Smuggling in Sussex

OH! To be a Smuggler.

No sketch of the Downland, however slight, can properly omit' allusion to the smuggling in which our coast-dwelling ancestors periodically indulged. It is clear that in many instances, smuggling was regarded as the satisfaction merely of a sporting instinct, an interest in a "run" being looked upon as scarcely more censurable than a present-day share in a Derby " sweep."

The roads, slypes, and bostals over the hills teem with reminiscences. Many of the tales concerning smugglers and their deeds of daring may still be gathered from the folk, even by strangers, provided that tact be employed. Less than one hundred and sixty years ago the rector of a sequestered village, while proceeding homeward at a late hour, passed, in the main street of a neighbouring hamlet, a funeral hearse with attendants and the usual panoply of woe.

Struck with the extraordinary character of the procession and the time chosen for such a display, he asked for an explanation, but no answer was forthcoming. The next day he enquired of one of the mutes, whom he had recognized, the reason for the funeral at such an hour. Old M— then narrated how the party had been conveying over the hills from Cuckmere Haven, a load of Hollands (contraband) which had been safely brought ashore, and that the silence which met the rector's question was due to the promise that each had made to speak to no person whatever while engaged on the enterprise.


In a quiet parish church there is still pointed out an altar-tomb which, by those in the " know," was convertible into a receptacle for smuggled goods, and this without the knowledge of the worthy divine who weekly officiated there. " Open sesame" no longer avails, for the slab, which was turned to obtain access to the interior of the tomb, has been permanently secured.

An old lady, long deceased, used to speak in awed tones when mentioning the names of the smugglers of former times. Possibly she thought that they might yet be made to account for their exploits if their names were spread abroad. When children, she and her sister, on the approach of revenue officers, were once hurriedly sent to bed in the daytime above a couple of kegs containing spirit. On the officers appearing at the bedrom when searching the house, they were informed that the children were suffering from scarlet fever. The spirits remained unmolested.

The last hoard of fifty guineas which the old lady's mother had industriously saved was taken to assist in the purchase of a cargo which was to be run ashore on the next dark night. The mother herself, when a young child, caused consternation to her parents by narrating how she had opened a farm gate for the convenience of the " Hawkhurst gang." It was considered a matter of congratulation that this gang of ruffians, who ended their career by violent deaths, had left the child unmolested.

The same old lady used also to narrate how a relative of hers by marriage had been cured of his sporting propensities through the drowning of his companions. When chased while carrying kegs on their shoulders, the party plunged into the Military Canal of East Sussex, and on gaining the opposite bank and reaching the hills beyond, the relative in question discovered the loss of his companions. This so much impressed him that he foreswore the pursuit, and, as he used to repeat to his friends, " he would go smuggling no more, for God had graciously spared his life."

The kegs formerly used by smugglers were of such sizes and shapes as to be capable of easy carriage and support upon the breast and back. They were suspended from the neck, a strap round the waist retaining them in position.

At length Bow Street runners. who used their firearms without compunction, came to be employed, and smuggling in consequence degenerated into a fatal pursuit, so that the more circumspect of the coast-dwellers gave up the habit. The practice of smuggling thereupon fell into abeyance.


Tales from "Memorials of Old Sussex"  by Percy D.Mundy. 1909.