Smuggling in Rowlands Castle

Tim Cowin

Rowlands Castle’s role in the smuggling ‘trade’ between 1739 and 1815 is a largely forgotten chapter in the history of the village

Smuggling is concerned with avoiding 2 forms of taxation –

  • Custom Taxes – duties levied on imports
  • Excise Taxes – duties levied on exports

Smuggling in Southern England was initially concerned mainly with the avoidance of export duties, particularly on wool.

Despite producing some of the finest wool in Europe England did not have a major weaving industry in the middle ages and most wool was exported, making up 97% of exports.  English Wool was essential the weavers making high quality fabrics in what is now Belgium & France.

With the growth of English weaving in the 14th Century the government increased in the duty on wool, and at times outlawed its export altogether.  Their aim was to boost English weaving by cutting off the supply of wool to the European competition.

A trade in wool smuggling developed, which had widespread public support. Punishments for wool smuggling included the loss of limbs and, from 1662, death by hanging, but there was minimal enforcement due to the lack of a preventative service.  Wool Commissioners were appointed to regulate wool export.   The unpaid commissioners were expected to maintain themselves out of the fines levied on illegal exporters.  This resulted in the seizures of shipments of wool, with the commissioners demanding bribes to permit their export.   In 1702 only 91 sacks of wool were seized, out of an estimated 150,000 exported illegally.

The export of wool across the channel created a secondary trade in goods brought back on the return journey.  Warehouses on the French & Belgian coast supplied smugglers with goods such as spirits, tea, lace and tobacco.

Britain’s war with Spain in 1739 caused major increases in duty, and a huge increase in smuggling.   The following 76 years were the heyday of British smuggling.

Gangs operated along the coast between Kent and Cornwall.  Several operated on Hayling Island and the extensive shorelines of Chichester and Langstone harbours made them ideal smuggling locations as they were difficult to police.

The mainstay of the smuggling operations was the Lugger, heavily armed and carrying 50 to 300 tonnes of cargo.     On nights when cargoes were landed men and horses from farms up to 10 miles inshore would unload the cargo and carry it to a place where it could be hidden and distributed.

The part Rowlands Castle played was in the distribution of the goods.   It lies on the route North from Chichester Harbour and goods could be hidden and moved within the forest without attracting attention.   The village, in particular the White Hart public house (the forerunner of today’s Castle Inn) became a notorious smuggling centre.

The smuggling trade was more brutal and extensive than suggested by Victorian tales.  The smuggling convoys often consisted of hundreds of horses, protected by armed men.

Pitted against the smugglers were the 299 riding officers of the preventative service, the nearest in Emsworth.  These limited preventative services were commonly unable to confront the smugglers.

Smuggling continued unabated until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, with the high level of duty ensuring that it remained profitable and the risk of capture remaining low due to a lack of resources for enforcement.

After 1815 the government was able to tackle the problem of smuggling.   The navy patrolled the coastline and watch-houses were built to watch the coast, including one overlooking the causeway to Hayling Island at Langstone. 

The main cause of smuggling’s decline however was the reduction in duty, which made the economics of the trade unsupportable.