PortCities London

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.

Officers and searchers at Tunnel Pier.
View full size imageOfficers and searchers at Tunnel Pier. © NMM
Smuggling usually took one of two forms - either through the ports or far away from the ports. Vessels and individuals arriving at ports often attempted to conceal dutiable goods, sometimes by disguising them as other items.

Aliens and others at the docks: after luggage examination.
View full size imageAliens and others at the docks: after luggage examination. © NMM

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

Smugglers, by George Morland.
View full size imageSmugglers, by George Morland. © NMM
When customs duties were very high, some smugglers avoided the ports altogether, and tried to land their goods in secluded places, out of sight of the authorities. These smugglers brought in light, high-value goods such as tea, tobacco and silks.

Revenue men raiding a gang's hide-out.
View full size imageRevenue men raiding a gang's hide-out. © NMM
Smuggling had always been common on the coast of south and southeast England, nearest to the Continent. Smuggling reached its peak during the 18th century, when duties were very high, and when many imports were banned altogether during the frequent wars with France.



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.

Smugglers alarmed.
View full size imageSmugglers alarmed. © NMM

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.

The Customs Board increased the number of officers near the coast, but its most visible deterrent was its fleet of revenue cutters. These were small vessels, armed with up to 10 guns, that patrolled the coast of southern and eastern England. After 1816, these were taken over by the Admiralty.

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 kiln at the London Docks.
View full size imageThe kiln at the London Docks. © NMM
The London Docks had at least two special ovens - often called the 'Queen's Pipes' - for burning ruined goods. They were also used to destroy contraband.

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 King's Chimney, Falmouth.
View full size imageThe King's Chimney, Falmouth. © NMM
Eventually, much of the contraband tobacco seized in the docks was distributed to institutions such as asylums.

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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