Tales and trials of smuggling and contraband

April 27, 2012 by  

You can’t spent much time in West Dorset and not get drawn into the true stories and tall tales of smuggling and how it affected people. (I’d like to know of any smuggling songs if anyone knows any.)

Its a well known saying near Chesil Beach that on a dark moonless night a smuggler could tell where he landed a boat between Portland and West Bay by the size of the shingle; which starts pea sized at West Bay and ends Boulder sized near Portland. I had read some accounts and stories, (returning again to the Burton Bradstock website among others), and was struck looking at lists of people prosecuted for smuggling by the breadth of ages and types people that were involved, from teenagers to widows. It could be a dangerous, violent activity with harsh punishments to those caught smuggling who were sometimes very young; several months in jail, hard labour, deportation and sometimes death. Having never read the classic novel Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner (published in 1898), this seemed a good time since it is set somewhere along Chesil Bank near where our work will be sited. The bank is a huge shingle barrier beach that stretches from West Bay up to Portland (on it there are still remnants of anti tank defence from WWII). It drops steeply into the sea and the pebbles are so smooth that the combination of strong undertow and slippery pebbles can make it impossible for a person to get out of the sea. Locals tell me you can hear the thunder of waves upon shingle for miles inland.


Images of Chesil Bank

Moonfleet, set in the 1750s is a thrilling yarn but also captures the relationship of people to the land, nature and sea and the way the geology of the area (the steep banked beaches, the grassy clifftops, the sliding shingle, the high sandstone cliffs and deep quarries) has such a strong influence on the way people live. You can read it on Project Guttenberg if you can’t find a copy.

For with that wind blowing strong from south, if you cannot double the Snout, you must most surely come ashore; and many a good ship failing to round that point has beat up and down the bay all day, but come to beach in the evening. And once on the beach, the sea has little mercy, for the water is deep right in, and the waves curl over full on the pebbles with a weight no timbers can withstand. Then if poor fellows try to save themselves, there is a deadly under-tow or rush back of the water, which sucks them off their legs, and carries them again under the thundering waves. It is that back-suck of the pebbles that you may hear for miles inland, even at Dorchester, on still nights long after the winds that caused it have sunk, and which makes people turn in their beds, and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet beach.

In his poem epic Lewesdon Hill William Crowe also describes the Dorset landscape of 1788 in great detail and in particular the lighting of a beacon on Burton Cliff for smugglers;

(…)From hostile shores returning, glad I look
On native scenes again; and fisrt salute
Thee, Burton, and thy lofty cliff, where oft
The nightly blaze is kindled ; further seen
Than erst was that love-tended cresset, hung
Beside the Hellespont: yet not like that
Inviting to the hospitable arms
Of Beauty’ and Youth, but lighted up, the sign
Of danger, and of ambush’d foes to warn
The stealth-approaching Vesslel, homeward bound
From Havre or the Norman isles, with freight
Of wines and hotter drinks, the trash of France,
Forbidden merchandize. Such fraud to quell
Many a light skiff and well-appointed sloop
Lies hovering near the coast, or hid behind
Some curved promontory, in hope to seize
These contraband: vain hope! on that high shore
Station’d, th’ associates of their lawless trade
Keep watch, and to their fellows off at sea
Give the known signal; they with fearful haste
Observant, put about the ship, and plunge
Into concealing darkness.(…)

I read on Real West Dorset about local filmaker Frank Trevett who in the 1930s created a film about sumggling using family friends and actors. Dope Under Thorncombe – which you can watch here on Close Encounters:

Dope Under Thorncombe from James Harrison on Vimeo.

Finally…the poem that opens Moonfleet;

Says the Cap’n to the Crew,
We have slipped the Revenue,
I can see the cliffs of Dover on the lee:
Tip the signal to the Swan,
And anchor broadside on,
And out with the kegs of Eau-de-Vie,
Says the Cap’n:
Out with the kegs of Eau-de-Vie.
Says the Lander to his men,
Get your grummets on the pin,
There’s a blue light burning out at sea.
The windward anchors creep,
And the Gauger’s fast asleep,
And the kegs are bobbing one, two, three,
Says the Lander:
The kegs are bobbing one, two, three.

But the bold Preventive man
Primes the powder in his pan
And cries to the Posse, Follow me.
We will take this smuggling gang,
And those that fight shall hang
Dingle dangle from the execution tree,
Says the Gauger:
Dingle dangle with the weary moon to see.

If you want to find out more you can also look at Smugglers Britain and the educational website Dorset and the Sea

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