‘Them ships now,’ Will pointed. ‘They’re probably bringin’ in tea and brandy; watch they’ll of’en stop an’ tub boats will side up an’ lift off contraband, e’en in broad daylight.’
The Thirteenth Box
My Smugglers’ Town Mysteries are set in 1780s, though smuggling into Christchurch, the small town on the south coast where the books are set, had been happening for many decades. The town’s geography made it an ideal landing place for smuggled contraband and whilst the smugglers would bring in almost anything to avoid paying duty at the ports, tea and spirits, such as brandy and geneva (gin) are the most mentioned in archive material. Both to the east and west of the entrance to Christchurch harbour at Mudeford are long stretches of sandy beaches and off these are chines and bunnies – local names for wooded ravines. These made for great getaways once the goods had been landed ashore. By the mid to late eighteenth century smuggling was being carried out on an industrial scale and there was little defence, particularly ashore. To the north east of the town lay the New Forest and to the west, Bourne Heath, here smuggled goods were taken across rugged tracks to be hidden and then distributed.
Chewton Bunny – a popular route for smugglers
Images and in particular books and films – think Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and Falkner’s Moonfleet, depict smugglers working away in the dead of night. Yet in Christchurch masses of goods were landed in broad daylight. There is a lot of evidence and I highlighted this on my recent Smugglers’ Town Tour with students and teachers from Highcliffe School. I guided a tour with four stops explaining why it was, when smuggling was happening all around the coast, that the tiny town of Christchurch was at the centre of it all.
Quicksand and Quick Getaways
The first stop was Chewton Bunny at the eastern boundary between Dorset and Hampshire, though it was in Hampshire until 1974. The Bunny was a well-known route from the beaches, up through the ravine and across Chewton Common, Hinton and eventually Ringwood. Smuggled goods could be purchased close by at Ridley Wood, and people would travel from places as far away as Bristol, Salisbury and Winchester to buy from the gangs. On the beach at Chewton Bunny, quicksand could be a problem for anyone in pursuit of the smugglers due to the Walkford Brook discharging into the sea here, but local smugglers knew the beach and the sands well and would use this to their advantage. This was not one or two men in a boat, this was large amounts landed with defences at sea. This is exemplified in this news cutting:
Caledonian Mercury August 16 1743¹
(This cutting appeared in several newspapers nationally, this is a clear copy)
This mid-century clipping tells us sixty smugglers using thirty-nine horse were involved in this ‘Run’ and were defended by a three-mast vessel with fire power. It also shows that this was a daylight ‘Run’, taking place at ‘two in the afternoon’.
Chewton Bunny c1940 ³
Chewton Bunny 2019 – The Walkford Brook now runs partway via a culvert, discharging onto the beach.
Chewton Bunny towards the sea – no date ³
Present day approach to the beach from the Bunny – the Brook runs underneath
Our next stop on the tour was Mudeford Quay. By a happy coincidence it was 15th July, the anniversary of the Battle of Mudeford, which began after a late afternoon landing a mass of goods. This was more than a skirmish and involved Christchurch’s most notorious smuggler, John Streeter. There are many accounts of the Battle but briefly, Streeter had agreed a ‘double run’ with the captains of his two ships, the Phoenix and the Civil Usage. There are differing accounts of the amounts of contraband that were landed during that late afternoon, but it was massive, estimates are around 5,000 barrels of spirits and 400 casks of tea. Descriptions of the numbers needed to carry the goods away were reported to be 400 horses, 100 wagons and 300 people.
The Battle was re-enacted at the Christchurch Heritage Festival – Watch the Wall – Smugglers! In October 2016
The customs and excise were desperate to catch Streeter, though with no assistance from the local superintendent of customs at Christchurch, Joshua Stevens Jeans, who on the day of the battle had told his riding officers to go home – he was subsequently sacked. Two ships were on the chase, the Swan a customs cutter and the Resolution an Excise cutter. The Resolution was first on the scene, though held back due to being outgunned by Streeter’s ships, but the game changed when HMS Orestes, a sloop of war arrived. Boats were put out to seize the Phoenix and the Civil Usage and firing commenced.
Leading the boats was Master of the Orestes, William Allen. Allen was shot twice, firstly in the leg whilst pushing his boat back into the water after it had run onto the sandbank, and by a second shot which penetrated his liver and stomach. The battle went on for around three hours and subsided when the smugglers, who’d been firing from Streeter’s ships, nearby sand dunes and the Haven Inn – which is now a residence known as the Dutch Cottages began to disperse under cover of darkness. The Phoenix and Civil Usage were seized at 3am and William Allen died aboard the Orestes at 6am. Justice – if there was any – in the eighteenth century was a slow process. It wasn’t until two years later anyone was tried for the murder of William Allen and even then, they had the wrong man. George Coombs was found guilty and hung for Allen’s murder, and most certainly did not fire the shots. Streeter was imprisoned in Winchester gaol, though escaped in 1786.
