Wednesday 24 June 2009

Tea smuggling in Deptford

London's docks were rife with smuggling and stealing - and Deptford was seemingly no exception. Many goods were heavily taxed, meaning that if you could sneak them into the city unofficially you could undercut honest importers' prices. Everyone was happy: the seller made good money, the buyer got a bargain - everyone except the state, of course.

As a result, there was an ongoing struggle between those on the wrong side of the law and those enforcing it. Sometimes, the customs officers enjoyed success:
The latter End of last Week 3 Horses loaden with Tea, were seized by some of the Custom-House Officers, at the Turnpike at New-Cross, near Deptford, and we hear that a Discovery was made of several more Strings of Horses, one of 17 in Number, loaded with the same Commodity, by Means of one of the Horses being taken ill on the road at or near Eltham in Kent, which was also seized there, together with a Man who attended him, and that several concerned in this Smuggling Trade have or will be fined for the same. [8 August 1730]

Sunday a large Cargo of Brandy and Tea was seized at New-Cross, by Messrs Atkins and Cook, and conveyed to the King's Warehouse at the Custom-House. [15 August 1743]

On Tuesday a large Quantity of Raw Coffee, with upwards of seven hundred Gallons of French brandy, were seiz'd by Mr Allen, a Tidesman,* at the Wet Dock at Deptford, and brought to the Custom-House. [21 December 1743]

On Saturday a Milkman, with a Pair of Pails, going along Deptford Road, was stopped by a Custom-house Officer, who, on searching the Pails, found a false Bottom, which contained a large Quantity of French lace, to the Value of upwards of 200l [£200] which was seized and carried to the Custom House. [October 1772]
Of course, buying from criminals always posed its own risks:
A few days since some smugglers came to Deptford, and shewed some samples of tea, which, on trial, proved very good; in consequence thereof, two house-keepers agreed to give thirteen guineas each for half an hundred weight of tea, to be delivered next morning at two o'clock on Black-heath. All parties met, the money was paid, and the cargo delivered; but, on examination after the purchasers got home, they found nothing but chaff mixed with oats. [22 September 1764]
However, the customs men seem to have been fighting a losing battle. Nathan Dews, in his History of Deptford, tells us that
Mr Trickett's shop - at one time called the Grasshopper - was in former days the most noted tea-shop in the town and neighbourhood, the tea being smuggled from the East Indiamen in the river, in sacks of sawdust.

* Tidesman: a customs officer who went on board ship to secure payment of duties.


Hels said...

Thanks for the link to my post "Chocolate, Tea, Coffee".

I love the topic because a] it totally altered our social behaviour and b] it altered our household porcelain and silver. But apart from crawling around the smugglers' caves in Kent, I know nothing about the criminal consequences of importing tea.

CarolineLD said...

The tea tax reached such a level in the eighteenth century (119%) that it has been estimated more tea was smuggled than imported legally! Things calmed down again at the end of the century when the tax was reduced to more sensible levels. The UK Tea Council has a nice summary.

Adam said...

You just couldn't trust the horses in those days...

Perhaps smuggling still continues in Deptford today, but I doubt it would be boxes of PG Tips.

Ross said...

H i Caroline,

I am a student at university and i am doing my dissertation on Smuggling in South London, i was wondering where you found your sources from? I have many sources from the surrounding area but not deptford itself.

CarolineLD said...

Hello Ross,
These are newspaper cuttings in a collection held by the British Library (search their catalogue under 'Deptford'). You may well also be able to find them in 18th Century Newspapers Online (the Burney Collection) or via, which is a brilliant site for London history.