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18 September 2014
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An Intriguing Family History

By Dr Nick Barratt
Above the law?

Map detail showing coastline
The profitable North Sea coastline ©
From this it seems that by the mid-1770s Thomas Armstrong and his family were in a position to use the local constables at will and thought they could act as though they were above the law. Further evidence from the customs letter books revealed that in 1774 Thomas's brother Robert was involved in a fracas with a drunken mariner, Thomas Crowther.

The mariner appears to have been shot in the groin with a pistol. [TNA ref. CUST84/16 fo.29-33, 8 September 1774], but soon found himself in jail, arrested on Thomas's orders. In this case, however, the family were powerless to prevent Crowther's release, and Robert was subsequently committed to Morpeth gaol for 12 months. [TNA ref. CUST84/16 fo.53, 7 November 1774]

'Robert's imprisonment appears to have loosened tongues in the local community ...'

This case was not unique. The level of detail contained in similar incidents recorded in the letter books shows just how tough life was in the community - and could flesh out the basic outlines of many a family tree.

While researching the history of Thomas's house, land-tax returns at the Northumberland Record Office were examined. They revealed that the entire family was living in Cullercoats. Nicholas was residing in Thomas's house on the cliff top, and other members of the family were living nearby, in Charles Allison's former properties.

Despite the family solidarity, Robert's imprisonment appears to have loosened tongues in the local community, as an increasing number of complaints by fellow customs officers were made against Thomas, Robert, and even Nicholas.

The final straw came in 1776, when Thomas and his associates deliberately allowed two notorious smugglers to escape from their care. The incident is recorded with great clarity in the customs letter books. After a recital of his crime, a letter from London concluded that he should be dismissed from the service. [TNA ref. CUST84/16 fo.201-2, 5 March 1776]

Thomas's secret life of crime helps to explain some of the unique architectural features of his house - iron cages in the cellar and a secret passage accessed by a trapdoor in his 'study' that led down through the cliff on to a small beach. It is clear that much of his wealth must have come via a protection racket he must have been involved in, in partnership with smugglers.

'Remaining loose ends were tied up in the parish registers ...'

Thomas had accumulated sufficient money to start trading as a goldsmith after his dismissal, as recorded on one of his son's apprenticeship bonds. Yet his love of the sea remained, and he bequeathed shares in a ship he was constructing at Cullercoats to his sons, in the will he wrote on 24 August 1785.

Remaining loose ends were tied up in the parish registers back in Northumberland, and the deaths of Thomas's father, mother and widow were tracked down.

Published: 2004-09-13

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