Why the Yorkshire coast was a magnet for 18th-century smugglers

One of the old alleyways in Robin Hood's Bay once used by smugglers
One of the old alleyways in Robin Hood's Bay once used by smugglers
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For 150 years, the rugged, remote Yorkshire coastline was associated with the activities of smuggling gangs.

High taxes on goods such as tea and gin led to villagers living in isolated settlements such as Robin Hood's Bay and Runswick Bay to illegally import them from Holland instead.

An old smuggler's house in Robin Hood's Bay

An old smuggler's house in Robin Hood's Bay

Shipments would arrive by boat under cover of darkness before being collected by the smugglers, secreted ashore and hidden in inns and vaults until the contraband could be sent across the moors to York on packhorses or carts with their wheels muffled.

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In Robin Hood's Bay, there's a tunnel beneath the slipway that smugglers used to conceal their movements and The Bolts, where women would stand watch and bang drums to warn of the arrival of customs officers. Smugglers used The Lookout on the clifftops to signal to boats using lanterns and small fires.

Cheap Dutch tea could be sold for 60 times the price smugglers had paid for it once they got it to English markets. The years 1700-1850 - after which taxes were reduced - were the boom years for smuggling.

Miles of deserted beaches where contraband could be landed and hidden caves for storage made the Yorkshire coast ideal for the trade. Villagers were insular and distrustful of outsiders, so they were happy to support the profession that many of their menfolk were involved in. Pub landlords were often bribed to allow smugglers to use their inns.

The Yorkshire coast was a smuggling hotspot

The Yorkshire coast was a smuggling hotspot

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Staithes, Robin Hood's Bay, North Landing and Runswick Bay were the main landing areas. The Saltburn pub The Ship Inn was well-known as a smugglers' haunt - the landlord John Andrew was nicknamed 'King of the Smugglers'.

Other secret hidey-holes include an underground passage in Saltburn with it entrance below the stable of a horse, a hollowed-out beam in a Filey pub, a Scarborough inn with false floors and a church crypt in Hornsea.

In 2016 a notorious smugglers' pub on the Pickering to Whitby road was listed for sale at auction after falling into disrepair.

The Saltersgate Inn was built as a farmhouse in 1648 before its conversion into a tavern in the early 1700s, when it was called the Waggon and Horses. The smugglers who used it were bringing salt into the country.

The old police station in Robin Hood's Bay

The old police station in Robin Hood's Bay

Thanks to the inn’s high vantage point, customs and excise men could easily be seen approaching. However, one unlucky tax man met a bloody end when he caught the smugglers red-handed and was murdered with a rock to the head by the landlord. They buried his corpse under the fireplace and the landlord insisted that the fire should be kept burning so no-one would find the evidence. Legend had it that if the fire went out the ghost would come back to haunt the hostelry and the community would be beset by the plague. Successive landlords kept the peat fire smouldering for over 200 years until the business closed.

A candle would be placed in the pub's window when taxmen were inside to warn others.

The fireplace is still in the building but the surround was taken out by the owner in 2010 when he was preparing to renovate the property.

In Whitby town itself, The Old Ship Launch Inn was a honeypot for the smugglers - these days the building is a cafe. In 1790, a customs cutter called Eagle intercepted smuggling vessel the Fawn off the Whitby coast and found their cargo of 6,000 gallons of rum and brandy. The Fawn was described as a new ship - only four months old - with a crew of 22 men and with six four-pounder guns.

Women were often roped into smuggling as they were thought to attract less suspicion from officials. They would hide goods underneath their skirts.

There were also crooked, corrupt officials who used the trade to make a profit for themselves. One was Captain Harold Hutchinson, who was an army officer based in Whitby. He would often sell confiscated goods on himself, eventually building his own mansion on Skinner Street.