The Customs Service
|Smuggling and its prevention|
The huge sums of money involved in collecting dues encouraged evasion and smuggling - the crime of importing or exporting goods without paying the required customs duties. Smuggling and corruption had been a problem since the Middle Ages, but the system was gradually tightened up from the 18th century onwards.
This was - and still is - the most common form of smuggling. To detect concealed goods, teams of officers searched vessels and people using the port.
Ships bound for London could be searched at any point above Gravesend. People and their luggage had to be checked at customs posts at the place of arrival.
The smugglers: romance and reality
These smugglers have often been romanticized in literature, with tales of adventure on moonlit nights. John Meade Falkner's Moonfleet, Russell Thorndyke's Doctor Syn novels and Kipling's poem 'Smuggler's Song' have all stressed the romantic side of smuggling.
In reality, it was a brutal business on both sides. Many smugglers were hanged, and most were prepared to use force against the revenue men - as the customs officials were known - to avoid capture. While the authorities used informants to break the gangs, smugglers used the threat of violence - and even murder - to ensure silence from the local community.
In the end, too many people benefitted from large-scale smuggling when customs duties were high. The famous line from Kipling's poem - 'Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk, Laces for a Lady' - captures the basic truth that many people were happy to buy goods at lower prices without caring too much whether or not duty had been paid. Only the elimination and general reduction of customs duties made the smuggling of such goods unprofitable.
The fate of contraband goods
Contraband goods were often destroyed in public, in order to demonstrate that smuggling would not be tolerated.
The Reverend Harry Jones, Rector of the nearby church of St George in the East, recalled seeing what appeared to be 'a fall of black snow'. This turned out to be the remains of a consignment of tea.
Usually, it was contraband tobacco that perished in the Queen's Pipes. This caused great resentment in the area, especially in the days when most adults smoked.
In the 1880s, Beatrice Potter (later Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the London School of Economics) interviewed dockers at the East India Docks on behalf of Charles Booth's great survey of London poverty. She discovered that one of their biggest grievances was that they were not allowed to take any of the seized tobacco.
The 'Queen's Pipes' at the London Docks have long gone, but a much older example - the King's Chimney at Falmouth in Cornwall - still survives.
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