13th December 1846. Wrecking and smuggling.

‘Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie/Watch the wall my darlings while the gentlemen go by’. Kipling: Smuggler’s Song.

Watch the Wall.

Watch the Wall my Darlings.

A British burial law enacted Today on December 13th 1846 mandated the decent burial of dead bodies found on beaches. Wreckers had a convenient superstition, that it was unlucky to help a drowning man.

Frederic Farrar’s ‘The Early Days of Christianity’ (1882) reported: ‘Cornish wreckers went straight from church to light their beacon fires’.

False Lights.

False Lights.

In the 1750s, when wrecking and smuggling reached its peak, it was illegal to lure ships by false lights on punishment of death, suggests that ‘wrecking’ was widespread enough to make the authorities take action.

However ‘wrecking’ has been defined as, ‘to seize or collect wreck or wreckage’.(1) Or ‘one who causes shipwreck for the purpose of plunder by showing luring lights.'(2)

In a shipwreck, nothing was deemed forfeit if a single man, dog or cat escaped, though this had sometimes the result of wreckers murdering all the survivors

Smuggling became profitable in the 18thc with a high import duty on desirable goods, even after the Commutation Act of 1784, when though duty on French wines and tea were reduced, those on tobacco and spirits remained.

Smuggling was widespread round British coasts, apart from Cornwall, such as Robin Hood Bay in Yorkshire, and violent as at Kent’s Romney Marsh, where the notorious Aldington Gang led by George Ransley recruited Folkestone boatmen to bring over illicit liquor.

The Marsh’s smugglers nicknamed ‘owlers’, were immortalised by Russell Thorndyke’s fictional character Dr Syn, a Dymchurch vicar by day, but smuggler by night.

The end came in 1826 when a Revenue Officer was killed, resulting in the Bow Street Runners being despatched to the Marsh to arrest the gang, whose eventual sentences were mitigated to Transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania).

Fact and fiction of the nefarious activities were later entwined in the works of Cornish folklorists, R.S Hawker and Sabine Baring-Gould.

In the 20thc we have the romanticism of Daphne du Maurier’s, Jamaica Inn, and J.M. Faulkner’s Moonfleet, and this Author was excited by Enid Blyton’s, Five go to Smugglers’ Top’!

Centuries of law have attempted  to control wrecking and smuggling, ‘salvaging gifts of the sea’. Under the 1267 Statute of Marlborough, restrictions were placed on ‘foreshore lords’ to benefit from cargoes wrecked on their property-a sign of growing commerce.

The Hovering Act 1787 restricted small vessels waiting within 6 miles of land, and those with brandy liable to seizure and cut in half.(3)

By the 1840s British Free Trade slashed import duties, which made smuggling of most commodities unprofitable.

Painting by Turner of a wreck showing Falmouth and Pendennis castle.

Painting by Turner of a wreck showing Falmouth and Pendennis Castle.

(1) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The term wreck includes ‘jetsam’ relating to items thrown overboard; flotsam items floating on the water; lagan includes items tied to a buoy, and derelict refers to property that has been abandoned.

Beeston Regis the Independent Priory near Cromer in Norfolk once had right of wrecks, flotsam and jetsam.

(2) Sir James Murray’s New English Dictionary, 1928.

(3) Peggoty’s boat at Yarmouth in David Copperfield was an example.

Ref: Sir James Murray’s New English Dictionary 1928.

Ref: Henry Mayhew’s London’s labour and London’s Poor 1861.

Ref: Frederic Farrar’s Early Days of Christianity.

Ref: historic-uk.com/cultureuk/smugglers/wreckers.Pic:Watch the Wall.

Ref: opencurtain.wordpress.com./Pic of Light.

Ref: westbriton.co.uk/Turner Pic image.

Ref: smuggling.co.uk/history.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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