Misty Essex marshes hide tales of smuggling

THE BLEAK and wild marshlands of Essex hide fascinating tales of night-time smuggling. During the 18th century, when the illegal trade industry was enjoying a massive boom, all sorts of luxuries were hauled off boats along the county s coast and smuggled

THE BLEAK and wild marshlands of Essex hide fascinating tales of night-time smuggling.

During the 18th century, when the illegal trade industry was enjoying a massive boom, all sorts of luxuries were hauled off boats along the county's coast and smuggled across the marsh.

With its maze of tidal creeks and tributaries and few inhabitants the marshland was the perfect terrain for transporting goods unnoticed.

Last week historian William Tyler shared some of his knowledge and passion on the subject, as he held a Essex Smugglers and Ghosts talk at St Mary's Church Hall, in Grafton Road, Dagenham.

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William told a captive audience how whole communities were involved in 18th century Essex's black economy - young and old, rich and poor, labourers and landowners. And those who weren't physically involved in the smuggling would usually turn a blind eye to the practice.

Pubs would often be used to hide the goods, which ranged from tea and silk to gin and brandy.

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"Many had deep cellars which were perfect for storing the goods" said William. "A lot of pubs actually made more money from the smuggling trade than they did from selling alcohol."

One pub which regularly hid smuggled items was the Ferry Inn on Rainham marshes (open between 1630 and 1925.)

What may take some by surprise is that churches were also popular hiding spots.

"You can't imagine churches being involved can you? But many were. Inside Frinton Parish Church, for example, there was a curtain which divided the building into two. One side of the curtain was used to hold services and the other side was used to store the smuggled goods."

The government did do their best to crack down on the sneaky smugglers - but with little success.

One smuggler who cleverly outwitted a group of custom officials was a man named Hard Apple Blythe from Paglesham.

William said: "Blythe and his crew were coming back on his cutter (type of boat), when he was spotted by custom officials.

"He knew there was no way he could escape them so he allowed the men on board. Blythe then said to the officials: "Lets have one last drink together and while we do my lads will move all our goods on to your boat."

So the officials accepted a drink, while they watched Blythe's men transfer the goods. This drink was followed by another and another and another...

"Eventually the custom men, feeling rather merry, got back on their boat and sailed away. Blythe's boat carried on towards the shore - but this time their boat was a lot lower in the water.

"For what the officials hadn't noticed in their drunkenness was that Blythe's men, after moving the goods on to the custom boat, had then taken them back again, together with all the other goods that the officials had seized before."

The county's smugglers and their accomplices used a number of other tactics to fool the authorities - one of the most popular was to exploit people's belief in ghosts.

At Hadleigh Castle phantoms known as the White Lady and the Black Man were often seen walking the grounds. But, oddly enough, they were almost always spotted about the same time as the arrival of some liquor cases.

Another famous ghost who appeared across Essex and in bordering Suffolk, was an enormous and terrifying dog called Black Shuck.

According to William, a man named William Fell came across this beast one night as he was riding his horse along an isolated road. Fell described the dog, which followed him for 13 minutes, as being "as big as a cart, with eyes like lamps." Something suggests this ghostly animal may not have been so ghostly after all.

As he concluded his talk, William said it was important to preserve the county's marshes and its coastline.

He said: "There is so much fascinating social history and folklore in this landscape, which has changed very little since the 18th century. Just by taking a walk across the marshes you can almost imagine yourself transported back to the time when smugglers roamed the area."

"We have a wonderful natural heritage on our doorstep - it's vital we don't lose it."

Last week's talk was organised by Friends of Valence House. For information on future talks and historical outings please call (020) 8598 8470 or 01708 769946. The group is on the look out for younger volunteers (below 60.) If you are interested please call the numbers above.

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