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23 January 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick: Smugglers? Romantic rebels? Or despicable thieves?

I have recently completed a commisioned non-fiction book about smugglers and smuggling (I think it will be called Smugglers the Fact and the Fiction) and will, (I hope) be published some time in 2018.

Meanwhile I'll occasionally be posting a few tit-bits here on Tuesday Talk  to whet your appetite... 

the other twenty are ... elsewhere! LOL
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! 

(From A Smuggler's Song Rudyard Kipling)

‘Gentlemen’? Were smugglers  of the past (seventeenth - nineteenth century in this case) really gentlemen? It depends on your opinion, view, and which side of the fence you are sitting on. 

Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language, published 1755,  described a smuggler as: ‘A wretch who, in defiance of justice and the laws, imports or exports goods as either contraband or without payment of the customs.’ Obviously, he was not impressed by the Gentlemen Free Trade.

On the other hand, Adam Smith, an eighteenth century economist and supporter of Free Trade,  said: ‘The smuggler is a person who, though no doubt blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.’

That might be OK, but some smugglers, especially those of the large, organised gangs, were not innocent of violence, torture and murder.

A skirmish with smugglers 1853.
A painting by Vasily Hudiakov.
There is a romantic idea that surrounds these bygone-age smugglers. We tend to shrug aside the fact that they were, all of them, from fisherman to country gent, lawbreakers. Except, how many of us occasionally break the law by speeding that little bit more than the restrictions, or pay the gardener or handyman in cash to avoid the extra Value Added Tax? Minor things, but to smugglers bringing in their kegs of brandy, or packets of tobacco, their misdemeanour were equally as minor.

Smuggling. The word produces an image of a moonlit night, a tall ship at anchor  in a wind-ruffled bay, and men wearing three-cornered hats making their swift, but silent, way along remote West Country lanes that zigzag between high banks and thick, foxglove and cow parsley-strewn hedgerows.

The men are leading pack ponies tied nose-to-tail, hooves muffled by sacking. On their backs casks of brandy or kegs of tobacco… But is that how smuggling really did happen?

In reality, smuggling was - is - the illegal importation of goods, be they mercantile, narcotic substances, migrating people, or secret information. The motivation being to avoid paying tax and to make a hefty profit, the latter being the ultimate goal. The smugglers of the past would argue different regarding the legality. They bought and paid for the goods which they smuggled into England; these were not stolen items. Contraband was transported, carried and delivered at the smugglers’ own expense, in their own time. Leaving aside that small matter of not paying import tax, there was nothing illegal about it. The items they smuggled were in high demand by the majority of people, many of whom could not afford the official cost of purchase. The smugglers’ maintained that to refuse to pay government duties on prohibited goods was justified because of a person’s right to buy or sell with the freedom of choice, unrestricted by law, and that ‘freedom of choice’ should not be a crime. 

A 'Tubman'
© Mia Pelletier
After all, the only victim suffering from the effects of smuggling (leaving out that unsavoury aspect of violence) was the government. Few of us would lose much sleep about that small fact!

Unfortunately, rogues and ruffians often corrupt the bending of the law to extremes of  criminality to suit their own mind. What started with the relatively harmless smuggling of everyday items by a few villagers and quiet-minded fisher-folk, was swept aside by the gred of the organised gangs who had no qualms against fighting bloody battles, torturing and murdering those who opposed them. 

So, alas, somewhat like the pirates, most smugglers were not the derring-do romantic rebels we see portrayed in fiction or on the TV and movie screen. 

© Helen Hollick

Don't want to wait for Smugglers?
Try pirates instead!
available from Amazon


  1. Looking forward to this! It its half as good as 'Pirates', it'll be great....

  2. Really look forward to your book on smugglers Helen! It should go down well here on the Sussex coast, as there are many hereabouts who have forebears who indulged in said practice!

    1. I do mention that many locals had smuggling ancestors!

  3. I agree with Richard, that sounds well worth a read.

  4. I grew up in a house that was reputed to have been used by smugglers, although we were inland from the prime locations on the Sussex coast so I suspect it was a staging post en route to London. I read and enjoyed the Doctor Syn/Scarecrow books when I was younger but I suspect the romantic image was uppermost back then.

    1. Yes, I suspect a staging post, although don't forget the coastline has changed dramatically through centuries, possibly the house was closer to the sea back then? Novels and movies and such have quite a bit to answer for re giving us a romantic view of the past haven't they? (She says as a novelist who writes a 'romantic' view of pirate adventures! LOL)

    2. As the house was in the Weald - so between the North and South Downs - I imagine the house was always well inland, so a staging post.

      Nothing wrong with the romantic view if it's within a context. Isn't that your approach - the balanced view?

  5. A really interesting taster, Helen - thank you. We're still wrestling with the same philosophical and criminological concerns today; there are those who argue that tax evasion is simply exercising one's right to choose when and where to spend one's money. It is always hard to draw the line between individual freedom of choice, and the needs of the community.

    1. I guess the difference comes if there is violence or harm to others done: paying a painter in cash (and avoiding VAT) to decorate your house is one thing, smuggling in drugs to live a life of luxury while others suffer,quite another.


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