Smuggling on the Sussex Coast

William Heath, Smuggler, on display in Old Town Hall Museum

William Heath, Smuggler, on display in Old Town Hall Museum

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The Whole Proceedings for The County of Sussex (16-18th January 1749)

The Whole Proceedings for The County of Sussex (16-18th January 1749)

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The Stade, Hastings (c.1822), Lithograph after John Gendall

The Stade, Hastings (c.1822), Lithograph after John Gendall

Detailed View

Conquerors Stone

Conquerors Stone

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Fairlight Undercliff (c.1825), Lithograph after George Rowe

Fairlight Undercliff (c.1825), Lithograph after George Rowe

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The Old Dripping Well, Fairlight (1824) James Rouse

The Old Dripping Well, Fairlight (1824) James Rouse

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The Bull Inn, Bulverhythe (1866), S. Heather

The Bull Inn, Bulverhythe (1866), S. Heather

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The Lookout (c.1834), Watercolour, William Roxby Beverley (pistol?)

The Lookout (c.1834), Watercolour, William Roxby Beverley (pistol?)

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Device for hiding contraband, on display in Old Town Hall Museum

Device for hiding contraband, on display in Old Town Hall Museum

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Pistol, possibly used by lookouts to alert smugglers (on display in Old Town Hall)

Pistol, possibly used by lookouts to alert smugglers (on display in Old Town Hall)

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Hastings Fishing Boat (c.1820) Samuel Prout

Hastings Fishing Boat (c.1820) Samuel Prout

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Hastings (1851) E. C. Williams

Hastings (1851) E. C. Williams

Detailed View

Half Boats used as dwellings (c.1815) pencil drawing, Marianne Johnson

Half Boats used as dwellings (c.1815) pencil drawing, Marianne Johnson

Detailed View

Hastings Museum holds an extensive archive collection relating to smuggling on the Sussex coast during the nineteenth century, consisting primarily of letters between solicitors and lawyers regarding specific cases of smuggling. The Old Town Hall Museum also hosts a small permanent display on smuggling.

Why Smuggle?

Smuggling, or Owling as it was originally termed, developed around the year 1300 in response to the introduction of customs duty on the export of wool, where previously all export and import trading had been free. Although initially the duties were quite small, as the hundred-years war progressed, tax increased, and in 1614 with the introduction of a ban on the export of wool, smuggling really took off. Incidences of smuggling increased dramatically following the end of the Napoleonic wars (1797-1815), and as levies on tea, tobacco and spirits were increased these goods were also smuggled.

Risks and Rewards

As traditional Sussex industries declined, such as fishing, weaving and iron production, men sought other ways of supplementing a meagre income. Tub carriers could earn up to 10/- a night carrying tubs from the beach up to local hiding places, which compared favourably to a labourers weekly salary. However, although smuggling could be highly lucrative it could also be exceptionally dangerous and although it was generally only the gang leaders that were convicted, these men risked their lives and their livelihoods. Sea smugglers faced naval service on a man-of-war and land smugglers risked transportation and possibly even death if convicted.

The Sussex Coastline and Smuggling in Hastings

The Sussex coast was ideally placed as a drop off point for contraband and the beaches of Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne experienced many incidences of smuggling. During the early 1800s Hastings consisted mainly of what we now refer to as the Old Town and the Stade (the Saxon word meaning ‘landing place’). The smugglers of Hastings worked primarily within this area, but met at assigned rendezvous points throughout the county, colourfully named for the purpose of disguise.

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The 'Old Woman's Tap' over which projected the 'Conqueror's Table', now the site of the Royal Victoria Hotel, Hastings, was one such popular point.

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Similarly smugglers met at 'Jinn's Stool', a large rock near Galley Hill, 'The Whippings', the high cliff near Ecclesbourne and 'The Marrow-bone Gap' near Fairlight. Hastings Museum and Art Gallery hold a variety of prints illustrating these meeting places.

Another popular meeting place was near the Dripping Well in Fairlight.

The Activities of the Smuggler

Smuggling was a vast operation and involved many members of the community. As well as able seamen to collect the goods; lookouts, batmen and tub-carriers were also required, often recruited by gang leaders from local public houses, such as the Bull Inn, Bulverhythe.

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When the date was set, the lookout men would meet in places such as Toot Rock in Pett Level, to watch for Preventative men and would fire warning shots to alert approaching vessels to meet at an alternative rendezvous should they spot any trouble.

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Tubs, concealed in the false bottoms of boats, would then be unloaded and carried ashore, or anchored offshore and bought in later. Tub carriers and bat men, armed with cudgels and sometimes even with muskets stolen from the Blockade men, would make their way down to the beach to collect the tubs and carry them back to the various hiding places frequented by smugglers. The tubs were then distributed and hidden in recesses in walls, holes in floors and other hidey-holes. Specially designed containers for hiding contraband were also created and one such example can be found on display in the Old Town Hall Museum.

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Women would also be involved in concealing the contraband. Banks, in his history of smuggling which can be read in the Museum Local Studies Room, recalls an incident in which his mother and himself carried tubs, disguised under dirty laundry, from one house to another.

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Smuggling Vessels

Various vessels were used by the smugglers and although the design of these ships altered over time, the specifications were generally as described here. Large luggers of about 50-200 tons were corvel-built using edge-to-edge timbers and square sails on three masts, which enabled grater speed and manoeuvrability.

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Cutters, ideal for smuggling, were made using overlapping timbers and had tall masts, with tub boats to carry tubs ashore in necklace fashion. Hastings Museum holds a vast collection of prints illustrating these vessels.

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Once seized by the authorities a smuggling vessel was destroyed and cut into two or three – as a protest against the illegal storage of contraband in hidden compartments beneath the boats. Often the owner was also heavily fined. In Hastings the remnants would be placed in the ‘Condemned Hole’, however, some were altered and used as small huts as shown in the image.

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Further Reading

The entire collection can be viewed via Access to Archives. From the search page: under Location of Archives select 'Hastings Museum and Art Gallery' and click Search.


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