Account of the Battle of Mudeford, Salisbury and Winchester Journal 14 August 1784 ²
An Eye Witness
An eyewitness account of smuggling in Christchurch is provided by Richard Warner. Warner, a vicar who lived near Bath, was known for his travel books, but he also penned his Literary Recollections an autobiographical account which included his time as a schoolboy in Christchurch in the 1770s/80s. The grammar school in Christchurch was established in 1662 and continued until 1869. It was found in St Michael’s Loft, a large room located above the Lady Chapel in the Priory Church and reached via a seventy-five-step stone spiral staircase. The room is bright with windows the length of both the north and south walls plus a large window on the end, eastern wall. This was our third stop. The reason being Warner’s description of watching daylight runs involving ‘troops of smugglers’ at Hengistbury Head. He says:
‘I have myself, more than once, seen a procession of twenty or thirty waggons, loaded with kegs of spirits; an armed man sitting at the front and tail of each; and surrounded by a troop of two or three hundred horsemen, every one of them carrying on his enormous saddle, from two to four tubs of spirits …’
Warner also says that the revenue ‘always had intelligence’ of the runs but said a ‘voluntary toll’ was received of presents of kegs.
The Tower, Christchurch Priory, built 1470-1480
Warner also tells us of a smuggler with the nickname Slippery Rogers. The most remarkable thing about Rogers was his ship, which Warner describes as being around 120’ (36.6 meters), which is as long as the Priory tower is high! He describes it thus:
‘Her unequalled length, and perfect symmetry of form; her thousands of square feet of white canvas, courting the breeze, and swelling to the sun; her forty rowers sweeping the rippled surface of the river, with strong well-measured stroke; and above all her jolly crew of daring mariners; their careless mirth; their choral songs; and triumphant huzzas; mingled with parting salutes and farewell wishes to their friends ashore …’
It also had storage for ‘two or three thousand ankers of spirits’! As the sails were ‘swelling in the sun’ it was daylight when the smuggling vessel set sail from the town. Though Rogers, we are told, preferred bad weather as it was less likely they were caught. Unfortunately, this also led to his demise as the ship and all aboard were lost at sea in a storm
A Smuggler’s Panorama
Our final stop was Hengistbury Head, where Warner and his school friends observed the Smugglers. At the very top of the Head – sometimes named Christchurch Head in news cuttings and on maps of the area in the eighteenth century – it’s possible to enjoy a breath-taking panoramic view of Christchurch and its surrounds. By doing so the extent of the area available to the smugglers and the difficulty in defending the area is apparent. Christchurch lies just sixty nautical miles from France and the Channel Islands yet at that time was an isolated town.
Mudeford sandspit and harbour entrance from Hengistbury Head
The Priory Church towers over its surrounds and marks the entrance to the town. Before it Stanpit Marsh and the harbour. The harbour would have been much deeper with deep channels when navigated by the smugglers. One of these is visible from the Head and is known as Mother Siller’s channel. This is named after Hannah Sellers, who was the landlady of the Haven Inn at the time of the Battle of Mudeford, who went on to run an alehouse, The Ship in Distress, located close to the existing public house of the same name at Stanpit. Next Mudeford Quay and the run are clear and give an idea of the Battle locations. The sandspit was much longer at that time and subject to shifts like today. There is also the advantage of a double high tide. It was easy for the local smugglers to outrun any ships by passing through the run. William Allen found to his cost that unfamiliarity could lead to grounding on the sands and either leaving themselves open to being fired on by the smugglers – or simply out run.
Across Stanpit Marsh to the town
The view of the coast eastwards takes us as far as Hurst Castle, built in Tudor times and used to defend the Solent over the centuries, including WWII. It is said the Castle was used as storage by John Streeter, such was the extent of his smuggling venture. The Isle of Wight is viewed across Christchurch Bay. Customs and excise officers from Cowes were at the forefront of preventative work and Streeter’s Phoenix and Civil Usage were taken here after their seizure by the Orestes. Poole Bay stretches from Hengistbury head to Old Harry Rocks and Poole Harbour entrance can be seen. Then westwards the stretch of beach from Poole back to Christchurch (the town of Bournemouth didn’t exist in the eighteenth century). These beaches also had ravines – this time locally known as Chines. It is little wonder with few excise officers on land, many of whom were corruptible like Joshua Stevens Jeans, the smugglers had the upper hand and could blatantly land goods during daylight.
Westward across Poole Bay
As the end of the century drew closer, the days of such open law-breaking were slowly coming to an end. In the late eighteenth century, there was a new threat to Britain – invasion by France. Coastal defences were increased, including the building of army barracks in Christchurch. In Poole, Dorset Yeomanry were increased under Captain Lewis Tregonwell. Tregonwell is known as the founder of Bournemouth, building a home at the mouth of the Bourne River in 1810 (now extended and altered as the Royal Exeter Hotel). The area soon attracted new people and grew to become the popular beach resort. The introduction of a water guard in the early nineteenth century plus reductions in duties to be paid in ports made smuggling less profitable and even more risky and the hay days of Christchurch smuggling drew slowly to a close.
Smuggling gangs could be vicious and would strive to regain any goods seized. Without sales, no profits could be made. They were not afraid to defend themselves and in a small out-of-the-way town like Christchurch where people knew each other it was best not to rock the boat. People were poorly paid, particularly those working on the land or fishermen, turning up on the beach with a pony or waggon would be a way of earning a few shillings to put bread on the table. And with Customs Officers included it was little wonder it all happened in broad daylight.
¹& ² – Newspaper images © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk –
(I find the British Newspaper Archive invaluable and is an essential source for writers and researchers.)
³ – Courtesy of Mudeford Pictures Keep the Old Days Alive – https://www.facebook.com/Mudeford.keep.the.old.days.alive/
Mudeford Pictures Keep the Old Days Alive is a brilliant Facebook page for anyone interested in the Christchurch area .
All colour photos: © Julie Ratcliffe