Both in the 18th century and now they have used some of the fastest and most manoeuvrable boats available. These cutters, as they are known, enable officers to chase and board vessels at sea and in remote ports.
In 1779 nearly four million gallons of gin and more than five million pounds weight of tea were smuggled into Britain, landed on beaches up and down the coast. At that time tea was a very expensive luxury which was kept in locked caddies usually in the homes of the rich. More than two-thirds of the tea consumed in Britain during the 18th century was smuggled.
The Commutation Act of 1784 slashed the tax on tea, smuggling it ceased to be profitable and the smuggling trade vanished virtually overnight.
Today tobacco and spirits are still smuggled and have been joined by Class A drugs such as heroine and cocaine. Between 1996 and 1998, the London-based Wright Gang smuggled in at least three tonnes of cocaine on yachts. In April 2007 they were jailed after an 11-year investigation.
Seized: Revenue & Customs Uncovered at Merseyside Maritime Museum looks at many different aspects of smuggling and related issues.
Two ships models show the development of the Customs cutter. The Sprightly was used by the Revenue service at the end of the 18th century. She was heavily armed, fast and could be moved with dexterity and skill. The other cutter model shows the Vigilant, one of a fleet of five cutters that today patrol the waters around Britain. The 42-metre long vessel was built in Holland in 2003.
An 1840 coloured engraving (pictured) shows the Revenue cutter Harpy chasing a smugglers’ ship. Casks are bobbing in the water after being jettisoned by the smugglers.
Lead image: The Revenue cutter, Harpy, chasing a smuggler. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.