Owlers and Smugglers

Smuggling was at the heart of Newchurch life from the 16th century, reaching a climax in the 18th century, and declining with reduced duty in 1831.


Launching a Lugger

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

Ogdens Cigarette Card c.1920, from a smuggling series, illustrating “Watch the wall my darling…”Collection of Dover Museum

A 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 ask no questions isn't told a 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 Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, 
While the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again — and they'll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm — don't you ask no more!


If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you "pretty maid," and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!

Knocks and footsteps round the house — whistles after dark —
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie —
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

If you do as you've been told, 'likely there's a chance,
You'll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood —
A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being good!

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark —
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie —
Watch the wall, my darling, 
While the Gentlemen go by!


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