The coast of Eastern Essex has proved a popular haunt for smugglers using the Rivers Crouch and Blackwater to land contraband from France, Holland and Belgium.

A large percentage of the population was involved in smuggling either directly or indirectly which may well have involved your ancestors although of course it probably won't be written down anywhere .

The items smuggled were those which were taxed in England - silk clothing, tobacco, tea and alcohol mainly brandy and geneva (now known as gin)

The first Essex smugglers smuggled wool into Europe to take advantage of the high taxes then levied on wool in the Continent. Economics of the sea trade meant that they made even more profit if they brought a cargo back to Essex and an even larger profit if it was liable for tax in England.

The golden period for smuggling was from 1730 to 1830 when smugglers pitted their wits against the Revenue men. The trade was so frequent that the Customs employed two cutters manned by up to 30 men as well as riders who patrolled the coast on horseback.

Herbert W Tompkins writes of the local smugglers in his 1904 book ' Marsh Country Rambles' Examine a large map of Essex and you will see how truly the county was made for smugglers. Run you eye along the marvelously contorted coastline from Shoeburyness to St Osyth Point. There are at least 50 well defined rivers, creeks or outfalls; to search the coast for some notorious gang on a dark night was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. What artificial deep ways cut into cliffs were to the Cornish men the sea wall was to the Essex smuggler. Both afforded excellent shelter when goods- whether kegs, bales or what not were being stealthily conveyed up country. The Preventive Officer could see nothing unless actually on the wall in which case if there was enough light to serve his purpose it also served to render him a conspicuous mark for a bullet. A revenue cutter pursuing a small smuggling craft along one of the winding creeks in the neighbourhood of the Blackwater could see nothing of what was going forward on land where even the country gentleman was in league with the smugglers often sending ponies to the appointed landing place to bear the kegs posthaste many miles inland.

Such was the profit that smugglers normally outnumbered the Revenue Men and were prepared to battle to protect their cargo and prevent capture. 

Some brave smugglers sailed in heavily armed vessels prepared to fight if they met with the customs men although most of the smuggling used the increasing local coastal traffic with barges laden with coal , timber and stone on their journey into our ports and then oysters, corn and other farming products on their way out. Whilst the port at Burnham on Crouch could take larger coastal vessels the many sailing barges used small quiet jetties at Althorne, Creeksea, Bradwell and Mayland Creek well away from prying eyes. These cargoes and regular trips made great cover to hide an illicit cargo loaded from a French ship out of sight of the land and watching riding men of the revenue service.

The poor living conditions of the time meant that local residents saw and heard nothing as long as the occasional pitcher of brandy was occasionally left near to their dwelling.

Reminders still exist such as Brandy Bridge at Tillingham and Brandy Hole on the River Couch and rumour has it that Asheldham Wood still contains hidden Geneva left from the smugglers heyday.

Many of the ghost stories have their origins in smugglers activity when it was in the interest of smugglers to speread stories about haunted places at some of the isolated locations that they favoured.

One of the favourite smugglers locations was St Peters Chapel at Bradwell which provided both lookout post and temporary weatherproof store for goods in the remote area of marshes to which only locals knew safe routes.

The area around St Peters Chapel is also subject of many ghost stories.

How many had their basis on the grounds of carts with muffled wheels and horses with cloth on their hooves giving a ghostly sound as they passed.

Smugglers used a system of lantern signals for communication. Different movements and different times of exposure had different meanings within each gang.

A watcher on Beacon Hill at St Lawrence had good vision of movements on the Shore and the River and an exposed light could be seen for miles in each direction and on the opposite side of the River.

These signals were repeated across the Dengie providing plenty of warning of the arrival of any Revenue Men on foot and allowing plenty of time to sink any contraband should a Revenue Cutter approach on the river.

J Wentworth Day talks about Dengie smugglers in his book - Marshland Adventures "Death Creek at the seaward end of Osea Island, we may be sure was a very citadel of smuggled stuff. Indeed just across the water , at Stansgate Abbey, some carts full of contraband were seized as they were being driven across the marsh, and escorted through the village by a guard of Excise men with drawn cutlasses .One of the drivers who escaped hid in the straw. The Excise men , true to form, jabbed their cutlasses into the straw but equally true to form, failed to spike him".

Many smugglers such as the Bradwell Parish Constable Hezehiah Staines delighted in carrying out smuggling activities himself and being paid by the Excise men for information and assistance.

