West Bay Discovery Centre, West Bay, Bridport, DT6 4EN.

Smuggling and the Dorset Connection

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We had another packed centre for our talk ‘Smuggling and the Dorset connection’ on Friday by the Chair of Bridport Area Development Trust Trevor Ware We had some lovely feedback from those who attended:

“Wonderful talk, well presented – very informative.”

“Cracking evening on Friday, thank you so much for putting this on.”…

Smuggling tools

Smuggling was rife along the Dorset coast between about 1700 and 1830. Britain was at war almost constantly and the finance for these wars had to come from taxes, most of which were on luxury goods such as lace, spice, wine, spirits, tea and perfume. Avoiding these taxes by smuggling was an attractive sideline with high financial rewards in times of low wages or poor fishing. The smuggling expeditions were often financed by the local gentry, known as “venturers”.

Almost everyone in the coastal villages of West Dorset would know someone involved in smuggling. The coast from West Bay east down to the Fleet was a popular landing place for smuggled goods. The payment for a night of smuggling was equivalent to two weeks of wages for an agricultural worker.

Smuggling talk West Bay Discovery Centre
Trevor Ware talking about Smuggling along the Dorset Coast

By the eighteenth century drinking tea was extremely popular but very expensive due to high levels of duty. This resulted in huge demand for cheap tea which was met by illegal means. Being light and easy to transport tea was a very profitable commodity surprisingly even more than gin or brandy. In 1745 the tax of tea was reduced in an attempt to cut the profits of the smugglers but they just moved on to other goods.

Two of the most famous smugglers operating in our area were :

Jack Rattenbury (1778-1844) was a fisherman, pilot, seaman and smuggler. He is famous not just because he was a smuggler but because he wrote a diary of his activities and then published It (Memoirs of a Smuggler). He operated along the coastline to the west of West Bay and into Devon.

Issac Gulliver (1778 -1884) was a smuggler (following in his father’s footsteps) he operated along the coast from Poole to West Bay. He even planted trees on Eggardon Hill to act as a landmark for the luggers bringing in their cargoes.

Look out for smugglers!
Watch out for the smugglers!

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Extract of A Smuggler’s Song written by Rudyard Kipling

In the early 18th Century prevention was mainly land-based as this didn’t prove very successful and as prevention developed ships were bought in. Revenue cutters were built at the shipyard at Bridport Harbour (West Bay. )They were armed with especially powerful weapons called Carronades, only supplied to the Revenue Service and the Royal Navy.  The shipyards also however worked for the smugglers adapting their boats to cater for the requirements to secret their goods on board.

In the 1840’s Britain adopted a free trade policy slashing the tax on import goods within 10 years most smuggling had died out.

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