A Lesser-Known Item for Smuggling: Silk


Man’s waistcoat of French silk, made in England c1750.

Smuggling of goods was a major industry along the lonely coastline of north Norfolk, with its easy access to the Low Countries and northern France. Kipling’s well-known poem neatly summarises the main goods brought in by the smugglers throughout the country, not just in Norfolk.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

What Kipling omitted, however, was another source of trade for the smugglers : silk.

The History of Regulations on Foreign Silk

English silk manufacturers in the 18th century were assiduous in working to protect their businesses from foreign imports. As a result, bans on bringing foreign silk into the country dated back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century. It was all part of the ‘mercantilist’ ideas of the time, which emphasised the importance of exports as a way of producing wealth for the country as a whole.

Parliament banned the use of manufactured fabrics mixed with Asian silks as early as 1700. In 1706, a ban was placed on French ribbons and laces. By 1749, all imports of foreign gold and silver lace were prohibited. Ready-made garments of foreign silk, plus foreign silk fabrics and velvet, were banned in 1765. Those found ignoring these regulations could be fined the enormous amount of £100 (perhaps £25,000 in today’s spending power) and have all the illegal goods seized.

Demand Creates Supply

The trouble with all such prohibitions and punitive customs duties in the eighteenth century was simple. By producing a shortage of desirable goods, and driving up the price of legal imports to excessive levels, the authorities made smuggling highly profitable. The elite members of society wanted fine silk clothes and were not especially careful where they came from — especially if those offered by the ‘free traders’ could be obtained more cheaply than those from legitimate sources.

Smuggling had grown hugely in eighteenth-century Britain as a direct result of the shift in taxation from direct taxes on wealth to indirect taxes on goods. High duties were placed on commodities that could not be satisfied by domestic production, in a effort to finance Britain’s constant wars in the period. As a result, consumers looked to ways to avoid these taxes. Indeed, few seemed to have felt any great scruples in buying contraband goods. Parson Woodforde happily received brandy from the local smuggler. Even Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, ignored his own government’s regulations to fill his cellars at Houghton Hall with contraband wines and spirits.

With silks and fine fabrics, the obvious demand came from the fashion-conscious, those desiring to deck out themselves and their homes with the finest brocades and velvets, and all those who valued French influence on fashion and style as evidence for superior taste. Since many of these customers for contraband were aristocrats and gentry, the authorities often found themselves powerless to intervene, let alone prosecute. The best they could do was try to disrupt the supply by chasing down the smugglers. Like today’s drug dealers, these free traders saw the occasional loss of a cargo or prosecution of some ‘small fry’ as the natural cost of doing business.

Why Silk?

The staples of the free trade were generally high-value, bulk imports, such as tea, tobacco, and brandy. Nevertheless, silks and laces made a welcome addition to the smuggler’s profits. Textiles fitted well into the many opportunities for small-scale smuggling by individuals as well as organised gangs. They could be obtained from many sources, Asian and European. They could be folded and hidden inside boxes and packages. Individual travellers could hide them in their luggage. Officials of The East India Company, many of whom were allowed to make ‘personal imports’, quietly exceeded their legitimate allowances. Official cargoes on East India Company vessels were an ideal source of deliberate pilfering and diversion.

Despite all the efforts of the government and British manufacturers, French and Far Eastern fabrics remained highly fashionable throughout the eighteenth century. Asian silks in particular offered elaborate patterns and bright colours that were typically not available from domestic manufacturers — at least until the burgeoning demand forced them to attempt to catch up.

For example, silk handkerchiefs, a staple of item of dress for men and women, were smuggled in large quantities from Asian sources. Kashmiri shawls started a strong fashion trend, so much so that Norwich manufacturers produced fine woollen shawls using copied patterns. They proved so successful that there was enough demand for ‘Norwich shawls’ to help prop up the city’s declining weaving industry — a decline caused mostly by the shift to bright cotton cloth produced in Lancashire and machine-made woollens from Yorkshire mills.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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1 Response to A Lesser-Known Item for Smuggling: Silk

  1. Karen says:

    There’s a swatch book of silks that British customs confiscated from French agents who were trying to sell them in London in 1764. You can view the swatch book online through the V&A’s website at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O134050/swatch-book-unknown/ — it’s also published in “Selling Silks: A Merchant’s Sample Book” at https://amzn.to/2OxSptJ

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