In the 16th century, Bristol was famous for wine smuggling from France and the Mediterranean: according to some reports only half the wine landed there paid duty, and the customs officers pocketed a £30 bribe for each ship that landed. It appears that the income from this illegal source was not fairly divided: when a clerk threatened to inform on his superiors, he spent 18 months in prison on a trumped-up charge of debt, and even when he reported the illicit dealings, no action was taken.
During the English Civil War, a new tax on domestic consumption, excise, was levied by Parliament to pay for the war. By 1660, this applied to items like chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, cider and spirits. Then in 1688 it was progressively widened to include essentials such as salt, leather, and soap.
Collecting taxes was a cumbersome and inefficient process with a hostile population where communication and transport links were slow and inefficient, so whole communities tended to become involved in the 'free-trade', as it was euphemistically known. The farm labourer helped carry goods inland; the parson bought cheap tea and wine; the local squire lent his horses for transport; the wealthy merchant obtained cut-price supplies of silks and lace; and at the very pinnacle of society, members of the gentry conducted foreign business through intermediaries involved in smuggling.
Attention in the 17th century focused on the tobacco trade with Bermuda and Virginia, from which the Bristol Customs authorities were quick to profit. William Culliford investigated the port in the 1680s, and found a rat's nest of fraudulent officials. The only tide-waiter considered to be honest was blind!
The standard way to smuggle goods in was for the ship's master to keep two sets of accounts. One showed the true cargo: this was for the benefit of its owners. A second set of books was presented to the customs authorities with a nod and a wink. One example was a ship called the Bristol Merchant, which docked with 9¼ tons of tobacco on board. It cost the crew £80 to get the customs officials to turn a blind eye, but this was less than half what they saved in duty. Pay-offs took place at Mother Grindham's Coffee House on Bristol quayside.
Houses in known smugglers haunts in the West Country set a bottle bottom in the plaster below a gable end of the house to indicate the owners were smugger sympathisers.
Whilst searching for a character to include in my latest wip, I came across a famous smuggler in the West Country during the 17th century named Thomas Coumbe, known as The Smuggler Squire. Born in Devon in 1620, he married a tall, auburn haired beauty named Bridget, who was much younger than himself and reputed to be a descendant of Sir Ralph de Blanchminster, a Cornish Knight who followed Richard Coeur de Lion on the Third Crusade.
Thomas Coumbe became a church warden in 1666, subsequently gaining great wealth from his association with the smugglers at Bude. His chief entry points for smuggling were Bude and Widemouth on the North Devon coast, at a spot from which signal flares from Widemouth Bay or Bude Haven could be seen by the smugglers at sea.
At a time when sand was used to break up the heavy loam of Devon before the employment of artificial manures, the Smuggling Squire made a weekly trip between Tavistock and Exeter on his sand cart, in which he hid tobacco, silk, brandy and wine.
According to old deeds, he owned land from "Sea to Sea", i.e. from Exeter on the South Devon coast to Bude on the north, a distance of 53 miles. He had a number of illegitimate children, to whom no doubt some of the farms were bequeathed. How could I resist adding this colourful character to my story?
A brown, hard, stern looking man with one blue eye, over the other he wore a patch having lost an eye in a duel, and regularly dressed in leather with a bob wig.
Anita Davison is an historical fiction author with a love of 17th century England. DUKING DAYS: REBELLION was released in 2007 and the sequel, DUKING DAYS: REVOLUTION in 2008. TRENCARROW SECRET, a Victorian Gothic romance, will be released in June 2011 by MuseItUp Publishing.