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Smugglers on our Suffolk shores

Across the beaches of this part of Suffolk for hundreds of years men, and some women, have splashed back and forth through the waves, sometimes by day, generally by night, on illicit and nefarious passage.


Single spies are easy to hide, difficult to find except when crossing a shoreline, but some of the shipments of smuggled goods must have been large and blatant, requiring the active, or passive support of almost the whole community.

Co-operation with the local populace was achieved in many years, as Kipling said of the flourishing years of smuggling as a lucrative trade.

The 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 asks no questions, isn’t told no 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 clerck;

Laces for a Lady; Letters for a spy;

And watch the wall, my darling,

While the gentlemen go by.

Smuggling contraband developed not at first as a round taxation, but to circumvent some of the Middle Ages Charters and Monopolies. Customs were introduced around 1198, and the restricting of the wool export trade to Staple towns and ports was resented by many merchants, and the demand for English wool from the Flemish weavers encouraged shipments off the beach.

One of our many commercial practices borrowed from the Dutch in 1643 was Excise; an unpopular imposition, described by Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary, as “a hateful tax, adjudged by hired wretches”; so our views on tax gatherers have not changed much.

Already though Suffolk lore and legend brought over with the Vikings was used perhaps to keep people at home after dark whilst others went about their unlawful ways. A widespread legend involves a flying black dog spreading fear and fright throughout the countryside. It is written that in 1577 in Blythburgh, some 5 miles away, during Sunday service, the dog Balk Shuck swept down from the tower through the frightened congregation, killing two, and disappearing out of the vestry door. Westleton Walks, four miles from here, on a regular smugglers route is haunted by Black Toby, the ghost of a Negro drummer boy of Dragoons, hanged there in chains for rape and murder.

The route passes Scotts hall where there are extensive vaults used to hold goods landed a mile away and awaiting dispersal inland.

Troops were imported to help the law officers and magistrates, often stationed in hostelries in most parishes near the coast. They were German style Dragoon regiments that did not endear themselves to the Suffolk natives. Gangs of forty men or more, with dozens of carts, were common; giving some idea both of the size of the shipments and the degree of local support. But, in 1747 a pitched battle took place with the Dragoons, later to become The Queen’s Own, Winston Churchill’s regiment, in the yard of the Eel’s Foot Inn at Eastbridge, under three miles away.

Sizewell Beach, just to the North was often used; Hill House had a concealed window that could show a light to sea, not to be seen from along the beach by the Coastguards or excise men. Nearly in Leiston, the redoubtable Mrs. Gildersleeves ran the White Horse Inn; an intelligence centre for the gangs, perhaps helped by having Dragoons and their horses billeted there. Occasionally their answer to an urgent summons was slowed down by the offer of “one for the road”. It is also believed that brandy storage was arranged across the road in The Friends Meeting House in pressing moments, without hopefully the connivance of the Quakers. Smuggling planning was easily disguised under the normal traffic through the local inns, and the Parrot and Punchbowl in Altringham and the Three Mariners at Slaughden long held such a reputation.

East Indiamen standing off London River waiting for wind or tide, in mist or fog, or at night, would tranship chests of tea to smaller craft, for later landing up the coast Essex and Suffolk.

The impressing of men and ships for the fighting against the French, as well as the piratical Dunkirkers, reduced the strength available to search for contraband, but by 1817 reinforcements were released from the navy and the trade became more difficult. Thereafter tax burdens lightened or were replaced by new ones and smuggling became less profitable.

Coastal surveillance was again stepped up in 1914, and Ness House and other houses along this coast were used by the soldiers. A Coastguard service, as well as more numerous lifeboats, made the beaches a less private place. Increase in revenue duties were introduced in the ’20’s and ‘30’s, but at least one local pub served surprisingly cheap Dutch gin. In World War II the beach here became impassable to all but the military, and later a few chosen fishermen. Cigarettes became the most common of contraband, and the vast increase in the number of private yachts has made harbour inspections a very regular feature of coastal passage, but the beach at times is still a very secret place for those who want it so.

The enormous ferry terminals at Felixstowe and Harwich are a focus for the professional experts, on both sides, with sophisticated apparatus and dogs, searching for narcotics. Illegal immigrants, more recently, are reported to be a much more lucrative trade, but are involved in frightening exploitation in their lands of origin.

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