Working for the Georgian Customs

A Typical Landing Place for Contraband

It wasn’t job you could just walk into. Before you became a Customs officer you had to embark on six months training. This took place at some of the more important ports in the country, including Yarmouth and Lynn in Norfolk. You needed to know the law. Even more important, you needed to know how to find contraband hidden on incoming ships. From the middle of the 18th century until the end of the Napoleonic wars, smuggling was rife, especially in East Anglia. All who worked as Customs Officers were primarily responsible for prevention of smuggling.

The first line of defence were the cruisers out at sea. They could chase after any ship they thought might be trying to bring in contraband. It was no easy task. Many of the smugglers’ boats were heavily armed; fast-sailing vessels manned by experienced crews. If they could not escape, they were quite prepared to stand and fight. Even if the revenue but caught up with them, the outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Officers called tide-waiters, supervised by a tide-surveyor, were deployed closer to the coast. They boarded a ship prior to landing its cargo and checked the contents as described by the ship’s Master to ensure no goods were unloaded secretly before going through customs. The tide-waiters then stayed on the ship until yet more Customs men, known as land-waiters, arrived to supervise the unloading of the ship. At that point, the cargo was again checked against the official list.

Not surprisingly, the Customs men often found themselves overwhelmed by all this checking and re-checking, to say nothing of the process called ‘rummaging’ — searching a vessel in person to uncover hidden contraband. The government were never willing to provide enough men for the job. The Norfolk coastline is a long one, full of lonely, out-of-the way places where contraband could be landed unchallenged. Riding Officers were employed to seek out clandestine hiding places for smuggled goods and try to prevent further landings. They were expected to cover many miles of coastline and were always too few in number to make much of a difference. If they got too close, the smugglers were quite prepared to set upon them to prevent any arrests or seizure of goods.

When the Customs men caught up with the smugglers making a landing, they couldn’t necessarily do much to prevent the cargo coming ashore. The smugglers were often present in large gangs. They would also be heavily armed with blunderbusses, swords and pistols. Many local people would be there with their horses and carts and sometime fishing vessels, helping to load up the goods. Too often, the Customs officers could do little other than sit and watch the law being flouted.

There was some additional help the Custom’s Officers could call on. Dragoon regiments were stationed at various points around the coast, ready to send a troop when called upon. The gangs didn’t like confronting such experienced and well-armed troops. However, the time it took to summon the dragoons and the distance they might need to travel rendered them less useful, except in an ambush. Like the Riding Officers, they often arrived too late to be of much use.

Even when smugglers were caught it was difficult to get convictions. Local juries were reluctant to convict — the same locals who were helping to bring contraband ashore — and the fear of reprisals was quite real. Smuggling gangs were notoriously ruthless in protecting themselves and their leaders.

The final part of the Custom’s procedure at the port was when all the written reports were handed to the fantastically-named officials known as Jerquers. They were responsible for seeing that the various lists of cargo from the tide-waiters, land-waiters and Ship’s Master all agreed. Only then could unloading at the port go ahead and the relevant documents be cut in half and filed.

At times, it almost seemed that the Board of Customs was more concerned with getting the paperwork right and making sure that their own offices were not involved in any kind of peculation then actually interfering with the smugglers and freetraders!

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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