmen or vessels based in the Isle of Man. After 1765, the Irish port of Rush dominated the smuggling trade. The Irish smuggling gangs were organised into 4 major commercial companies who organised links between Nantes, Lorient and later Roscoff. Goods from Europe were moved through these ports via Rush and traded at Lundy or the South Gower coast for subsequent distribution in the South Wales ports. The various wars with France never got in the way of local smuggling activities; such was the strong maritime and cultural link between Gower, Ireland and France. Other links included tobacco brought from the Americas to Liverpool and intended for re-export to France but being ‘diverted’ to Ireland for smuggling via the Bristol Channel.

The first commodity that was regularly smuggled was wool. By the 1270s, it was subject to a 40% tax. Tobacco was very lightly taxed from the 1560s but James I disliked tobacco intensely and tried to tax it out of existence. He raised the duty from 2d per lb to 6s.8d per lb which made it an extremely valuable smugglers’ commodity overnight. Tobacco became by far the most smuggled item into the British Isles for over 300 years.

The 1690s saw a massive increase in smuggling for two reasons:

· The rapid development of fore-aft rigging which made inshore navigation safer and easier. (King Charles II had introduced the fashion of fast small yachts into the country)

· The Glorious Revolution of 1688 led to war with France and the creation and maintenance of a large standing army which had to be paid for. Taxes were applied to a host of new goods including tobacco, silk, lace, spices brandy and port. These were all Customs matters.

It was during the 1680s that Excise officers first entered the picture. These men were originally concerned with collecting duty on home produced goods e.g. beer, ale, spirits, salt and leather. Luxuries such as brandy attracted a custom duty as well as an excise duty so Excise men became involved with policing smuggling.

 

As the eighteenth century progressed, there were increasingly complicated laws passed to deal with the growing problem.

1718 brought the first of the ‘Hovering Acts’ whereby any vessel of 50 tons or less ‘hovering’ within 6 miles of the shore and carrying any of the contraband goods was liable to seizure. This Act started a process of increasingly complicated legislation and increasingly harsh penalties and a response of increasing sophistication and organisation of the smuggling gangs.

The isolated beaches of South Gower were a constant problem for the Swansea customs men. In 1759, a West Indiaman moored off Rhosilli in daylight and unloaded large quantities of rum, sugar, and molasses. A crowd of 400 on the beach prevented the Customs men approaching the vessel.

One of the eighteenth century staples of local smugglers was tea, subject to 125% duty. When this was reduced to 12½ % in 1784, it hit the smugglers hard and created a nation of tea drinkers.

Smugglers turned to other good from this date and we see tobacco, brandy and Geneva (gin) being landed in increasing amounts. The growth of industry in the Swansea, Neath and Llanelli areas, resulted in considerable demand for spirits and tobacco from the new industrial populations.

The Customs Officers always had terrible problems with the East Indiamen. Smuggling vessels would meet these ships in the Western Approaches well outside the 6-mile limit, and the crews would engage in considerable trade. It was often the only way that the officers and men of the East India fleet would make any money. Returning slave traders on the homeward leg of the triangular trade would also feature in the smugglers’ connections. Smugglers in the Western Approaches would trade a substantial portion of the rum sugar and tobacco consumed in Swansea.

Inter-service rivalries between Customs and Excise men resulted in great problems in Swansea where the two services could never agree who had the ‘right to rummage’ the newly arrived vessels. The net result was that Swansea’s customs were ineffectual for much of the 1790s, the problem being exacerbated by the regularity and ease with which the Swansea customs house was burgled.

Fears about French invasion in the 1780s led to the creation of the Sea Fencibles, a sort of Home Guard. This led to increased patrolling of the Bristol Channel and Irish Sea beaches, which limited the activities of the local smugglers. However, the real improvement in coastal security came in 1809 with the establishment of the naval Preventive Waterguard largely made up of retired Royal Navy veterans. This made smuggling over the open beaches very difficult and forced local smugglers into nighttime activities into the smaller coves.

By the 1840s, changes in duty meant that traditional smuggled goods were no longer profitable. In addition, the improved coastal security measures of the 1850s meant that the Bristol Channel was relatively secure although the South Gower coast always maintained a certain aura of lawlessness with regard to smuggling.

 

 

The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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