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Poole Smugglers, 1580-1730

  Authors:   Cynthia Wall & Susan Jabbari


Roger Guttridge’s book, ‘Dorset Smugglers’ has been used extensively in assembling this summary note. According to him the word “smuggle” probably dates from the Scandinavian languages. The Danish smugle which literally means “smuggle” and the Swedish smuga means a lurking “hole”, the Anglo-Saxon smugan “to creep” is probably related to the Icelandic prefix smug which stems from smjuga means to “creep or “creep through the hole”.

The history of smuggling in England goes hand in hand with the history of the Customs institution. It dates from the time of the Saxon, King Ethelred II, who imposed a toll charge, or import duty on boat loads of foreign wine arriving at Billingsgate. Thereafter it became a “custom” for foreign visitors to give a portion of their cargoes in return for permission to trade. Such tolls applied only to certain ports, so evasion was neither difficult nor illegal.

In 1275 to raise revenues King Edward I introduced a custom on wool exports. At this time wool was a mainstay of the national economy and was in great demand in Europe. To collect the duties a permanent Customs staff was established and almost immediately the first smugglers appeared. They became known as “owlers“, because they mainly operated at night.

It has been said that taxation was the cause of smuggling and it was a natural and inevitable result of punitive taxation imposed by a succession of governments each more desperate than the last to pay for costly wars in Europe.

Life for the early smugglers was relatively easy it was not until the C14th that the first revenue vessels appeared and even then large areas of coastline were not covered. Customs men were poorly paid and were therefore open to bribery and even bribed the Customs officers in the ports.

In the mid C16th there was a revision of the Book of Rates and the issue of a new set of duties. At this time England was also in the midst of an economic depression, this greatly increased the incentives for illicit trade. In 1604 tobacco was added to the Book of Rates.

The Civil War of 1643 resulted in Excise duty being placed on certain goods produced at home for home consumption, again this resulted in an increase in smuggling.

Early Customs arrangements

For the first two thirds of C17th the responsibility for the collection of Customs duty in every port was farmed out to syndicates of financiers who paid the king a regular rent for the privilege and kept the remainder. In 1671 the Crown resumed collection and the modern Board of Customs came into being although corruption was rife.

Smuggling became even more prevalent from 1690 when William and Mary came to the throne. They inherited the royal debt and at the same time the Navy and the Army as well as bankers were also owed money .Between 1689-1715 there was an explosion of Army and diplomatic services and the government had to borrow and service loans through taxation. The explosion was fueled by two major wars in France.

When Queen Anne came to power from 1702-1714 more duties were levied on commodities than had been imposed in total since 1660. In 1713 smuggling increased again due to the Treaty of Utrecht, taxes rose again, increasing the incentive to smuggle. In addition large numbers of redundant sailors and soldiers were seeking employment in any activity, including smuggling.

Towards the end of the C17th technical improvements in the rigging of ships and vessels built with more speed in mind helped the smugglers. Their vessels’ shallow draughts allowed them to come closer to the shore. Fake bulkheads and handy hiding places increased the amount of smuggled goods The smugglers used the failure of the smuggling Bill and stated, according to Guttridge, that they were now “tolerated in smuggling by the King, Lords and Commons”1

Guttridge suggests that during the winter of 1717-1718 “the running of great quantities of goods having of late very much increased”2 the government tried to push through a Bill for the prevention of smuggling. According to Philip Taylor the Collector of Customs at Weymouth it fell down in the House of Lords and as a result “the smuggling trade prodigiously increased.”3 The contraband boom continued reaching a level in 1719 which would have been unimaginable five years earlier and from 1720 smuggling switched from exporting wool to exporting luxuries.

During the period 1700 to 1815 when smuggling was at its height it was estimated that nine out of ten families supported the smugglers. A smuggler for example could earn five or six times as much as a farm labourer. Another reason for the increase in smuggling was that the smugglers were seen as local heroes due to the benefits of cheaper goods and therefore the local community concealed them rather than report them.

In 1719 the first of several “hovering” Acts were brought in. The Act made hovering illegal within six miles of the coast. From the beginning of 1722 new legislation was brought in such that people who were caught smuggling within twenty miles of the coast in gangs of more than five and were carrying weapons or arms and wore masks or forcibly resisted an attempt to seize their goods, were liable to be deemed guilty of felony and could be deported to the American colonies for seven years.

