Smuggling days at village Weston

PUBLISHED: 08:49 08 May 2006 | UPDATED: 09:14 24 May 2010

The Bristol Channel island of Flat Holm was much used by smugglers, and one of its caves is known as Smugglers' Hole.

The Bristol Channel island of Flat Holm was much used by smugglers, and one of its caves is known as Smugglers' Hole.

During the dark winter evenings upwards of about 150 years ago the fisherman of village Weston would have been turning their attention to a very profitable sideline - smuggling

The sand dunes between the Royal Hospital (now the Royal Sands apartments) and Uphill. Before the Seafront was built Weston's seashore was much the same.

During the dark winter evenings upwards of about 150 years ago the fisherman of village Weston would have been turning their attention to a very profitable sideline - smuggling.Many are the tales that have been handed down about local smuggling days. Some of them are common to most places where smuggling was carried on and one may be sceptical about them, but there is no doubt that the trade was plied extensively along the Somerset coast and that Weston folk had their share in it.Weston in those days must have been just the secluded sort of little place where smugglers might operate successfully. There was no road to Uphill: people went along the sands. No highway had been opened up towards Bridgwater. The only way out of Weston was the old trackway - the Bristol road - along the hillside through the (larger) village of Worle.There was no sea front. Sandhills of the type that survive between the Royal Hospital (now the Royal Sands) and Uphill, Sand Bay, Brean and Berrow, stretched all around Weston bay. No local authority removed seaweed or the wreck of the sea from the beach or did anything about sand drifts. There must have been huge mounds of rotting seaweed and sea-borne rubbish. The sand dunes, of course, were ideal hiding places in which to stow kegs of smuggled brandy until it was convenient to move them elsewhere.Weston's inhabitants were few. There was the ancient little village church on the hill. Inland was the manor house of Ashcombe with its surrounding estate that gave employment to farmhands and was of more importance than Weston. Weston was no more than a few fishermen's cottages, some of them rough square dwellings built among the sand dunes.Although the fish harvest of the Bristol Channel was much greater than it is today, the market for them was limited. Fishermen could sell them only in the village and district, or send them by cart to Bristol, a journey taking several hours. There was no seasonal holiday trade at Weston in those days and local fishermen must have found it so hard to eke out a living that it was not surprising they took to smuggling.The heyday of smuggling was from about 1735 until 1825. Customs duties were very heavy, and running contraband goods became highly profitable. Enormous quantities of brandy from France, gin from Holland, and silk, tea and tobacco from the four corners of the earth were landed without dues being paid.Lundy Island is said to have served as the strategic operational point for Bristol Channel smugglers when the coastguards made it too hot for the trade along the South Coast.The smugglers brought their goods from the Channel islands, Holland, Belgium, from France, in armed cutters and landed them on Lundy, from whence they were taken in smaller vessels to Weston, Brean, Sand Bay, and even as far up as Chepstow.On one occasion a naval vessel put in at Lundy and found the island covered with small buildings, some of them stuffed with casks of spirits, tea, and tobacco. The smugglers later used Barry Island as their headquarters.The islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm were other haunts. Of Flat Holm, F A Knight, writing in 1902, said: "In the face of the east cliff is a cave called Smugglers' Hole. A plainly marked path leads to it, and men are still living who claim to have seen it well filled with kegs of brandy that had never paid the Queen's due."Smuggling was particularly prevalent at Minehead, Watchet, Porlock and Bridgwater. At Watchet, it was said, most of the small vessels using the harbour had no other business than that of running contraband goods.It became so bad that investigations were made and these revealed that even the customs officials were "in the game". Two officers at Bridgwater admitted knowledge of 101 tons of wine and brandy and 2,357 packages of Irish linen having been smuggled there in three days. The town was also searched, and quantities of wine, brandy and linen confiscated.Bribery was stated to be rampant, the collector of customs "drunken and dishonest," and the surveyor of customs "seldom or never sober."Charles Stone, a carpenter, whose recollections of village Weston from 1825 onwards were published in the Mercury in 1897, commented: "In those days and after, a good deal of smuggling was carried on in and around Weston, and a notorious rendezvous for this trade was the Strand Hotel, sometimes