More tales of Weston's smuggling days
PUBLISHED: 15:11 22 May 2006 | UPDATED: 09:19 24 May 2010
Winter nights when smugglers watched for signal lights beside Uphill's old church, Worlebury Hill or St Thomas' Head that would warn them which landing place to run for are recalled in more tales of Weston's smuggling days.
Winter nights when smugglers watched for signal lights beside Uphill's old church, Worlebury Hill or St Thomas' Head that would warn them which landing place to run for are recalled in more tales of Weston's smuggling days."Many a keg of brandy which had never paid the King's dues was hidden in a pathway that crossed sandhills where Regent Street now stands," we are told.Local historian, the late Ernest Baker, wrote: "In the days when French brandy and laces and foreign cigars found their way into England without having paid the King's taxes, and when nobody knew how they arrived, where they were landed, or who received them, a belated traveller in Weston Woods might have been surprised at meeting a four-horse hearse and funeral coach proceeding across the hill from the direction of Kewstoke to Weston."'Funeral carriages returning home,' this traveller would doubtless say to himself, but the initiated man behind the scene who knew everything, would slyly wink at his companion in a quiet sort of way, and begin to talk about the excellent quality of French brandy and wonder whether the coastguard lieutenant was riding about tonight."In truth the horse and funeral coach were only blinds, and if seen they meant in plain English that a French lugger had run and landed a contraband cargo at some convenient spot on the coast, and that some portion of it was being carried inland to be distributed and sold where no Custom House officer or coastguard would interfere and ask unpleasant questions." Ernest Baker probably got this story from one of the many old inhabitants he interviewed. It may be true, but the smuggler's dodge of coffins containing "the spirit" rather than the body is "hearse-say" at many places.Mr Baker also said: "In Regent Street or rather where Regent Street now is, and near the York Hotel, there were high sand tots. Over one of these a path led to a cottage: a very commonplace sort of path, but yet many a dozen kegs were often buried underneath it for weeks together."He went on: "Everybody, or nearly everybody, had a finger in the illicit pie, from the boys whose duty it was to attend to the beacon fires, to the respectable householder who would wake up one morning to find - much to his surprise you may be sure - that a cask of claret had been placed in his cellars during the night by nobody knew who. Few houses, more especially farmhouses, were without some secret place in which contraband goods could be safely stored."One farmer had a wonderful pigsty in his yard - a sty that a revenue officer would have liked to examine. At the bottom of it, underneath a layer of sand and straw on which the pigs lay, there was a large stone with an iron ring in the middle of it. This stone, when lifted up, revealed a large and deep cellar on which the greater part of the cargo of a lugger could and was often securely stowed."One of the duties of the lieutenant of the coastguard was to ride along the coast from Uphill river to the end of Sand Bay every evening, and many a time when this officer was galloping along Kewstoke sands on his little mare, a cargo was being run in on Weston sands, and was safely stowed before his return.Once a couple of smugglers were seen when landing cargo in their boat at Uphill. They were chased across country by coastguards, fled in the direction of Bleadon, managed to get away, and returned home via Hutton. When they next went to Uphill they found their cargo had been removed and their boat sawn in half. It was at one time customary for coastguards to destroy any smugglers' boats they captured.Lonely Woodspring bay was a popular smugglers' haunt, so much so that at one time a coastguard's station was set up there. As late as 1845 it was reported that 250 tubs of spirit had been landed in that locality "the parties having evaded the vigilance of the coastguards".Very often cargoes had to be kept hidden for weeks before it was safe to move them, especially if the coastguards had an inkling that the smugglers were waiting to move their goods inland. We are told that one cargo was concealed at Uphill the whole winter before it could be got rid of, the wagon and the horse being in readiness the whole time."Sometimes a respectable wagon and sometimes a gig with a fast-trotting horse would be used for the country journeys; if the latter the driver would, perchance, have a movable board by the side of the trap, showing a different name and residence in every village and hamlet he passed through so as to avoid identification."Ernest Baker also wrote: "Within the memory of a few of us a French lugger one evening sailed up into