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A C17 exciseman succeeds in apprehending wool-smugglers

Posted in Historical articles, History, Law, Sea, Trade on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about smugglers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Exciseman and smugglers,  picture, image, illustration

An exciseman of the 17th century leads an attack on smugglers by Peter Jackson

The moon rode high above the clouds for a moment and disclosed the team of laden pack-horses as it wound along the track to Romney Marsh. Ten . . . fifteen . . . twenty men and fifteen horses with two barrels to each beast. Carter snapped his spy-glass shut and whispered orders to the sergeant beside him, who vanished silently into the trees. He looked at his watch. Another hour and then . . . .

It was 12th December, 1688, and William Carter, newly-appointed exciseman, was about to round-up a gang of smugglers. But these smugglers were not bringing in spirits and tobacco to avoid duty. They were exporters, not importers. Their contraband cargo was fine English wool.

As far back as the 13th century, the Government had tried to restrict the export of wool from England. By the 17th century, at least thirty Acts of Parliament had revived the prohibition. Usually the embargo was temporary, designed to protect England’s own woollen and worsted industries when they were threatened by those of the Low Countries and France.

But wool-growers resented the restriction. They wanted to sell their fleeces where they would fetch the best prices; and in the 17th century. French merchants were prepared to pay as much as half-a-crown a pound for raw wool and six shillings for combed wool. There was a simple answer – it must be smuggled out. So from the same inlets and creeks along the coasts of Sussex and Kent by which brandy, lace and silks entered the country, wool left it. The smugglers, or owlers, pressed it tight into barrels which were washed with brine-water. At a casual inspection they could pass for barrels of salt beef or herring.

William Carter was new to the job. The December undertaking was his first big operation and he had expended a lot of money and man-power on it, bringing in soldiers from the garrisons nearby. If he was successful it would rebound to his credit. If he failed, he would be a laughing-stock in the neighbourhood and his masters would not be pleased.

Carter rode to the edge of the marsh. The sergeant was waiting for him at a prearranged spot. As he made a last-minute check of his dispositions, Carter had a momentary feeling of doubt; but the comforting pressure against his chest of the warrant for the owlers’ arrest quickly overcame it.

The sergeant beckoned and pointed. The owlers had unloaded the barrels on the shore. A lantern flickered in their midst – out at sea a light flashed in response. Straining his eyes Carter could just distinguish the outline of a fishing boat, a little blacker than the sea and sky around it. A few minutes later he heard the beat of muffled oars as a boat put out from the vessel. When it had been beached, he raised his cutlass and motioned the sergeant to advance.

Quietly the file of soldiers picked its way across the marsh; they were local men who knew the paths as well as the owlers. There was a sudden, low whistle. One of the owlers’ look-outs – Carter peered into the darkness but could not see where he was hidden – had spotted the soldiers. The group on the shore moved swiftly and methodically. The boat, part-laden, put back to sea, while the owlers clambered on to the packhorses and urged them into a gallop.

But Carter had foreseen this. From the opposite flank another file of soldiers appeared, while a third moved into position directly across the owlers’ line of retreat. The smugglers stopped, dismounted, and dropped their weapons – a varied assortment of service muskets cutlasses and sharpened staves.

Carter went forward. Quietly, although he could not quite suppress an exultant note, he read out his warrant. The owlers were handcuffed and the party returned to Romney.

Jogging into the town, Carter’s elation grew. He dismissed the soldiers, tossing them money to drink his health, and, with his two assistants, paraded his captives before the mayor. It was then that he received the first intimation that his scheme might misfire.

The mayor was not pleased to see him or his captives. In fact, had he not found it inconceivable, Carter could have sworn that the fellow was, if anything, embarrassed by their presence.

He explained the circumstances of the arrest and asked for the prisoners to be placed in the town jail. With dignity, despite the fact that his feet were bare and his gold chain dangled over a nightshirt, the mayor replied that he would not; that the men were entitled to bail.

Carter could not believe his ears. To admit these men to bail, he told the mayor, would be tantamount to setting them free. But the mayor was adamant and, even as they argued, townspeople came bustling in, offering, with winks and nods to the captives, to put up the money.

Carter looked to his two assistants for help but read only apathy in their faces. He had set his trap and it had misfired. Let him bear the consequences. He made a last effort to persuade the mayor not to let the owlers go. But the mayor, conscious that he had secured popularity amongst the townsfolk for the remainder of his year of office, would not be moved. Fuming, Carter looked at the grinning, scornful faces that surrounded him. Then, turning on his heel, he stalked from the room. Outside, his step faltered. Tomorrow he would have to explain his expensive failure to his masters.

The night of the 12th December did not, as it happened, ruin Carter’s career. Indeed the revenue commissioners commended his efforts and sympathised with him on the outcome. But the humiliation he had suffered turned his zeal for duty into a personal vendetta against the owlers which he prosecuted for twenty-five years.

It was to no avail. The owling-trade continued unabated until early in the 19th century, when a new set of economic circumstances dictated a reversal of Government policy and the embargo on the export of wool was lifted at last.

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