The Isle of Wight plays a notable part in the story of smuggling in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is a tale as rich and colourful as the smuggled silk stockings sewn into the lining of a ladies petticoat. 

Smuggling started in Britain in about 1300, when a customs duty was placed on the export of wool, which was in great demand in Europe. By the 15th century, it’s clear that wool was being smuggled from the Island to France, where it fetched a much higher price. 

Smuggling became known as ‘Owling’, after the owl-like noises made by smugglers to communicate with each other. Its practitioners preferred to call it ‘free-trade’, and as this trade became more profitable, port officials were given bribes, allowing more smuggling to take place. But as the stakes grew higher, the threat of serious violence began to attach itself to smuggling, as gangs armed themselves to escape non-compliant customs enforcers.

By the 18th century smuggling was rampant in southern England. High taxes on tobacco, wine, spirits and tea from mainland Europe were imposed to finance wars with France and in America. Low wages and the high price of these ‘luxury goods’ created a popular and profitable black market, an opportunity seized upon by many poor fishermen and sailors. In some parts of the country, whole communities became involved in the illegal trade. For most of the 18th century, two-thirds of the Island’s population were reckoned to be involved in the smuggling of brandy, tea, tobacco and silks. All classes, from the gentry downwards, were on board and plenty of customs officials were happy to turn a blind eye for a backhander.

The Government was incensed about the loss of revenue caused by smuggling, and in 1779, in response to estimates of £7 million lost each year, Parliament stiffened the anti-smuggling laws. On the Island, Cowes was the centre for anti-smuggling operations. Although some battles at sea were successful for the authorities, the large and well-armed smuggling ships were able to move to less protected areas of the Island, or to ports where customs officials were easier to bribe. 

The chines, the remains of deep-cut river valleys which lead down to the sea, provided excellent landing spots on the Island, because most featured a safe beach on the coast, and a secure path inland, hidden from view by dense trees and bushes. Blackgang Chine, although wild and desolate, had high cliffs that gave the receivers on land a clear sight of approaching smuggling ships. Contraband was hauled up the cliffs in tubs on ropes.


The Monks Bay area was another popular landing site, and in Totland Bay in 1817, a violent confrontation with a gang left two customs officers injured before the smugglers escaped with the contraband, which was hidden in the belfry at Freshwater parish church.

Table top tombs were another popular hiding place for smuggled goods once they had been hauled ashore. The churchyard at Chale gained a reputation for ghostly happenings that was probably a deliberate scare tactic to keep locals away. At Niton, the churchyard was used as a hiding place for both smugglers and their contraband. Legend has it that after smugglers had hidden in a table top coffin overnight, a local villager was scared out of his wits when a grave opened to reveal a man who wished to know the time of day. The poor soul is said to have ran shrieking ‘the dead vokes in the churchyard be gitten out o’ their graves’.

In Niton, it was reckoned that, ‘The whole population are smugglers. Everyone has an ostensible occupation, but nobody gets his money by it, or cares to work in it. Here are fishermen who never fish, but always have pockets full of money, and farmers whose farming consists of ploughing the deep by night, and whose daily time is spent standing like herons on lookout posts’. 

Bembridge was infamous for its small smuggling boats, which crossed the channel to make pick ups at Cherbourg. The Bembridge windmill, high above the village, served as a useful marker for the returning vessels. Fishermen, sailors and farmers were probably involved in smuggling here, too.

Smuggling continued more or less unchecked. Much of the Island’s coastline was poorly guarded against the activities of free-traders. Meanwhile, Samuel White’s boatyard in Cowes grew famous for the seaworthiness of its smuggling cutters. By 1832, the Poor Law Commissioner found that the Island’s population was ‘nearly all more or less concerned with smuggling’. Free-trade certainly appears to have enjoyed the support of many Islanders; a reflection, perhaps, of opposition to rule from the mainland. 

The Island’s ‘pop shops’, selling cheap liquor, also account for the popularity of smuggling. The 100% spirit smuggled over from France needed to be prepared before it could be sold as gin or brandy, which was carried about the Island in small quantities in skins. Women were often accosted carrying these concealed under their skirts, such as the Bembridge fish woman who sold ‘produce’ door to door. John Benzie was found to be carrying 10 pints of brandy and sent to Winchester gaol for 6 months in 1836. He was 11 years old!

For others caught smuggling, the punishments were more severe. As well as imprisonment, convicted smugglers faced transportation or a lengthy period of service in the navy. Great dangers were also posed by the sea. The south-east side of the Island, with its strong Atlantic south-westerlies, steep cliffs and treacherous rocks, carried the greatest risks. St Catherine’s and Chale Bay have the highest number of recorded wrecks on the Island, with 14 ships lost in one night in 1757. This made sea chases particularly dangerous, but smugglers relied on their sailing skills to outwit customs boats. Any daring skipper of a small boat who knew a way through the rocks, and was prepared to ride out the ferocious south-westerly winds, was unlikely to be followed too far. 

Smugglers sometimes hid their goods beneath ‘above board’ cargoes, and landed them in ports on the north coast. Tubs of merchandise could also be dropped off-shore in the Solent. The boats that picked up the sunken barrels were engaged in seemingly innocent activities, such as baiting lobster pots. 

Big smuggling ships also had to use the north coast. East Indiamen frequently anchored at Yarmouth, where they were met by small rowing boats. There are accounts of smugglers unloading cargoes within sight of customs officers, their small boats protected by well-armed cutters, and up to three hundred men offloading the goods. 

Smugglers grave? Church of Holy Cross, Binstead, Isle of Wight

The Napoleonic Wars of 1797–1815 led to higher taxes still to finance the campaign, and this provided further incentives to smugglers. But the end of the war hit the free-trade economy hard. De-mobbed members of the Royal Navy had to be employed, and they were used to crew the fleet of revenue cutters, seizing 875 smuggling boats in 1815. Smuggling was on the wane by the 1840s.

Most of the remaining smuggling points of interest are natural landmarks or buildings, but at Binstead the grave of suspected smuggler Thomas Sivell, a Solent ferryman shot by customs officers in 1785, can be found. Some accounts claim he was killed during a chase in which he tossed barrels of spirits and a large quantity of tea overboard to try to evade capture. But Sivell’s epitaph tells his side of the story:

All you that pass pray look and see 

How soon my life was took from me 

By those officers as you hear 

They spilt my blood that was so dear 

But God is good, is just and true 

And will reward to each their due 

Colin Clarke
Author: Colin Clarke