Fifty per cent of spirits drunk in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century were estimated to have been smuggled into the country. There was a thriving industry of Dutch Gin distillation in Schiedam. It was produced expressly for sale to British smugglers. Brandy, tobacco, silks and so on were only part of the two way trade. Unstamped Cornish tin was exported illegally to Brittany and the Continent beneath cargoes of pilchards. Back came the boats loaded with cognac and other ‘goodies’. Smuggling was not just confined to the importation of goods without the payment of tax. Indeed, even before 1700, the government had decreed the death penalty for anyone found exporting wool, in an attempt to protect the home weaving industries. This, however, did not deter those willing to risk such penalties, for the not insubstantial sums that could be made. Following successive hikes in tea tax, tea could be bought in Europe for 1/6th of the price in Britain, while French brandy was only 1/5th of the price.
The smugglers called themselves "free traders" and took a pride in their ability to outsmart the Preventative or Revenue men employed to catch them. Initially, smuggling took place fairly openly with cargoes landed on shore and transported inland by eager helpers. This was made possible by the involvement of all sections of the community, from the local landowner, to the poorest peasant. The involvement of high ranking members of society would range from turning a blind eye, to full scale involvement.
It was also common for ships returning from India and China to 'hover' off shore and sell untaxed goods such as china, silks and cottons. The most celebrated case, being in 1763, when three East Indiamen lying in Falmouth harbour, reputedly sold £20,000 of goods to the local inhabitants in this way.
Prior to the Customs Service being reorganised in 1822, the customs preventative services along the southern coast of England, and especially on the Cornish and Devon coasts, were at worst almost non-existent and at best ineffective. English governments were very reluctant to incur any costs, even in such a good cause as bringing in revenue. The early preventive services were all privatised. An individual would be licensed to catch smugglers and impound their cargoes and vessels. The owners and officers of such a private revenue collector would receive a generous proportion of the value of their catch, and a £20 reward for each smuggler convicted. The crew however were often so poorly paid that they either joined the smugglers or took bribes. This period, up until the end of the 18th century, was probably smuggling's boom years. It was believed, for instance, that nearly half a million gallons of brandy a year were being smuggled through Cornwall at this time.
For all of the legends and stories, most smugglers were said to have been more concerned with feeding their families than making fortunes. The risks, however, were high; smuggling activities led to a minimum penalty of transportation to colonies such as Australia, though often the penalties were much more severe.
Dr. Johnson described a smuggler as being:
Background on Smuggling
A Cornish Lullaby
Hush my little ugling,
Daddy's gone a-smuggling.
He has gone to Roscoff
In the Mevagissey Maid -
A sloop of ninety tons
With ten brass carriage guns -
To teach the king's ships manners
And respect for honest trade.
Sleep my joy and sorrow,
Daddy'll come tomorrow,
Bringing 'baccy, tea and snuff,
And brandy home from France.
He'll bring the goods ashore
While the old collectors snore,
And the black dragooners gamble
In the dens of old Penzance.
Rock-a-bye my honey,
For Daddy's making money.
You shall be a gentleman
And sail with privateers,
With a silver cup in your sack,
A blue coat upon your back,
And diamonds on your fingerbones,
And gold rings in your ears.