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Watch the Wall: Smuggling in Sussex

“Four and twenty ponies trotting in the dark with brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk,

Laces for a lady, letter from a spy, so watch the wall my darlings, while the gentleman go by.


So, who were the “gentlemen” and why should the little darlings turn their faces to the wall? The answer is that the “gentlemen” were of course the Sussex smugglers and the fearful (or perhaps fearsome) children should not be allowed to see them go past in case they should recognise some of their respectable neighbours taking part in a successful “run” of contraband.

How it all began

Sussex and Kent, being the nearest counties to continental Europe, always played a substantial role in the history of smuggling, the exportation or importation of substances either prohibited or heavily taxed to prevent their movement.

In Sussex, our strength was in the prohibited export called “owling” which was of sheep and wool; the latter was favoured (easier to transport) and was well received in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries, latterly encouraged by the Huguenot emigres who had settled here but still kept in contact with relations in France and the low countries who were keen to get our quality wool. This “owling” was on a modest scale and lasted into the 17th century.

A booming business

By the 17th century the smuggling business was “the other way round” (items smuggled into England, rather than out) because of the increasingly heavy duties imposed by the British Government, in order to finance the wars that they had with the French, the Dutch, the Spanish and anyone else that they felt like having a bash at.

Sussex history

These duties were applied to all sorts of goods – wines, spirits, brandy, Hollandes or Genevre (gin to us), tea and tobacco (easy to transport and giving a good return), lace, silk, leather, playing cards and anything else for which a market could be found (and not just in London but in all of the towns and villages on the way).

Local support

Nobody was that keen on the wars, and certainly less keen on the extra duties that were imposed on the few things that brought a little joy to an otherwise drab and hostile world.  Although, The Revenue established what was called The Preventative Service to catch the Sussex smugglers and impound the cargoes, locally, the support was more with the “free traders” as they styled themselves. Few of the strong liquors on offer in the hostelries of Sussex had had any duty paid on them, and by the 18th century, many of the leaders of the smuggling gang were inn keepers – two of the best known were Stanton Collins who ran the Alfriston Gang from the Market Cross Inn, and nearby was James Pettit known as ‘Jevington Jigg’ from Jevington (unsurprisingly).

sussex smugglers

And a blind eye

The establishment of the day (the gentry, the clergy and the magistracy) tended to turn a blind eye, so that the alleged villains got off scot-free, and bloody encounters, which inflicted fatalities on both sides, went unpunished. Indeed, some of the “gentlemen” who “went by” in the verse may have been just that. And as to the parson, whose brandy was the price of silence (even if he did not always know it), he did know that in times of great poverty, an agricultural labourer, if in employment at all, was lucky to get eight shillings a week for his labour but could earn ten shillings a night for taking part in “a run” by the “land smugglers”.

Holy orders

A classic example of clerical unawareness was the vicar of two small parishes on either side of the emerging resort of Brighthelmstone (Brighton); Hove and Preston both but a church and a single street in those days. The parson preached in each of his churches on alternate Sundays but on one, arriving at Preston he was greeted by a locked church door and a church warden who insisted that he could not preach there because it was “Hove Sunday”. The parson was sure that it wasn’t, but the persistent warden eventually persuaded him that preaching was not on the agenda for that Sunday because the pulpit was full of tea and the pews were full of kegs!

Waiting for a sign

The mechanics of smuggling were quite sophisticated. The actual goods were brought over by (often) foreign vessels who would patrol offshore, often for days, until a suitable moonless night and a timely signal from what became known as a “Smuggler’s Lantern” would tell them that the land smuggling team would convene on the shore to receive the incoming contraband. Obviously, the best spots along the Sussex coast were those where the presence of the Revenue Officers (often outnumbered) were likely to be scant, or, if there, ill matched.

During the heyday of Sussex smuggling some of the favoured spots were “our” end of Romney Marsh, Bulverhythe (west of Hastings), Pevensey Marsh, and (beyond Eastbourne), Birling Gap, Crowlink and Cuckmere Haven. West of Brighton, favoured spots were Copperas Gap (now Southwick), Lancing, Climping and lots of inlets round Pagham and Chichester harbours.

Making a run for it

On the night of a run, somehow large numbers of “land smugglers” with horses would be amassed on the shoreline to receive the bounty. They then had to get away from the excise men.  On occasions, with a big “landing”, they could produce as many as 300 horses and men to move the cargo on to its eventual destinations. This required help and co-operation in the places on the way and is why curious children there would be required to be kept facing the wall.

The gangs went by night, away from the main lanes or roads and adopted “The Green Lanes of Sussex” – old highways through the valleys and woods of the Weald, long abandoned by many but giving a safe, concealed route, firstly to a safe haven then transit on to the eventual markets.

Sussex windmills

A keg in the manger

Many such havens (some intended, some not) were located in the High Weald, in St Leonard’s Forest, Worth and Ashdown; perhaps on isolated farmsteads, where a change of horses might be forthcoming with a keg left in the manger as compensation. Millers of windmills were also known to assist a “landing” by setting the sails of the mill (called the sweeps in Sussex) to a prearranged formation to indicate the coast or inland was clear. Sometimes, a remote church would be used as a short “drop” when the Revenue were in hot pursuit and an old box tomb might provide a safe haven.

sussex smugglers

London bound

Occasionally, the eventual merchant customers would rendez vous at these staging posts; otherwise, another team would take the goods on, if for London to another safe rendez vous outside the city. Even if you were a freeman of the city, four and twenty ponies would have been a bit conspicuous trotting across London Bridge, so Stockwell, Hounslow or Epping Forest were favoured trading posts.

Seeing off Lord Tennyson

Some of the “Green Lanes” remain as they were – there is a splendid example that runs northwards to “King’s Land” and the windmill at Shipley. Another is “Earwig Lane” which runs parallel to the present bosky lane between Wineham and Warninglid. Alfred Lord Tennyson started his married life in a house at Warninglid, but he only lasted a week before leaving by night, wheeling his wife in a bath-chair (some said a wheelbarrow) to Cuckfield. One of his reasons for going was that there were smugglers in the cottage gate. That may well have been so, because the cottage opposite, with a long view has a very distinctive half moon shaped window, long thought by some to have housed a warning light to indicate to the smugglers that it was safe to proceed.

Spare a thought for the revenue men

Finally, consider if you will, the case of Nick Cossum. Nick was by calling a blacksmith but was also known to run his hand to a touch of smuggling. Having had business in Lewes, he was returning along the Downs one day when he was caught up by one of his neighbours who happened to be a revenue officer. Nick, rather conspicuously carrying a keg on his shoulders, might have sensed it was a fair cop so he said, “Seeing as how we be neighbours and going the same road, there’s no reason we can’t go together.” which they did, as the revenue office seized the keg from him. But when they came to part ways at Hurst, Nick said, “By the way, there’s a piece of paper that goes with that keg.”

“Why” replied the revenue officer, “this is a permit for this keg of Hollandes. Why didn’t you show it to me before?” “Well” said Nick, “if I had, you wouldn’t have carried my keg for me all this way.”

Watch out

So, next time you’re on a country walk in the lanes of Sussex, you might want to…

“Still as a mouse if you chance to sit, by the cool green lanes of Sussex, and you may her the chink of a ghostly bit…”

By Peter Benner with credit to Smuggling in Sussex and Kent 1700 – 1840 by Mary Waugh


If you like this post you may also be interested in:

Sussex Tales: The Hand of Sussex Witchcraft 

Sussex Tales: The Mysterious Mrs Bennett 

Sussex Tales: The Green Man

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