February 12th – Smuggling, snuggling, or struggling?
The tunnels led directly to the shore from the basement of the inn. The went quite a long way, and took quite of bit of work: The Coach and Horses was three-quarters of the way up the biggest (and only) hill in the town, and the beach was just over a mile away. The tunnels, one main one and then a couple of smaller, crawl-only, emergency escape routes, were dark, and damp, and unlit. You carried your light with you.
The ships, mainly from Holland, would drop anchor in the bay, and then a lighter would row the barrels in to the waiting shoresmen, where the transaction would be made, generally in the early hours of the morning, on a moonless night. The contraband would then be taken across the shingle and the grassland to the concealed entrance of the main tunnel, and then the laborious, hour-long task of dragging the barrels back up to the inn would commence. It was hard, dirty, dangerous work, but well rewarded.
Everyone in the town knew it was going on. There was no organised police force, of course, not then, but the Customs men were the ones you had to look out for. The port men said nothing, took their cut, and went on with their work. But the Customs men, sent down from London, were a different animal. They could not be bought, categorically, and it really wasn’t worth trying: even if there was one among them you could persuade to turn a blind eye to the late night transportations, finding him among the zealots recently appointed in the name of the King was next to impossible. So nobody tried: they just kept a constant eye open.
The Johannes Van Zeeland was due to drop anchor that night. And the Customs men knew about it: someone had tipped them off, and the coastguard were keeping watch. At the first sign of the vessel gliding into the bay, sails furled, runners were sent to rouse the Customs men, who took up positions behind the shoreline, watching. The fire in the inn was lit, and the landlord, Harry Masters, was preparing the cellar, moving the heavy chests that concealed the hatch to the tunnels. What they were bringing in was not his concern: tea, wine, wool – it didn’t matter. He was paid handsomely, and always skimmed a little of what he stored to provide his pension.
The ship signalled: a single light from the bow, which was answered from the shore as the lighter took to the water. The customs men stayed silent, watching, snuggled into the shingle or the sea-grass, watching.
The loading of the lighter took some time. Still the customs men watched. This was a big cargo, the stuff that careers are made on. A simple capture, arrests, and they were made men. Each customs man carried a club, several with pistols. They worked in the name of the king: collateral damage was irrelevant.
Struggling to load the lighter, one of the shore crew glanced behind him at the exact moment that John Barker, customs officer of the crown, to alleviate his wait, lit his pipe. The flash of his match was seen and matched with a cry.
Their position revealed, the officers could only watch as the contraband was quickly loaded back onto the ship, and the lighter made its perfectly legal empty journey back to shore. Behind them, seven men walked up the hill to have a drink in the inn.
Inspired by a prompt from here