Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 29

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CHAPTER XXIX


SMUGGLING


The Cuckmere Valley—Alfriston smuggling foreordained—Desperado nd benefactor—A witty minister—Hawker of Morwenstowe—The church and run spirits—The two smugglers, the sea smuggler and the land smuggler—The half-way house—The hollow ways of Sussex—Mr. Horace Hutchinson quoted—Burwash as a smuggler's cradle.


Alfriston's place in history was won by its smugglers. All Sussex smuggled more or less; but smuggling may be said to have been Alfriston's industry. Cuckmere Haven, close by, offered unique advantages: it was retired, the coast was unpopulated, the roadway inland started immediately from the beach, the valley was in friendly hands, the paths and contours of the hills were not easily learned by revenue men. Nature from the first clearly intended that Alfriston men should be too much for the excise; smuggling was predestined. Farmers, shepherds, ostlers, what you will that is respectable, these Alfriston men might be by day and when the moon was bright; but when the "darks" came round they were smugglers every one.

Chief of what was known nearly a hundred years ago as the "Alfriston Gang" was Stanton Collins, who lived at Market Cross House. Collins employed his men not only in assisting him in smuggling, but for other purposes removed from that calling by a wide gulf. Thus when Mr. Betts, the minister of the Lady Huntingdon chapel at Alfriston, was high-handedly suspended by the chief trustee of the chapel, on account of his opposition to that gentleman's proposed union with his deceased wife's sister, it was Collins's gang who invaded the chapel, ejected the new minister, replaced Mr. Betts in the pulpit, and mounted guard round it while he continued the service. Mr. Betts was equal to the occasion: he gave out the hymn "God moves in a mysterious way."

Collins terrorised the country-side for some years (except upon the score of personal bravery and humorous audacity, I doubt if his place is quite on the golden roll of smugglers) and was at length brought within the power of the law for sheep-stealing, and sentenced to seven years. The last of his gang, Bob Hall, died in the workhouse at Eastbourne in 1895, aged ninety-four.

Sussex may always be proud of her best smugglers. There were brutal scoundrels among them, such as the men that murdered Chater and were executed at Chichester in 1748 (the report may be read in Mr. H. L. Stephen's State Trials, vol. iv.); but the ordinary smuggler was often a fine rebellious fellow, courageous, resourceful, and gifted with a certain grim humour that led him, as we have seen, to hide his tubs as often in the belfry or the churchyard as anywhere else, and enough knowledge of character to tell him when he might secure the silence of the vicar with an oblatory keg. The Sussex clergy seemed to have needed very little encouragement to omit smuggling from the decalogue. It is, I think, the late Mr. Coker Egerton, of Burwash, who tells of a Sussex parson feigning illness a whole Sunday on hearing suddenly in the morning that a cargo, hard pressed by the revenue, had in despair been lodged among his pews. But the classical passage on this subject comes from Cornwall, from the pen of R. S. Hawker, the vicar of Morwenstowe and the author of "The Song of the Western Men." He was not himself a smuggler, but his parishioners had no scruples, and his heart was with the braver side of the business:—

It was full sea in the evening of an autumn day when a traveller arrived where the road ran along by a sandy beach just above high-water mark. The stranger, who was a native of some inland town, and utterly unacquainted with Cornwall and its ways, had reached the brink of the tide just as a "landing" was coming off. It was a scene not only to instruct a townsman, but also to dazzle and surprise. At sea, just beyond the billows, lay the vessel, well moored with anchors at stem and stern. Between the ship and the shore boats, laden to the gunwale, passed to and fro. Crowds assembled on the beach to help the cargo ashore. On the one hand a boisterous group surrounded a keg with the head knocked in, for simplicity of access to the good cognac, into which they dipped whatsoever vessel came first to hand; one man had filled his shoe. On the other side they fought and wrestled, cursed and swore. Horrified at what he saw, the stranger lost all self-command, and, oblivious of personal danger, he began to shout, "What a horrible sight! Have you no shame? Is there no magistrate at hand? Cannot any justice of the peace be found in this fearful country?"

"No; thanks be to God," answered a hoarse, gruff voice. "None within eight miles."

"Well, then," screamed the stranger, "is there no clergyman hereabout? Does no minister of the parish live among you on this coast?"

"Aye! to be sure there is," said the same deep voice.

"Well, how far off does he live? Where is he?"

"That's he, sir, yonder, with the lanthorn." And sure enough there he stood, on a rock, and poured, with pastoral diligence, 'the light of other days' on a busy congregation.

The clergy, however, did not always know how useful they were. The Rev. Webster Whistler, of Hastings, records that he was awakened one night to receive a votive cask of brandy as his share of the spoil which, to his surprise, his church tower had been harbouring. A commoner method was to leave the gift—the tithe—silently on the doorstep. Revenue officers have perhaps been placated in the same way.

Smuggling, in the old use of the word, is no more. The surreptitious introduction into this country of German cigars, eau de Cologne, and Tauchnitz novels, does not merit the term. A revised tariff having removed the necessity for smuggling, the game is over; for that is the reason of the disappearance of the smuggler rather than any increased vigilance on the part of the coastguard. The records of smuggling show that the difficulties offered to the profession by the Government were difficulties that existed merely to be overcome. Perhaps fiscal reform may restore the old pastime.

