The grim stories of the smugglers who plied Yorkshire's coast 200 years ago

Runswick Bay near Whitby was the centre of the smuggling trade on the Yorkshire coast
Runswick Bay near Whitby was the centre of the smuggling trade on the Yorkshire coast
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Thanks to the British population's love of a cup of tea, smuggling flourished along the Yorkshire coast in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In an extract from his new book, Andrew Vine explores the role Whitby, Scarborough and Saltburn played in a trade that is often romanticised - but was in reality violent and dangerous.

Runswick Bay and its caves, like many another secluded cove along the coast, were at the heart of smuggling, which thrived for 150 years.

It was the most prosaic of contraband that drove the trade - tea. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britons loved a cuppa no less than now, but tea was one of the most expensive commodities because of punitive levels of taxation, which at one point reached 119 per cent.

It cost up to 35 shillings a pound - but in Holland it was only seven pence. Smugglers seized the opportunity to buy it for next to nothing and sell for 60 times what they paid, and a trade sprang to life that operated from 1700 until about 1850.

Yorkshire’s coastline was ideal for smuggling, with miles of deserted beaches where contraband could be landed, and caves for its storage. Villagers were insular and wary of customs men from the outside, so they kept their mouths shut and took the smugglers’ backhanders.

Ships would lay off the coast, their cargoes being run in by smaller boats. The trade flourished, with Staithes, Robin Hood’s Bay, North Landing and Runswick Bay the favoured landing places, the contraband being moved inland by packhorses or on carts with their wheels muffled by rags. Its unofficial headquarters was the Ship Inn, a Saltburn landmark, whose landlord, John Andrew, was known as “King of the Smugglers”.

The ingenuity smugglers brought to hiding the contraband might have come from a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure story. There was an underground passage at Saltburn with its entrance below the stable of a horse that kicked out at anyone it did not know, a hollowed-out beam in a Filey pub, a Scarborough inn with false floors, a church crypt in Hornsea with unholy secrets.

A pub on the moors inland from Robin Hood’s Bay was said to keep a fire blazing all year round to conceal a more grisly secret - the body of a murdered customs man in a cavity below the grate.

But eventually, the Government saw the folly of keeping the tax on tea so high, and cut it, putting the smugglers out of business and bringing our coast’s long flirtation with lawlessness to an end.

Another cargo, legal this time, also presented problems. Anyone following the coast path along the quaysides at Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington - now the country’s leading shellfish port - will be captivated by their proud fishing heritage. But it brought with it a unique difficulty, when vast catches of herring were landed during the 19th century, much of it bound for the industrial cities of the West Riding, where it fed the workforce.

Trains carried the catch inland, and long before the excuses for delays that so infuriate today’s commuters, like leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow, the coast had a headache there was no arguing with - fish oil on the line.

Oil oozing from wagons made the rails so slick that locomotives struggled to get a grip, their driving wheels skidding. Additional engines were needed to help haul trains leaving Whitby up the incline from Grosmont to Goathland, on what is now the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

The sheer volume of herring was the problem. Hundreds of trains were needed to transport the catch. On one day in August 1868, 212 truckloads of fish left Scarborough and Whitby. A couple of years later, a special train had to be laid on to carry a catch weighing 300 tons.

Andrew Vine's new book Yorkshire Coast Path is out now, published by Safe Haven Books in association with Welcome to Yorkshire, priced at £14.99.