Launching a Lugger. Engraving 1820. Collection of Dover Museum
These activities were extended after customs duties on imports were introduced in the latter part of the 13th century. As customs duties were so high on such things as tea, liquor, tobacco, salt, silks and laces smuggling was a lucrative and organized business in which most people became involved and benefited. Trips to buy the goods were financed by the rich and respectable citizens who would make a profit, the inn keepers and their customers could buy more cheaply and the men engaged in ‘moonlighting’ by moving the goods inland from the shore would have their share, as would the farmers who left their stables and lodges unlocked.
Of the many places that were used to store this contraband, many of the clergy allowed their churches to be used. Many a money bag or contraband was left for the revenue officers and others so they would not interfere.
Rudyard Kipling summed this up in his immortal ‘Smugglers song’
Smuggling began in the mediaeval period with the illegal export of wool. At that time the export of wool to Europe had been prohibited to protect the English weaving industry from its competitors. While the weaving industry benefited from this ruling, more wool was being produced than they needed and the price dropped. It was no wonder that a lucrative illegal business should develop to sell wool abroad for a bigger profit and protect the interests of the sheep farmers and workers.
Those involved in smuggling were generally not looked upon as villains as most people benefited from it. These early smugglers were known as ‘Owlers’, as they worked stealthily at night, calling to one another in an eerie way, like owls. The ditches and dykes, where the marsh mists would hang, provided ideal hiding places for their nocturnal activities. The Owlers would collect the wool from their hiding places, meet up and transport it to the sea shore,where a large open rowing boat was waiting to take it out to an offshore smuggler’s lugger.
Ogdens Cigarette Card c.1920, from a smuggling series, illustrating “Watch the wall my darling…”Collection of Dover Museum
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Five and twenty ponies,
If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
Knocks and footsteps round the house — whistles after dark —