Friday, 27 March 2009

"The Law is an Ass!" .. wine, wool, silk, china ....

Dear Mr Postman ..does your title to this positive letter refer to the Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” quotation? and what on earth do these mix of goods have in common ....

Smuggling has been rife around the coasts of Britain and no doubt Europe for over a thousand years .. and started when it became “the custom” to 'give up' some of the wine cargo being imported into London and a few other ports in the 1200s.

Initially the Customs Service was only there to collect the duties at the port, and not to prevent smuggling. Wool, in the Middle Ages, was the mainstay of the national economy and was in great demand on the continent, however export duties, and subsequently import duties, provided a new source of revenue for the Crown and its wars, and so taxes started to rise.

The Ages of Exploration opened up trade routes and brought in exotic new cargoes. The most popular smuggled goods were silks, spices, tea, tobacco, spirits, wine and china as these found an easy market for resale, so as you’d expect law breakers of all kinds were among the first to jump on the contraband wagon, encouraged by this public support.

Amazingly in 1784 it was estimated that over half of the tea consumed annually in Britain had been smuggled in. While at much the same it was thought that nearly half a million gallons of brandy a year were being smuggled through Cornwall, and it was also known that ships returning from India and China would 'hover' off shore in the west country and sell untaxed goods such as china, silks and cottons!

The law at the time made it an offence to smuggle goods but it wasn't a crime to sell them on, so smugglers would often leave their wares in a cave to be fetched by another person who would not be committing a crime by selling them – hence here I’ve loosely used the phrase “The Law is an Ass” in the title!!

Smuggling along the south coast adapted to the locality .. Kent and Sussex were nearer to both Europe and London .. so plenty of goods could be “traded” more easily – whereas smuggling is synonymous in the far west of Cornwall, the goods coming from the continent sometimes via the Channel Islands, or from Ireland to the north Cornish coast.

The poorly paid farm labourers and the hard living mining communities ensured there was a constant demand for cheap goods, including tea, brandy, gin, ‘baccy’ etc, so for all of the legends and stories, most smugglers were said to have been more concerned with feeding their families than making fortunes.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the Smugglers and the Gentlemen (Revenue men) – “The Smugglers Song” .. please click the link to read it in full ..the poem is full of resonance of times gone by .. and it starts like this ..

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five-and-twenty ponies,
Trotting rhrough the dark – Brandy for the Parson ........

Or you can listen to The Smugglers Song here read by Murray Lachlan Young – it’s a great poem .. the children will love it .. enjoy!

Thank you, thank you for that lovely poem .. we will enjoy listening .. Rudyard Kipling wrote some amazing poems and stories .. Mr Postman .. you do remind us of such an interesting way of life and how much has changed over the years ..


Peter Baca said...

Dear Hilary,

Very interesting post on English smuggling! Everyone hates taxes so it is no wonder that smuggling happens!

The poetry is a nice addition!

Best Regards

Pete Baca
The Car Enthusiast Online

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Pete .. just glad you liked the post .. yes - I kept it back in times gone by purposefully though!

Glad you liked the poem .. Kipling wrote some great lines .. it has a good lilt to it ..

Thanks for commenting and enjoying the smuggling lore - Hilary: Positive Letters

Unknown said...

Thank you for your post on the piece of England history. It is very interesting. It reminded me "Prohibition" enpowered gangstars in US. In any country, crimes and justice take place and form lives of that time. Some times they change positions. Another history I remembered was Japanese. Pirates and smuggler happened to save Emperer's son in ocean and became navy general and formed strongest navy force in Japan that time. History gives us mysteries which we will never solve. Thanks, again.

Shaw Funami
Fill the Missing Link

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Shaw .. and as you say there's lots more to be said including all the other countries of the world. It's interesting how posts can trigger memories of ones own culture .. both for your American and Japanese 'history'.

I like your comment about crimes and justice happening and forming an era of development, as well as changing sides .. or operating from both positions!

Thanks for commenting and sharing your ideas - it's good to see you here with a different perspective because of your Japanese background ..
Hilary: Positive Letters

Giovanna Garcia said...

Hi Hilary
Very interesting post, you know the title catch my eyes. I real enjoy the poem.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than No Action

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Gio .. and I'm glad the title caught your eye and drew you in to read .. & yes the poem is such fun .. and really allows us to 'feel' the times ..
Thanks for visiting and commenting
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters