Crinolines and bladders

‘Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by’

(Kipling: “The Smuggler’s Song”)

Throughout the centuries smuggling has been considered by the British people to be a very profitable way of life. Everyone, from the local shepherd to the vicar and even the lord of the manor might be involved and during the 17th and 18th centuries in southern England smuggling became part of everyday life, and was certainly more profitable than fishing. At one period in history it was estimated that more illicit spirits were being smuggled into the country than came through London Docks!
By the mid 17th Century, smuggling had become punishable by death and smugglers therefore began to arm themselves with suitable weaponry. There were many violent exchanges with the Excise-men and on the Sunken Island near Mersea in the early 1800s an entire boatload of Excise-men were found with their throats  cut.  They are now buried beneath their upturned boat in Virley churchyard.
Usually thought of as a male preserve, what may at first surprise many people is the extent to which women were also involved. Some of these would have been smugglers’ wives, though this is not always the case. The business of importing goods, usually liquor, from cross-channel boats under the cover of darkness in order to avoid excise duty (tax) was a lucrative sideline that impoverished families living within a few miles of the coast would find very difficult to ignore.
One precaution  the smugglers did take was to make villagers face the wall when they approached with their contraband so if an individual smuggler was arrested later, the villagers could truthfully swear that they had seen nothing, for hearing was not evidence.

Local support

Few smuggling ventures would have succeeded if the operators and landers lacked the support of the locals. Villagers, both along the shore and inland, provided transportation to convey the contraband to market and hiding places to store it. Not only were women useful to the smugglers as signallers and carriers of messages from one member of the gang to another, they also played an active role in smuggling operations, keeping a look out, hiding the cargoes, or disposing of contraband goods.
Smugglers showed remarkable creativity and inventiveness in transporting their cargoes inland from the coast. The voluminous skirt was a particularly useful fashion, for the women wound yards of silk and lace round their bodies and reached home as a rule quite peacefully with their contraband.
There was plenty of work for women in the trade, however. The brandy that was brought in from France was near proof (to save space) and clear to boot. It needed diluting and the English liked their brandy honey-coloured. The women usually did the work of heating the caramel mixture and colouring the liquor and also watering it down.
When tea was smuggled, the women in their costal cottages often cut and dried ordinary leaves to mix in with the actual tea to increase profits. I imagine that must sometimes have tasted nasty and could even have been toxic.       
Even more outrageous was a slightly later practice whereby women tied bladders filled with brandy and gin under their skirts and walked brazenly through the town with them swinging under their skirts, safe in the knowledge that the revenue men were – naturally! – forbidden from putting their hands up the good wives’ petticoats.
This became a risky procedure. The danger wasn’t from the revenue men, but from local youths who thought the greatest joke ever was to pierce the bladder with a knife or other sharp implement and watch the booze flood out over the carrier’s shoes, stockings and onto the ground. Such a waste!      Marie-Louise Jensen

In 1799 George Lipcomb described an encounter with several such women.

We met several females, whose appearance was so grotesque and extraordinary, that I could not imagine, in what manner they had contrived to alter their natural shapes so completely; till, upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spirituous liquors; which they were at that time conveying from their Cutter to Plymouth, by means of bladders fastened under their petticoats; and, indeed they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty they waddled along.       Cindy Vallar

A report from a Hampshire Chronicle of March 25th 1799 stated that:

 A woman of the name of Maclane, residing at Gosport, accustomed to supply the crew of Queen Charlotte with slops went out in a wherry to Spithead, when a sudden squall coming on, the boat sank; the watermen were drowned, but the life of the woman was providentially saved, by being buoyed up with a quantity of bladders, which had been secreted round her for the purpose of smuggling liquor into the ship, until she was picked up by the boat of a transport lying near.” Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock
Another female smuggler, Lovey Warne, operated around Christchurch and Mudeford.  Lovey sometimes wrapped silk or lace around her body, under her clothes.  Sometimes she carried cow bladders containing liquor.  She used her red cloak as a signal for smugglers.

Thames Police-court

At the Thames Police-court, on Thursday, a well-dressed woman named Elizabeth Barbara Lorinz, aged 36, a native of Holland, was brought in on remand, charged with smuggling.

“On Wednesday afternoon Inspector Major, of the Thames Police, and Dyer, constable of the same divison, were on duty at the Dublin-wharf, Lower Smithfield, and saw the prisoner disembark from the Batavier, a Rotterdam steamer. There was something very peculiar in her gait, which induced the officers to watch her.

“Dyer put himself in her way. Something hard struck against his right knee as she passed him. The inspector and constable followed the prisoner as far as Burr-street, the back of the St. Katharine’s Dock, where the inspector spoke to her and intimated that she had goods about her liable to duty. She indignantly denied the assertion.
“She was then taken into custody. On the way to the Thames Police-station at Wapping, she offered Inspector Major a present to let her go, which he refused.
“On her arrival at the station she delivered to the officers a few sticks of Cavendish tobacco, and said she had no more. She was delivered into the care of Mrs. Charlotte Nixon, a female searcher, to whom she declared that she was in the family way, and had no smuggled goods about her.
“Mrs. Nixon, however, insisted on examining her dress, and discovered 5 lbs of cigars, 9 lbs. of Cavendish tobacco, some tea, and a bottle of Hollands gin, concealed beneath her clothes and about capacious crinoline. The evidence having been interpreted to the prisoner, she pleaded ” Guilty.” 
(Aldershot Military Gazette. Sat 23 Nov 1861)     

The register for Dorchester Gaol 1782-1853

Despite the fact that women were not allowed to be searched, a number of them were arrested on smuggling related offences. The register for Dorchester Gaol 1782-1853 lists the names and occupations of no fewer than 64 women convicted of various smuggling related offences, including  Charlotte Drake and Ann Maidment,  who both assaulted and obstructed excise officers, Mary Applin  who committed an excise offence, Martha Lumb who was sentenced to three months hard labour and Catherine Winter, a Weymouth seamstress, who served an 18-day sentence in 1844 for smuggling at the age of 70!

But regardless of the sex of the offender, for the populace as a whole, smuggling was generally considered an honourable trade.


The History Girls Women and the Smuggling Trade

Marie-Louise Jensen

Cindy Vallar

Smugglers and Wreckers by Ellen Castelow

Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock

Dorset Ancestors

West Bay Dorset Smuggling

Historic UK

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *