Criminal underworld – the caves that hid smugglers' booty

With Christmas traditionally the time smugglers descended on Yorkshire's coast, Martin Hickes looks back at the caves which provided the perfect cover for the illicit trade.

The commercialisation of Christmas is no new thing.

History is littered with individuals who saw the festive period as a time not just of good will to all men, but of financial gain and profit.

In days of yore, the run-up to Christmas was traditionally the time when smugglers would store their barrels of booty and other such contraband in the caves off the East Coast, ready to bring it ashore to supply the black markets of towns such as Leeds, in the heart of Yorkshire.

Today, the smugglers have gone, or at least transmuted into hi-tech form, but the caves – often never seen by many in their full grandeur –remain.

The best of them, Robin Lythe's hole, near Flamborough Head, with its warren of fissured limestone, chalk and other such deposits, shows perfectly why boat-load after boat-load of smugglers found the perfect cover in the subterranean hideaways of Yorkshire's east coast.

The chalk cliffs, which rise magnificently and precipitously, are among the highest in Britain and were a popular destination for those who made their living from illicit trading.

East Coast smugglers dealt mainly with Holland and northern France: trade links with Holland in particular had historical connections dating from the time when English wool was systematically smuggled out to Holland to avoid the legal staple in France.

In the golden age of import smuggling, the most important commodity was over-proof gin: enormous quantities came from Schiedam, where the stills produced several million gallons of spirits a year. However, the east coast trade in strong "Geneva" was not to the exclusion of other products – most of the heavily-taxed products that made up the smugglers' stock-in-trade elsewhere in Britain were landed here too.

After landing, the traders would often transport the contrabrand up from the caves in the dead of night, via horse and cart – often muffling both the horses'

mouths and the wheels of the carts to prevent unwanted disturbances.

Smuggling was rife during the 18th-century, but with the Government sensing they were losing out on vital taxes, informers were encouraged to shop those dealing in contraband, and many were caught out by increasingly sophisticated procedures introduced by customs officers.

Today, the barrels of booze stored in Robin Lythe's may have gone, but with the smugglers' stock-in trade of gin replaced by Class A drugs, the need for vigilance has never been


"The coastline of Yorkshire and the UK has hundreds of nooks and crannies where smugglers in the olden days smuggled contraband and hid it from the Excise men," says a spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs.

"The kings of England have always taken a little share of the import of wine; in the Magna Carta, duties were described as 'Ancient and Rightful Customs'. King John extended this principle and placed a duty of one fifteenth on all goods exported and imported.

"This interest became more formal when in 1643 the boards of the Customs and Excise for England and Wales were created. Excise was a tax on consumption beginning with a duty on salt. The salt duty had always been a particularly unpopular tax for it hit the poor hard, and for the next 200 years the law was forever being dropped and re-introduced, it being a tempting raiser of monies at times of war.

"War was the dominant motivator for taxation in the 18th and 19th centuries with further increases in land tax and customs duties, all of which heightened smuggling activities.

"Modern methods of transporting goods and the changes in what is smuggled, such as people and drugs, has made it impractical to operate as we did when everyone feared the Excise men.

"HMRC have responded to

these changes. Now all our work is risk assessed and intelligence led. We have formed fast-response mobile strike teams which can respond quickly to any threat from smuggling, anywhere in the UK.

"Recently, one of HMRC's modern cutters, the Vigilant, chased and captured a fishing vessel off Flamborough Head, recovering more than a million slightly damp cigarettes from the sea."

With the introduction of tightened security at airports,

the lure of the sea has returned and, with the stakes raised ever higher, this Christmas looks

set to be a busy one for customs officers.