The word smuggler arouses in the mind the figure of a bold and desperate mariner searching the coast for a signal that all is safe to land his cargo. But as a matter of fact the men who ran the greatest risks were not the marine smugglers at all, but the land smugglers who received the tubs on the shore and conveyed them to a hiding place preparatory to the journey to London, whither the major part was perilously taken. Such were the Alfriston smugglers. These were the men who fought the revenue officers and had the hair's-breadth escapes. These were the men whose houses were watched, whose every movement was suspected, who needed to be wily as the serpent and to know the country inch by inch.

Not that the sea smuggler ran no risks. On the contrary, he was continually in danger from revenue cutters and the coastguards' boats. Bloody fights in the Channel were by no means rare. He was also often in peril from the elements; his endurance was superb; he had to be a sailor of genius, ready for every kind of emergency. But the land smuggler was more vulnerable than the sea smuggler, his rewards were smaller, and his operations were less simple. There is a vast difference between a dark night at sea and a dark night on land. Once the night fell the sea was the smuggler's own: he was invisible, inaudible. But the land was not less the revenue officer's: the land smuggler had to show his signal light, he had to roll casks over the beach, he had to carry them into security. His horse's hoofs could not be stilled as oars are muffled, his wheels bit noisily into the road, he was liable to be stopped at any turn. And he ran these risks from the coast right into London. I doubt if the land smuggler has had his due of praise. Sometimes the land smuggler had to be land smuggler and sea smuggler too, for many of the ships never troubled to make a landing at all. They sailed as near the shore as might be and then sank the tubs, which were always lashed together and kept on deck in readiness to be thrown overboard in case of the approach of a cutter. The position of the mooring having been conveyed to the confederates on shore, the vessel was at liberty to return to France for another cargo, leaving the responsibility of fishing up the tubs, and getting them to shore and away, wholly with the land smuggler.

An old pamphlet, entitled, The Trials of the Smugglers ... at the Assizes held at East Grinstead, March 13, 14, 15, and 16, 1748-9, gives the following information about the duties and pay of the land smugglers at that day:—"Each Man is allowed Half a Guinea a Time, and his Expenses for Eating and Drinking, a Horse found him, and the Profits of a Dollop of Tea, which is about 13 Pounds Weight, being the Half of a Bag; which Profit, even from the most ordinary of their Teas, comes to 24 or 25 Shillings; and they always make one Journey, sometimes two, in a Week." But these men would be underlings. There were, I take it, land smugglers in control of the operations who shared on a more lordly scale with their brethren in the boat.

On all the routes employed by the land smugglers were certain cottages and farm-houses where tubs might be hidden. Houses still abound supplied with unexpected recesses and vast cellars where cargoes were stored on their way to London. In many cases, in the old days, these houses were "haunted," to put forth the legend of a ghost being the simplest way not only of accounting for such nocturnal noises as might be occasioned by the arrival or departure of smugglers and tubs, but also of keeping inquisitive folks at bay. Only a little while ago, during alterations to an old cottage high on the hills near my home in Kent, corroboration was given to a legend crediting the place with being a smuggler's "half-way house," by the builders' discovery of a cavern under the garden communicating with the cellar. For the gaining of such fastnesses the hollow ways of Sussex were maintained. Parson Darby's smuggling successor, in Mr. Horace Hutchinson's Sussex romance, A Friend of Nelson, thus described them to the hero of Withyham:—

"The sun strikes hot enough. Would you like to ride in the shade awhile?"

"Immensely," I replied, "if I saw the shade."

"Keep after me, then," said he; "but the roan will. You need not trouble!" In a moment, on his great big horse, he was forcing his way down what had looked to me no more than a rabbit-run through the roadside bushes. For a while I had noticed the road seemed flanked by a mass of boskage below it on the right-hand side. Into this, and downward, the man crammed his horse, squeezing his legs into the horse's flank. I followed closely, and in a yard or two found myself in a deep lane or cutting, very thickly overgrown, so that only occasional gleams of sunshine crept in through the leafage. We rode, as he had promised, in a most pleasant shade. The floor of this lane or passage was not of the smoothest, and we went at a foot's pace only, and in Indian file.

"What is the meaning of it all?" I asked him.

"Well," said he, "you have heard, I suppose, of the 'hollow ways,' as they are called, of Sussex. This is one. They were in their origin lanes, I take it, and perhaps the only means of getting about the country. The rains, in this sandy soil, washing down, gradually deepened and deepened them. Folks grew to use the new roads as they were made, leaving the lanes unheeded, to be overgrown. Here and there certain base fellows of the lewder sort, commonly called smugglers, may have deepened them further, and improved on what Nature had begun so well, with the result that you can ride many a mile, mole-like, if you know your way, from the sea coast north'ard, never showing your face above ground at all. That is what it means," he ended.

Smuggling was in the blood of the Sussex people. As the Cornishman said to Mr. Hawker, "Why should the King tax good liquor?" Why, indeed? Everyone sided with the smugglers, both on the coast and inland. A Burwash woman told Mr. Egerton that as a child, after saying her prayers, she was put early to bed with the strict injunction, "Now, mind, if the gentlemen come along, don't you look out of the window." The gentlemen were the smugglers, and not to look at them was a form of negative help, since he that has not seen a gentleman cannot identify him. Another Burwash character said that his grandfather had fourteen children, all of whom were "brought up to be smugglers." These would, of course, be land smugglers—Burwash being on a highway convenient for the gentlemen between the coast and the capital.