Solway Plain - past and present by the Holme St Cuthbert History Group

Smuggler at Dubmill

During the 17th and 18th centuries, smuggling on the Solway coast was rife. Large gangs of professional smugglers operated on the Scottish coast and, to a lesser extent, on the English side. Many illicit loads were landed between Saltpans and Skinburness by these ‘midnight traders’.

Map showing smugglers' landing points
Three favourite landing spots for the smugglers. It is said much of the contraband was taken to
Hayton Castle and hidden there!

During the 1700s, custom duties payable on goods in the Isle of Man were considerably lower than on the mainland. Money could be made by buying legally imported goods on the island, repacking them in smaller parcels and smuggling them into England and Scotland along the Solway. The Isle of Man was known as ‘that warehouse of frauds’ because so much contraband, from all over the world, was stored there.

Sales of goods seized by the customs officers were held regularly at Carlisle, Whitehaven, Workington and Ulverston in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They included: Tobacco, spirits, tea, silk, salt, Russian linen, cotton stockings, feathers for beds, glue, human hair, starch, candles, cheese and hair powder.

In 1724, brandy was seized from a sloop near Skinburness. In 1731, eighteen casks of brandy were found on the shore near Dubmill Point after two local men, Joseph Simm and Daniel Miller tipped off the customs officers. The two informers were left to keep watch on the area but were discovered by two of the smugglers, John Sharp and John Osborn, who promptly gave them a beating. The informers brought charges of assault against the smugglers but the case was dismissed by the jury!

In 1764, the Customs men found “a very considerable gang of smugglers, armed with guns and pistols, escorting about forty horse loads of brandy and tea” near Hayton, just inland from the coast. The officers attacked but “being overpowered with so much superior force, were obliged to retreat”.
Ankers barrel
Spirits were usually packed into small 9-gallon barrels called Ankers. This one is displayed in Bowness church.

Sketch of Customs Ship 'Ferret' at Skinburness
Between 1772 and 1787 a small boat, named the Ferret, was used by Customs
officials to intercept the smugglers at sea. Here she is pictured, sailing past the Longhouse at Skinburness where she was based.

In 1755, a young Manx smuggler, Thomas Stowell, was aboard a ship, intercepted by the King’s boat from Skinburness. During the chase, shots were fired and Stowell was wounded. He was landed, with his cargo of brandy and tobacco, at Bowness-on-Solway where he died. He is buried in the churchyard there where his gravestone still stands under a Yew tree. Six more smugglers are buried, in unmarked graves, under the same tree.

His gravestone is seen on the right.
Stowell's gravestone

Smugglers Pannier
A Smuggler’s Pannier or belly flask holds about two gallons of whisky.
 It can be hidden under a man’s greatcoat or disguised as a woman’s pregnancy.

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The Solway Smugglers