Smuggling was big business in Sussex and Kent in the early nineteenth centuries and Cuckmere Haven still shows the evidence of this industry today.
Back in the late eighteenth century huge gangs of men used to turn up on the beach at Cuckmere Haven a couple of nights a week to collect the contraband from as many as dozen vessels anchored off the coast – some of them parked up quite blatantly in daylight hours. It was little wonder that the smugglers were so fearless – it was regarded by many as a victimless crime and there were few people who didn’t benefit in some way from the illegal trade which had boomed in response to punitive taxation. It was far from victimless though – as the murdered and tortured excisemen and coastguards, who had fallen foul of the ruthless gangs, demonstrated.
The British government, determined not to forgo the revenue from import duty, was not slow to respond to the smugglers and despatched the Royal Navy and brigades of soldiers to back up the customs officers. After the distraction of the Napoleonic wars was out of the way they became determined to stamp it out and set up the Coastguard service in 1822 to stop the trade.
The Cuckmere wasn’t the only spot favoured by the smugglers – nearby Birling Gap and Crowlink in the Seven Sisters, as well as Eastbourne, Pevensey Bay and Hastings were all entry points - and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not the popular resorts they became later and were relatively isolated and unpopulated. Opportunistic local gangs operated on a small scale, while at Cuckmere Haven the flat, wide, shingle beach attracted the big organised gangs. Contemporary correspondence records as many as two or three hundred mounted smugglers galloping up to the beach at Cuckmere Haven and loading up their horses with contraband. Not even high stormy seas put the daring smugglers off. If the revenue men were present the smugglers tried to bribe them – and if that failed – often murdered them
Publication date is 9th May wiht the paperback to follow shortly afterwards.
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