Rothbury, History Society

View of Rothbury
Picture by Jane Coltman
View of Rothbury Picture by Jane Coltman

In a talk to Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society on Smuggling On The North East Coast, Dr Barrow said that smuggling, as a significant part of ‘trade’, started after 1275 with the tax imposed on the wool trade by Edward I, followed in 1453 by tax on wine.

In 1660 Mercantilism was established, when imports were only allowed if it was established that we could not produce the goods ourselves. In 1661 Charles II issued a Proclamation “for the punishment of all frauds on the Customs between the sort of leud people called smukellers”.

Smuggling only declined from 1780 when Prime Ministers William Pitt, Peel and Gladstone ended Mercantilism and established the UK as a Free Trade Country.

Policing had become more efficient and there had been a gradual improvement of social conditions and consumption.

There were also effective campaigns against ‘the devil drink’. The care of children had suffered during this 550 year period.

Smuggling was estimated to account for 25 per cent of total trade. There are no known records for the Berwick coast, except newspaper reports. They may be with the Scottish Records.

A ‘Customs Port’ is a stretch of coastline: Eyemouth to the Coquet; the Coquet to the South Shields and up to Ryton; the Tyne to Stockton-on-Tees.

The North East tended to specialise in Dutch gin, and later whisky, salt and coal. Gin bought for one shilling could sell for four-and-a-half shillings.

Smuggling could be very rewarding if you could get away with it, but the penalties, if caught, could be transportation.

Although it took place along the whole of the North East coast, the main landings were at Cullercoats, Beadnell, Holy Island and Boulmer. Eyemouth was referred to as a Swiss cheese due to all the tunnels and narrow streets.

The smugglers had better, more seaworthy and faster boats than the poorly equipped customs officers, who were constantly asking for better equipment.

Organised smugglers had well-manned (40-50 men) and organised transport routes to the towns and into the hills. They were experts at evasion – hiding barrels under ships, anchoring them to the sea bed, and using caves and tunnels, cellars and poor people’s houses. The people who benefitted from smuggling generally supported them against customs officers.

Smuggling was a rough, tough, violent, nasty, but lucrative business, with a constant battle of wits with officials.

In 1774 customs officer William Parks was beaten and maimed, and received a warning letter to “keep off the sands”.

Several customs officers were known to have been smugglers themselves, such as the captain of the Ferret.

Cliff House at Tynemouth, with its underground tunnels, was thought to have been built with smuggling money. Whisky distilling and smuggling across the Cheviots ended in 1870.

Smuggling activity still goes on around the world today.