Saturday, 8 October 2011


Skippers of wherries could earn more from carrying one or two tubs of  smuggled French brandy than they could from hauling forty tons of coal.   In the early part of the nineteenth century smuggling was rife, even severe punishments did not deter wherrymen from carrying "Little extras".   Imprisonment at best or transportation at worst.  In the early 1800's transported prisoners were sent to the swamps of Africa which was practically a death sentence,  transportation to Australia came many years later.  Once contraband was seized the wherry would be burned even before the felons had been sentenced.
For the wherrymen moving contraband along the waterways was much needed income but they were only on the fringe of the "Free Trade" industry.
Romantic notions have become attached to 19th century smugglers which is far from the reality of the period.
Smuggling barons were ruthless violent men who became rich from their criminal activities and they would not hesitate to deal with anyone who stood in their way.

We took the cameras to West Norfolk to record a dramatic event that took place in September 1784.

Smugglers were waiting off shore for the all clear signal from the cliffs at Old Hunstanton, they did not know that customs officers and a troop of Dragoons were waiting for them in the darkness.  As the contraband was being brought ashore the Dragoons charged across the sands at full gallop with sabres drawn.  The smugglers, upwards of fifty men, scattered in all directions.
The smuggler's carts and ponies that had been abandoned on the beach were commandeered by the excise men and the smuggled goods were taken to nearby "Clares farm" which is now part of the Caley Hall hotel.

Reinforcements of Dragoons arrived at Old Hunstanton and were sent to the beach in case another attempt was made to land more goods.
The gang leader of the smugglers was enraged when some of the landing party returned to the lugger and  gave him the news of the customs seizure.   Without hesitation he armed the remainder of his crew with pistols, muskets and sabres, the long-boat was launched and the smugglers set off to recover the contraband that had been seized.

As the smugglers made their way from the dunes they spotted the advancing column of dragoons and concealed themselves in a ditch.  The column passed at close range, the smugglers opened fire, private William Webb at the head of the column was hit four times and fell from his horse.
A second volley fatally wounded customs officer William Green who died hours later at Clare's farmhouse.
By the time the Dragoons had regrouped the smugglers had fled.  The gang leader, William Kemball, was later apprehended along with most of the gang.  He was held in Norwich prison until the Thetford assizes seven months after his arrest.  Ironically the wealth accumulated from smuggling activities afforded him first class legal representation which allowed him to escape the death penalty and resume his smuggling career.

This sad little story is not uncommon in Norfolk.  There are three customs officers buried in St Nicholas' churchyard, Great Yarmouth.   Seven other revenue officers were wounded in the same action that was fought off the Yarmouth coast.   There is another officer buried in Bacton churchyard.  All of them killed them by smugglers.

We ended the shoot at the little village church where we filmed the graves of the Dragoon, private Webb and the Customs officer William Green.  
As we stood at the graveside it was not difficult to imagine young Phoebe Green standing there all those years ago, a widow at twenty three.


  1. Jonno, I am a local and have read the lawless coast. I am interested to know if A copy of your film is available?

  2. Mike
    The film should be available later this year.

  3. John

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    Stu Wilson