Weston Bay, and under the cover of the darkness threw her cargo overboard and buoyed it to wait until the consignees ashore could lift it up and row it to land. This was no uncommon plan, and was a scheme which answered well if properly carried out, as the vessel wasn't delayed beyond a few hours, and the chance of the goods being discovered was small."The captain of this particular lugger had evidently never had a trip in the Channel before, or at least, had never been to Weston, and therefore knew not of the distance the tide runs out, for he ran his vessel well into the bay, and then began to throw over and buoy his cargo. Further and further receded the tide, and when the sun rose, much to the Frenchman's horror, his craft was lying high and dry on the mud with her cargo strewn around her - a pleasing sight for the coastguardsmen, and a spectacle which made the owners tear their hair out, and the outsiders smile."Mr Baker says that he always jotted down anything he heard or read about Weston's early history which he felt it would be of interest to pass on. In 1882 and 1883 he interviewed several ancient Westonians, all about 80 years old, who had seen the growth of the village from the time of their childhood, say in 1811, when the population numbered only about 163.One of these memories of smuggling days ran thus: "I remember John Pitts, the carrier, of Wick. He used to drive to Bristol and back every Saturday with pigs or goods of any sort for the people, and I've heard tell that many a keg of brandy he has taken to Bristol beneath the carcasses of pigs."The smugglers used to hide the kegs in the ditches and rhynes until they could get rid of them unobserved. Then there was David Thomas. Yes, I remember him. He built a mud hut down by the sea wall at Wick for himself. He was a squatter."I heard at the time that once he drank so much of this smuggled brandy that folk thought he was dead! He slept for three days, and when he woke up was so hungry he ate three loaves and half a cheese, and then went to bed again to have another three days' sleep."Weston folk appear to have stocked themselves well with rum when a ship was wrecked off Steep Holm in 1812. Mrs Howell, born at Weston in 1801, told the following story in an 1883 interview:"When the ship 'Rebecca', a larger West Indiaman, was wrecked off Steep Holm in 1812, several kegs of rum were washed ashore, and some of them we carried off and buried in the sand by Gill's cottage. Exciseman Jones, from Uphill, came round enquiring what everybody had picked up, and he took away what he could find and thought worth removing. "The lord of the manor had one puncheon put in his cellar; a great number of barrels and lemons and sugar came ashore at the same time. The whole beach was strewn with the cargo. I have never seen anything like it since."Recalling the same event, Samuel Norvell claimed that several casks of rum were washed up on the beach. One came ashore at Knightstone and others on the sands."We rolled the first cask along the pebble ridge which extended between Knightstone and the Esplanade," he said, "to a shed at the back of the London Inn."Everybody had some rum. The people brought gimlets, tapped a cask, and took away as much spirit as they wanted in jugs, saucepans and pots; in fact in anything they could lay hands on, and then went off leaving the rum to run to waste. The road all about was ankle deep in rum and mud."Farmers came in from the country all around with milk pails, knocked in the head of a cask, filled their pails, and drove back to their homes with their spoil."The remainder "which wasn't much" was taken away by the steward of the manor, Richard Parsley, all wreck of the sea within the limits of the manor being claimed by the lord of the manor.Asked where the excisemen were while all this was going on Norvell said: "The coastguard force consisted of three men only - one a farmer, another a barber, and the third a shoemaker, and they weren't very strict, as you may suppose."In his book Seaboard of Mendip, Francis Knight refers to smugglers' signal fires being lit on Uphill and Worlebury hills and on Kewstoke's St Thomas' headland. In a reference to the beautiful octagonal turret in Worle church, which is reached by a winding stair from the north aisle, he adds:"There is a tradition in the village that in old days smugglers used to carry their kegs up this stair to a hiding-place, which has now disappeared, contrived in the ancient roof of the aisle."Similarly, of smuggling at Kewstoke Knight commented: "There are traditions that many a cargo of spirits was run ashore here in smuggling days. It is said that even the church tower has in its time afforded sanctuary to bales of lace and kegs of liquor that never paid the King his due. This narrow pass may well have served the 'free traders' as a secret way into the hills."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on November 18, 1966