For two hundred years from the mid – seventeenth century the Rottingdean Gang of smugglers ran contraband cargoes from landing sites nearby. The goods included brandy, gin, tea, coffee, spices, lace and a range of other highly prized goods. They used caves dug into the cliffs, which led to tunnels connecting the cellars of houses and Inns under the High Street and up to the Green. The famous vicar Dr Thomas Hooker, whose bust can be seen in St Margaret’s Parish Church, was a skilled horseman and acted as a lookout for the gang. A Customs House was established in the High Street to attempt to curtail their activity. At night the cliff ‘preventative officers’ patrolled top paths. At one time Rottingdean’s windmill sails were used to signal that the coast was clear.
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 favorably to a laborers 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 remoteness of the village combined with its proximity to the sea made Rottingdean a popular spot with smugglers. The illegal merchandise was hidden anywhere and everywhere. Stashed in barns, tunnels and even churches, the goods waited transportation to the London black market.
These times were romanticized in Kipling’s, A Smugglers’ Song, “Five and twenty ponies/Trotting through the dark/Brandy for the Parson/Baccy for the Clark.” You can still visit some of the smugglers’ favorite haunts. The Black Horse is an inn reputed to have been the smugglers’ meeting place. Alternatively, there’s the Whipping Post House, where the infamous Captain Dunk lived. A butcher by day and a smuggler by night he ironically lived in front of the whipping post, stocks and ducking stool the posts being used to fasten people so that they could be punished for misdemeanors.
Rottingdean remained a haunt for smuggling with even the local vicar from 1792-1838 – Dr Hooker – acting as lookout. In 1814 an anonymous writer reported in ‘ Summer at Rottingdean’ – smuggling(sic) is the support of the inhabitants at which they are very Dexterous – a great deal being carried out at a Gap called Salt Dean Gap about 3/4 of a mile to the East’. When men could earn as much as 2s 7d for simply unloading cargo, over twice the daily rate for hard work as a farm laborer, it is easy to sea why smuggling flourished. The last case of smuggling in the area was reported in 1827 where Herbert Julyan writing in ‘Rottingdean and the East Sussex Downs and Villages’ that smugglers attacked and severely beat Liet. Digby of Saltdean Blockade Division’
Why smuggling became big business
Contraband smuggling took off along the south coast in the 1770’s when economic events in Britain started to downturn. Coastal communities, like the rest of the country, suffered increasing levels of poverty as the country’s national debt spiraled and the cost of living inexorably rose. This economic crisis had been sparked by the American War of Independence. For seven years Britain had waged an expensive and ultimately futile military campaign attempting to keep hold of the colonies, on which we relied for the bulk of our trade. When France and Spain joined the American rebels, Britain lost the war. Suddenly the nation teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and taxes rapidly went through the roof. The tax on tea hit an eye-watering 110%. Brandy and gin attracted 18 different duties totaling 250% and the tax on tobacco made up 95% of its retail price. Furthermore, by the late 18th century, the tax on imported salt was 40 times its actual cost, way beyond the reach of fisherman who used it to preserve their catches. Without salt they faced ruin and starvation. However, all of these heavily taxed products were available for a fraction of the price from nearby France and the Channel Islands. The time was ripe for a smuggling explosion.
By 1821 the National Coastguard Service was introduced. This evolved into a disciplined and uniformed body with shore based patrols, an offshore rowing guard and fast revenue cutters patrolling coastal waters. Coastguard cottages (such as at Telscombe Cliffs) were built at regular points along the south coast to house officers. In the war against smuggling the initiative had moved on from vicious renegade gangs to revenue authorities.
As detailed above, the most important factor in the suppression of smuggling was the significant reduction (or abolition) of many import duties. It formed part of a policy of Free Trade in the first half of the 19th Century. Add in the wholesale reform of the Customs service in 1853 which ensured a loyal and efficient force and the authorities were finally able to regain control. Smuggling became relatively unimportant and gradually declined.
Coastguards remained but their operational role became more one of maritime rescue and lifesaving.
For more information and the history of notoriously violent and murderous smuggling gangs across Sussex click here
WARNING: not for the faint of heart