It is interesting to note that in 1745 the leading statute for smuggling law made the greatest effort to convict offenders and to sentence those convicted for smuggling to be put to death.


Dorset due to its coastline which includes many inlets has a long history of smuggling and Poole itself being a  peninsula with a natural harbour gave easy access to further afield and with many places where goods could be hidden resulted in Poole playing a very prominent part in the history of smuggling.

Smuggling started much earlier in Poole than other parts of the British Isles due to the Royal Charter of 1433 which established Poole as a staple port, which had to collect dues on behalf of the King.

In1568 Elizabeth 1 gave Poole a new Royal Charter which made Poole completely independent and gave the town complete control of its own affairs. In the 1574 census, Poole had a population of 1373; it was a small town.

As in other areas of the country, smuggling, corruption and bribery were very prevalent in Poole.

In the late 1670s John Willie a magistrate and a Collector of Customs at Poole was dismissed for conniving with the smugglers. He was said to have omitted to enter large cargoes of tobacco in the port books and had repeatedly closed and locked up the Customs House when it should have been open for the king’s business.

In 1681 William Culliford was assigned to the Board of Customs to compile a report on fraud and corruption in all of the western ports. In Poole, he rented a room fronting the quay as the original Custom House was too far away to operate effectively.

Culliford gathered evidence in just a few weeks in the summer of 1682 that involved nineteen separate smuggling incidents and by the spring of the following year there were more incidents. There were thousands of pounds of items involved including tobacco, hundreds of gallons of wine and brandy. In July 1682 he seized the cargo of tobacco from the David, £77 worth of tobacco was found in William Orchard’s cellar ,as well as tobacco from the Clare. The David and the Clare were two of the most prolific of Poole’s smuggling vessels. During this time period other vessels involved included the John, the Robert, the William, the Vine ketch, the Mary Hoy and the Seaflower. Usually their cargoes were brought to the shore by smaller boats known as dragger boats.

Guttridge’s interpretation of the Cullliford report found that John Tombs, who had served on the Vine ketch, became an informer and was rewarded with a £10 a year job as a boatman, talked “about great quantities of goods run by the draggers in general, and more particularly by John Thompson’s, Thomas Bennet’s, John Edmund’s and Will’s boats, which said dragger boats do all the mischief in the ports.”  Some of the goods were landed on Studland beach and the rest were loaded into the dragger boats and taken to Brownsea Island and Poole. Tombs said this was a “daily constant practice “which had “scarce ever been hindered“ by the revenue men. 4

John Wills was caught while ferrying eleven hogshead of wine from the Vine ketch the owner of the cargo asked him to keep quiet and promised to pay him £8 if his boat was destroyed. Wills ignored the request and also confessed to William Culliford that Mr. John Carter had paid him eleven shillings for collecting six packs of cloth from the Little John off Christchurch Head, and bringing them to Poole.

John Carter was the biggest name in Poole smuggling circles in 1682. He was a merchant and magistrate with friends in high places. Carter’s gang generally travelled through the streets of Poole and surrounding countryside armed with clubs and swords and disguised by masks on their faces and women’s long-crowned hats on their heads. Carter’s cargoes were unloaded from his ships at sea and brought in by dragger boats. A favourite landing place was the windmill, a quarter of a mile from the town. Another hiding place was the King’s Arms Inn on the quay. Another of Poole’s smugglers was Robert Bennett who used the cellars of the George Inn where he lived.

Many fiddles took place such as a law which permitted an allowance for imports damaged in transit. Robert Bennet owner of the Robert obtained a reduction in the duty on 7.600 pounds of tobacco supposedly damaged by water on the voyage from Virginia. Culliford in his report found the vessel to be “a tight ship and come home well-conditioned.”5

Many of the fiddles involved the Customs officials. During this period Dudley Hopper was the commander of the Poole Customs smack and on one evening in 1682 he and the Customs surveyor Thomas Barney sailed past three boats  laden with contraband wine. He was sacked for a number of frauds and for comments he made about the new revenue smack at Southampton. His successor Captain Nicholas Cobb was on a corruption charge within six weeks of gaining his position. The biggest rogue in Poole then was Thomas Barney he openly solicited bribes  and on numerous occasions goods were unloaded and no taxes were taken. On one occasion he allowed numerous quantities of wine and brandy to be unloaded from the Sea Flower and cleared the load as only salt. Culliford collected plenty of evidence against Barney he was suspended from duty.

He was replaced by Thomas Cope who suggested the public destruction of the dragger boats on Poole Quay. Thomas Bennett’s boat was, according to Guttridge’s interpretation of the

Culliford report, ceremonially burnt“ in front of the whole town.”6

Sadly as soon as Culliford left Poole the situation deteriorated. When he returned for his last visit in spring 1683 he found that John Willie was the new Deputy Customer of the port and Robert Appleby was to be appointed the new Deputy Searcher both these men had been sacked a few years earlier. One positive outcome was that due to the work done by Culliford and his men the smugglers had been driven away from Poole bay to Swanage.

The work done by Culliford was further undone when war started with France in 1689 and lasted until 1697. Guttridge says that one of the reasons historians gave for England’s readiness to negotiate a peace treaty is that “the Excise and Customs had brought in less than expected.”7

General trade for Lyme Regis, Weymouth and Poole had been destroyed by the war and this resulted in an increase in contraband and smuggling. For the next hundred and twenty five years Britain was more at war than peace and this considerably benefited the smugglers.

The increase in smuggling affected Poole very badly. Guttridge suggests the situation was so bad that in 1720 and 1722 the Mayor, bailiffs, burgesses and commoners begged the House of Commons to remedy “the great decay of their  home manufacture by reason of the great quantities of goods run, not only on that but on all the eastern coasts.”8

Brandy and wine made up the bulk of the smuggled items landed in Dorset between 1716 to the mid-1730s but there were many other items including rum, coffee, tea, salt, pepper, cocoa beans, playing cards, foreign paper, tobacco, cloth and silk handkerchiefs.

1728 the people of Poole who had twice demanded action against the free traders delivered a third petition protesting at the town’s impoverishment due to the number of people who had been prosecuted for smuggling.

A quotation much later- well after the period of our project, in 1824, from Thomas Fielding succinctly sums up Poole and its involvement with smuggling “If Poole was a fish-pool, and the men of Poole fish; There’d be a pool for the devil, and fish for his dish.”

Poole Tunnels

According to the Bournemouth Echo of 23rd February 1985 workmen had removed a manhole cover and had come across tunnels when digging up the road outside the then Aquarium and Poole Tourist Office. Mr Neville Dear of Poole’s Environmental said at the time that it was a well-documented smugglers’ route. Prior to this potholers had entered the tunnel to follow it from the alley adjacent to Canute House across Strand Street and into the High Street where it used to lead into the cellar of what was once a smugglers’ pub. In the mid-1700s Canute House had a cellar connected to the smugglers’ culvert and at high tide when it would flood the smugglers would send a float and line down to the quay where a waiting boat would attach contraband to be hauled back up the tunnel right under the feet of the custom men.

There are also arguments against the idea of “smuggling tunnels” Firstly, buildings in the quay area have cellars which are large and deep because the water table in the harbour can be very high and the cellars allow flooding without any damage to the buildings above. The rumours about smugglers tunnels came about because the cellars could have been connected. It has been suggested that Poole smugglers made good use of the town drains into the cellars of the town pubs; when there was a good flow of water after a rainstorm, the task was made easier because the smuggler could stand high up and let the water wash a rope down to his colleagues and bring in the goods. Secondly Poole is surrounded by beaches and inlets that lead onto the deserted heath and therefore there were enough places to hide the goods.


  1. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page 5
  2. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page15
  3. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page 13
  4. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page 9
  5. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page 11
  6. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page 13
  7. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page13
  8. Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984 Page 26


Dorset Smugglers Roger Guttridge 1984

Smuggling in Poole Theo Burrows For The Borough Of Poole Museum Service

Smuggling in Poole and Bournemouth Bernard C Short 1927

 Bournemouth Echo  23. 2 .1985

Customs and Excise Trade, Production, and Consumption  in England 1640 – 145  William J Ashworth 2003

Smuggling in the British Isles Richard Platt 2011

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