When I was at primary school in the 1950s we used to enjoy singing the popular Smugglers’ Song with words by Rudyard Kipling:
Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
Tobacco for the Clerk:
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodpile if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy wine;
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor take them for your play;
Put the brushwood back again – and they’ll be gone next day!
It is a song that races along but embraces a popular myth masking the brutal reality behind smuggling. It is true that gangs of smugglers operated right along the coast with whole communities involved.
However, sickening violence could be used by smugglers driven by greed, poverty and lack of employment. Customs men often assisted by soldiers, used counter-measures which were both brutal and harsh, including the death penalty.
It was not until the 1840s with the introduction of free trade and the reduction of excise duties that smuggling was reduced.
The Hawkhurst Gang of Sussex smugglers was notoriously violent in the era of highwaymen and pirates. In 1748 gang member Daniel Chater was arrested by Customs officer William Galley and turned informer.
When both men were captured by other members of the gang Galley was beaten, tied to his horse and had his nose cut off. Chater was hung down a well and stoned to death.
On display in Seized is a contemporary print showing the two men hung upside down while they are whipped by gang members. Another shows Chater being thrust down the well.
In 1785 it was discovered that most of the fishing fleet in Deal, Kent, was involved in smuggling. The fishermen were desperate to earn a living. Every vessel was burnt to ashes on the orders of the Prime Minister William Pitt, who was just 26.
Exhibits include weapons used by smugglers and Customs officers – a blunderbuss, musket, pistols, swords and cutlasses. You can see some of them here.
A smugglers’ lantern has a spout which directed a beam of light to avoid detection. A sinking stone was used to secure smuggled casks to the seabed while a grappling hook was used by smugglers to retrieve their contraband.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).