Raven of Steeple used to boast that he could run more kegs of holland and travel more speedily that any other man in his parish.



Illustrations of the two commonest ways for smugglers to leave contraband off the coast for collection later

The best known smuggling family to use the Crouch were the Dowsett's which saw the notorious William Dowsett establish a reputation as untouchable.
William's brother John Dowsett operated the Big Jane which carried six brass six-pounders and was involved with several battles with Revenue cutters in the Crouch until it was taken in 1780 after an 11 hour chase with the Revenue Cutters Bee and Argus.

The Dowsett's were so well known that they were often used by travelers to travel from France to England. John Harriot of Stambridge ( Later to form the London River Police) wanted a passage home and came to an arrangement with the smugglers. At dinner before the trip he was invited to join in the toast 'Damnation to all Revenue laws and officers' Harriot was a MP and protested, pointing out that the abolition of the revenue laws would mean the end of smuggling and which the toast was amended to 'Revenue Laws and Officers for ever'.

William Dowsetts dominance ended in 1778 when the Revenue cutter Bee chased a forty ton cutter called Neptune, commanded by William Dowsett, from the Crouch until she grounded on the Barrow Sand. The Neptune was damaged by gunfire from the Bee until her crew abandoned ship and the Neptune was found to contain 391 half ankers(four gallons of spirits), two wholes of brandy, rum and geneva, 8cwt tea and 3 cwt coffee.3 weeks later the Revenue cutter Bee captured another 40 ton cutter Waggon commanded by Dowsett.

a painting by renowned naval painter Charles Dixon showing a Customs Cruiser chasing a smugglers lugger


In December 1794 a cutter called the Ox from Rowhedge was found in the act of lowering her contraband by a cutter from the Bradwell Revenue Cutter, The Fly. The Ox made a run for it but was captured and 342 barrels of Brandy and Geneva was recovered.

From 1810 to 1890 The Customs posted a watch vessel to the Crouch to act as a base and a home for the Customs men. The Ruswarp was the first boat, then the Chanticleer and finally the Kangaroo. The boat was sited on a sport near to the present Royal Corinthian Yacht Club.

Watch vessels were also active in the River Blackwater at Bradwell on Sea although they appeared to be operationally used.

From 1810 to about 1860 they were the Rattlesnake, Richmond and the Whitworth. Coastguard's and their families lived in a row of cottages in the Waterside area of Bradwell on sea. To this day the cottages are known as Coastguard Cottages.

In 1805 the 53 ton cutter Fox ,crewed by 17 men under the command of  Matthew Hoare, was based at Bradwell on Sea covering the coat from Gravesend to Harwich.

Enforcement against smugglers was not a co-ordinated operation until, 1822 when the Preventative Water Guard were formed under one command. This group organised patrols by boat and foot and came to be known by a name that we recognise now of HM Coastguard. The efforts of the new Coastguard's proved the death knell for large scale smuggling although of course it has continued to flourish to this day.

In 1854 one of the last ' old style' smuggling confrontation took place off Eastlands at Bradwell on Sea .A lugger arrived from Holland packed with kegs of spirits and tobacco arrived to unload it's contraband only to be approached by three Customs cutters from the new Coastguard Service. The alert skipper jettisoned the cargo before the Coastguard arrival and a search proved negative. Two of the cutters left but a third searched the area with grappling irons and recovered the contraband. The result was that the lugger and crew were taken to Gravesend where the Captain was fined the large sum of £100 and the tobacco burned in Her Majesty's pipe

In June 1870 James McDonald was Chief Officer of Coastguard's at Bradwell on Sea while John Green was in charge at Burnham on Crouch until 1879 when he moved to Yarmouth and was replaced by John Brand.

Rudyard Kipling captured the local feelings towards smuggling in his poem - A smugglers song

If you wake at midnight and hear a horse's feet

Don't go drawing back the blinds or looking in the street

Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie

Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by

Five and twenty ponies ,trotting through the dark

Brandy for the Parson, Baccy for the Clerk

Laces for a lady: letters for a spy

And watch the wall my darling, while the gentlemen go by.

 Essex Family History has a number of pages about the Coastguard in the Dengie Hundred  relating to their history as well as their genealogy.

 Coastguard Employees 1821

Coastguard Employees on River Blackwater 1881

Coastguard Employees on River Crouch 1881

Coastguard History

Coastguard Watch Vessels on River Blackwater

Coastguard Watch Vessels on River Crouch and River Roach

Smugglers v Revenue Men