Smugglers Song

A Smuggler’s Song
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 ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ‘em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again – and they’ll be gone next day!
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm – don’t you ask no more!
If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you “pretty maid,” and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!
Knocks and footsteps round the house – whistles after dark -
You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie -
They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!
If you do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
You’ll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood -
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie -
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.

Rudyard Kipling

Background notes:

Kipling knew the stories of the smugglers well. In fact, it was impossible to avoid them in those days. The warning to ‘watch the wall, my darling’ was sound advice when smugglers were abroad and the opportunity to make off with hidden contraband was best forgotten as it could end in murder.

In the days of the smugglers there was a small middle class with the remainder of the population made up of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The have nots were far greater in number and many of those lived in dire poverty. However, the Kipling poem also makes reference in the chorus to the fact that even if they didn’t become directly involved, many locals benefited from this shadowy trade along the south coast.

‘Five and twenty ponies’ reminds us how difficult travel could be in those days. When it rained, roads were frequently impassable for any form of wheeled transport, however the smugglers, all local people, knew quiet lanes, footpaths and tracks where they could surreptitously avoid revenue men and coastguards. This explains why they would tend to use packhorses rather than carts to move illicit cargoes.

Getting caught wasn’t an option, the penalties were severe.