known as the Half-Way House, which stood on the site of the West of England Sanatorium (now the Royal Hospital). The inn was built in 1828-9 by a solicitor, of Wells, and for several years was very respectably conducted.... But in 1835-6 a railway line was started, and the place soon became the haunt of navvies and other rough characters. Smuggling was an important feature in the business transactions of the Half-Way House."He said that vessels containing contraband would glide in under the shadow of Brean Down, anchor, and wait for the flash of the signal lamp from a back room in the inn. When this was given the skipper would run in as far as he dared, and his confederates on shore would hasten down and load the kegs into wagons that would then speed across the country. If the coast was not clear, the smugglers did not go off with their cargoes. Instead, they lashed the kegs together and sunk them in deep water, to be picked up when the chance served. A skipper named James Gould once put out with an empty coal barge for Uphill for Newport, and whether by chance or design steered a course that took him to where some kegs had been moored.He started to help himself, but unfortunately the kegs had been moored too close in shore, and skipper Gould found his craft was grounded and the tide receding, leaving it surrounded by kegs of contraband.Meantime, Mr Norris, who was known as the tide-waiter, there being no coastguard in the district then, saw through his telescope what had been going on. He went to the spot, waded out to the barge, and seized craft and cargo in the King's name. Other recollections came from Aaron Fisher, who had been in the coastguard service for seven years. "As a coastguard I never captured any cargo," he said, "and never had any fights with the smugglers. They were too sharp and clever to be caught, and never fought if they could help it. Stray kegs of spirit could be picked up every now and then on the beach if you walked out early enough. You see, a vessel would come in and throw her cargo overboard and buoy it. Kegs were bound to break adrift occasionally."A wonderful sight of cargoes were landed, to be sure, and taken away to places on the South Coast mostly. It was hard to run a cargo on the South Coast then: there were so many revenue cutters and coastguards about, so they were brought up to this quiet, small place, where there was no one to interfere."At one time the authorities sent a coastguard captain and lieutenant to look out for the smugglers. "But they couldn't do much," said Fisher. "Cargoes were often run in under their very noses without their knowing about them. I was aboard the revenue cutter for a bit, and also watched the river at Wick St Lawrence, and at Uphill, too. We found a keg at one time, I remember, under a man's floor at Brean, and he had six months for that."Another story told by Fisher was how, coming home from fishing at Brean Down one morning at daylight, he noticed that the sand by the Half-Way House had recently been thrown about. He put down his fish-pot and dug away with his hands until he came to a rope. He pulled at this and hauled up a tub. He hauled again and pulled up another - six gallons of brandy in all!One tub he put in his fish-pot and covered over with fish. The other he carried until he got near Weston, when he hid it in the sand till he fetched a friend who carried it home for him on being promised half."A few days after," he said, "I fetched away my share and then told him he had better burn the tub."He later told me that he had nearly set his house on fire with it, it burnt up so; the flames went ten feet up the chimney. The spirit you know, was very strong, a long way above proof; why a teaspoon would, when mixed, make a pint of ordinary spirit."A villager once bought a small keg of brandy from a smuggler, but as it was not safe to take it home at the time he took it to the sand dunes and buried it, carefully marking the pot. When he was gone somebody who had been watching him dug up the cask and took it to a farm, where he hid it in a haystack.A few nights later, thinking he would like to sample the keg, he went to get it but it was gone. The man who had buried it happened to see him digging it up, and had followed him and taken the first chance of retrieving it.Alderman J J Leaver lodged with Charles Stone when he first came to Weston in 1888, and heard many tales of local smuggling from him. Stone maintained that the bridle paths in Weston Woods were made by smugglers!Stone told him that when he and others were working on building the new church at Uphill they found, on arriving one morning, that all the wood they had been using had been neatly piled up in the body of the church, and that beside the heap were two casks of brandy. The wood was not disturbed, and about 10 days later they found the wood had been moved again and two more casks of brandy left!This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on November 4, 1966

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