Gravesend at the heart of the smuggling world
PUBLISHED: 08:56 23 November 2012
It is well known that in Cornwall, with its rocky and winding coastline, smuggling flourished in the 18th and early 19th century.
However the extent it went on in Kent makes the Cornish effort look small by comparison, according to British author Richard Platt.
“Kent and Sussex probably exceeded by far what came on shore in the rest of the country. Everyone thinks the smugglers are Cornishmen but it simply is not true. You only have to look at a map,” he says.
It was the proximity to Europe, good road networks and an extensive coast that kept contraband coming in through Kent, in particular via the north of the county where ships sailed down the Thames estuary.
Richard explains that vessels that had managed to negotiate the treacherous channel would stop at Gravesend where a customs officer would board the ship before it sailed off to the capital.
It was prime time to unload half the cargo on to small boats that mysteriously appeared alongside the ship.
The smugglers would take their stolen goods – coffee, wool, spirits and tobacco amongst others – on shore where pursuit was almost impossible across the swampland and the safe routes were only known to locals.
Those trying to catch the smugglers were either revenue men – the authorities out to suppress smuggling, or press gangs, violent naval thugs who forced men into the navy.
“The press gangs could take anybody and force him to work in the navy. Many people who had never been to sea before were prepped to spend five years there,” Richard explains.
The Three Daws, a working pub that is still in Royal Pier Road, Gravesend, was a notorious smugglers haunt.
Legend has it that the pub had three tunnels leading from the cellars to escape routes around the town, and a further seven staircases to confuse anyone chasing the smugglers.
Landlord Lester Banks still owns a certificate showing an order issued by the Admiralty in 1798 that states: “The Three Daws is never to be raided by a press gang except if there are two, as so many seamen escape through its tortuous passages.”
Those secret passages have been blocked up now, and only four of the staircases remain.
Elsewhere in Kent, not all smuggling went via the waterways, and Vigo and Wrotham were major stop-off points for contraband travelling from the south coast via road to London.
The Vigo Inn housed places for smugglers to hide themselves and their contraband in, and a stone in the wall next to the Bull Hotel in Wrotham commemorates the death of a leader of a local smuggling gang.
Lieutenant Colonel Shadwell was a high-ranking military man but also a big name in smuggling, using the hotel as his headquarters until he was shot dead by an army deserter in 1799.
The business of smuggling wasn’t all a game of cat and mouse however, as officials were just as much in the game and took bribes, filling both parties’ pockets.
And once smuggled off ships, the contraband would be taken off to markets on the outskirts of London or sold by merchants flogging it door to door.
While smuggling thrived throughout north Kent, today there are only echoes of this lucrative yet dangerous business.
n Smuggling in the British Isles: A History by Richard Platt is available to buy online from www.smuggling.co.uk