Smugglers of Britain: Kings of the Cove or Violent Gangs?

Smugglers, like highwaymen, have often been romanticised but in reality, they were much more brutal. Locals often lived in fear and violence was dealt out to those who were regarded as informers. Revenue men were beaten and murdered.

And the law was often bought off – corruption went all the way to the top so the smugglers could literally get away with murder.

From tales of daring escapades to hidden smuggler caves, the stories of British smugglers have graced the pages of countless history books. These storied criminals have been whispered about, exaggerated and feared since they established hideaways on Britain’s shores.

Dorset smugglers
Bringing brandy ashore at night for stowage in a cave to avoid the customs men Credit: Look And Learn


Although illegal, with those found guilty of smuggling facing harsh penalties, when done successfully smuggling could be a highly lucrative business. Smuggling everything from gin to lace, those that embarked in this shady profession often worked in gangs that gained a feared reputation across the countryside.

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Smuggling was a part of life throughout British history. However, it gained particular prominence during the 18th century,  when hefty customs taxes prompted many people to turn to a life of crime to avoid losing profits.


Smuggling became such a widespread practices in eighteenth century Britain that at one point it was estimated that more liquor was smuggled into the UK than passed legally through the London Docks.

Similarly, in 1784, then prime minister William Pitt the Younger  claimed that 7.5 million pounds of the 13 million pounds of tea the people of Britain consumed had entered the kingdom through illegal smuggling.

Watch Towers

While the rise of the Coast Guard, lower taxes, and the construction of more watchtowers impacted the world of smuggling, it never completely vanished. While the practice may have adapted to the modern world, smugglers are still active today.

A smuggling cutter
A smuggling cutter

While smuggling occurred all over the UK, there were certain areas that were particular hotspots for the smuggling trade. Smuggling was common in Essex and secret chambers constructed to store contraband have been found under historic buildings in Essex towns.

Further to the west, Dorset and Cornwall were prominent smuggling flashpoints, with Poole sometimes referred to as one of the greatest smuggling towns in England. The coast of west Wales, dotted with secluded coves and beaches, was also a prominent area for smugglers.

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Smugglers went to great lengths to hide their loot with many using caves and secret chambers, such as the ones found in Essex, to hide contraband. There are even reports of smugglers fabricating stories of ghosts and phantoms to discourage people from exploring ruins and caves where they were hiding and storing smuggled goods.

In some areas, smugglers made such an impression that they still lend themselves to place names to this day. Prussia Cove in Cornwall is a good example of this; the Cove was named after a member of the Carter family, known smugglers, one of whom had the nickname The King of Prussia. In Wales, Ogof Wisgi, meaning Whisky Cove is thought to have gained its name due to its use as a smuggling cove.

Wrecking vs Smuggling

Wrecking and smuggling were interlinked activities and both flourished in eighteenth century Britain. While smuggling often involved shipping or transporting goods into Britain, wrecking took a more opportunistic approach.

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Wrecking involved collecting goods that washed up onto the shore when vessels wrecked off the coast. In some cases people from coastal communities would even bring pickaxes and other tools to pull apart wrecked boats, as opposed to just collecting washed up cargo.

 ‘to seize or collect wreck or wreckage’. Or ‘one who causes shipwreck for the purpose of plunder by showing luring lights.

As the law stated that it was illegal to take goods from a wrecked ship if any crew or passengers remained alive, there were instances where wreckers turned violent and killed anyone that survived the shipwreck to avoid facing prosecution.

Wrecking could be so lucrative that there are tales of people lighting beacons to lure ships onto the rocks to cause them to founder.

Who Were the Smugglers?

Across the UK, smugglers gained prominence. Some ran such successful operations that they became stable employers for local people and important parts of the local economy. Others relied on violence and brutality to gain wealth and prestige.

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The Carter Family

Native to Cornwall, the Carter family, also known as the Carters of Prussia Cove, were a family that came to be known for their smuggling escapades in the eighteenth century.

cornish smugglers
Cornish smugglers, Prussia Cove for the filming of Poldark in 1975. Credit: John Bawden of

Deeply entrenched in the Cornish smuggling community, the family ran such a long standing and prolific smuggling business that their employment of local people in their smuggling enterprise became a key part of the local economy.

The Carters were adept sailors and smugglers and were rumoured to live in their hideout in a remote cliff on the Cornish Coast. In 1788, a smuggling ship captained by one of the members of the family, Harry Carter, was captured by ships from the British Royal Navy.

Prussia Cove
Prussia Cove, where the Carters based their smuggling ring © Copyright Simon Lewis

While ten members of the smuggling crew were caught, Harry escaped. Now a fugitive from justice, Harry fled to America where he remained in exile.

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Another member of the family, Charles, was put on trial in 1793 and was sent to debtors’ prison after being unable to afford the £1469 12s he was ordered by the courts to pay.

By 1825, smuggling exploits by the famed Carter family are thought to have ceased completely.

Isaac Gulliver

Known for smuggling gin, silk, lace and tea from Europe, Isaac Gulliver gained the moniker The King of Dorset Smugglers. Gulliver had immense wealth and built numerous houses, many of which he used in his illegal smuggling business.

Isaac Gulliver
A miniature of Isaac Gulliver painted in 1821 and preserved in Chettle House, Blandford Forum by his descendants

His home in Bournemouth was purpose built as a smuggling stronghold, while it was rumoured that trees he planted at his farm in Dorset were implemented as navigational aids for his smuggling ships. Smugglers in the employ of Isaac Gulliver were known as the white wigs, as they were known to whiten their hair.

Eggerton hillfort
There is an interesting crop mark in the middle of the Hillfort. It is thought to be from when Gulliver planted a group of trees that were used as landmarks for his ships.

His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs in London [1788] mentioned that: “Gulliver was considered one of the greatest and most notorious smugglers in the west of England and particularly in the spirits and tea trades but in the year 1782 he took the benefit of his Majesty’s proclamation for pardoning such offences and as we are informed dropped that branch of smuggling and afterwards confined himself chiefly to the wine trade which he carried on to a considerable extent having vaults at various places along the coast and “in remote places” .

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Although Gulliver became known as a prolific and highly successful smuggler, he would come to leave his criminal activities behind in later life, becoming a respectable member of the community. He served as a banker for a time before dying in 1822.

The Hawkhurst Gang

Active in the Southeast of England, the Hawkhurst Gang operated between 1735 and 1749. The group became notorious smugglers and were known for resorting to violence to achieve their criminal aims.

Oak and Ivy Inn
Named after the village of Hawkhurst, the gang was based in the “Oak and Ivy Inn”, Hawkhurst.

Originally thought to be from the town of Hawkhurst, the group operated from Kent to Dorset. They robbed customs officials transporting seized goods, and it is said that in 1744 this daring gang unloaded enough contraband from ships docked in Pevensey to require the use of over 250 packhorses.

They were known to frequent the Mermaid Inn in Rye and the Oak and Ivy Inn at Hawkhurst, where they would keep loaded weapons on the table and in the late 1740s, the gang is said to have beaten a farm worker to death for stealing two bags of tea from them.

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The gang’s penchant for brutality and violence lost them the support of the local people that many smuggling groups received. A militia formed of local people in an attempt to end the tyranny of the gang.

Angered by this, the leader of the Hawkhurst Gang, Thomas Kingsmill, demanded the militia leader be turned over to the gang. When this was refused, the gang attacked, resulting in the Battle of Goudhurst.

Smugglers Executed

Throughout the later years of the 1740s, many members of the gang were captured and executed. In total, seventy-five members of the Hawkhurst Gang are recorded to have been executed or transported for their crimes.

Hawkhurst, smugglers gang
The Smugglers’ Stone, Broyle Road, Chichester. Erected in 1749 to commemorate the execution of 7 smugglers of the Hawkhurst Gang, and the spot where three of them were hanged.

The inscription reads:

Near this place was buried the body of William Jackson, a prescribed smuggler, who upon a special commission of oyer and terminer held at Chichester on the 16th day of January 1748-9 was, with William Carter, attained for the murder of William Galley, a custom house officer and who likewise was together with Benjamin Tapner, John Cobby, John Hammond, Richard Mills the elder and Richard Mills the younger, his son, attained for the murder of Daniel Chater. But dying in a few hours after sentence of death was pronounced upon him he thereby escaped the punishment which the heinousness of his complicated crimes deserved and which was the next day most justly inflicted upon his accomplices. As a memorial to posterity and a warning to this and succeeding generations this stone is erected AD 1749.

Thomas Johnstone

Allegedly beginning his smuggling career when he was just fifteen years old, Thomas Johnstone was an incredibly adept sailor with a strong knowledge of the coastal region between Cornwall and Suffolk, and the waters of the English Channel.

A sketch of Thomas Johnstone, dated 10 December 1834
A sketch of Thomas Johnstone, dated 10 December 1834

Thomas was born to a seafaring family. His father was a fisherman and smuggler and it is said that Thomas began accompanying him out to sea from the age of nine.

Thomas’ knowledge of the sea meant that by the time his father died when he was twelve, he was already skilled enough to find work in the maritime industry.

In the Napoleonic Wars, Thomas worked as a privateer and commanded the HMC Fox.

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Active in the smuggling trade, Thomas was imprisoned in 1798 on smuggling charges, however he successfully staged an escape. He would later be confined in and escape from prisons in both France and Holland.

It was rumoured that Thomas was such an expert seaman that he was even recruited to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from St. Helena. However, Bonaparte died before the plan could be enacted.

The End of Smuggling’s Golden Days

Smuggling never stopped completely in Britain, with smuggling, albeit now often using slightly different tactics, still a prominent issue to this day. However, the golden days of smuggling did come to an end in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This decline was due to a few contributing factors.

£500 into day’s money is around £40,000!

Taxes on products such as tea were reduced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this made smuggling an activity that remained highly risky and yet increasingly less profitable.

The Coast Guard came into effect in the 1820s which posed a threat to smugglers, while tensions with France meant an increasing number of watchtowers were built along the English coastline.

These towers made it more difficult for smugglers to conduct their business undetected.

The Adapting World of Smuggling

While smuggling has always had a place in British history, it reached particular prominence in the eighteenth century.

Along the coastlines of the UK, smugglers brought in contraband in levels that, at times, rivalled the legal trade of goods being brought into the country.

Smugglers worked independently, as groups and gangs, and as families, supporting the local economy of the areas in which they operated and at times gaining reputations as brutal and violent mobs.

Coves were named after smugglers and the tales of their exploits were passed down through generations. While smuggling still exists, it has adapted to the modern world, and the practices and attitudes of the golden days of smuggling have been left to grace the pages of history.