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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Boats
Present day Ship Inn

© Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council
Saltburn smugglers: local heroes or violent criminals?

A family affair

Saltburn is ideally placed for smuggling, the cliffs provide an effective hiding place and the wooded coves provide cover for offloading cargo. During the latter stages of the 18th Century, the area became notorious as a smuggling hotspot because of the sheer level of illegal trading taking place. 'The Newcastle Chronicle' of June 20th 1778 carried this warning:

“We are advised from Coatham, Redcar and other places on the Yorkshire coast, that the smugglers there land in a most flagrant manner.”

Hiding goods
Smugglers hiding their goods
© Courtesy of Halsgrove Publishing
This high level of smuggling was the result of import taxes on goods such as gin, tea, brandy and textiles. With the British navy engaged in wars with America and France, the Cornish and North East coasts soon became flooded with contraband goods. The ensuing games of cat and mouse between preventive customs officers and local smugglers often involved the wider community.

Tales of how the local community out-foxed the customs officers soon became part of local folklore. One tale has an old woman hiding a keg of spirits underneath her voluminous skirts whilst customs officers performed a spot raid of her house. According to Reverend Grant’s sympathetic account of the area’s smuggling antics, the ladies of nearby Marske delighted in hoodwinking the officers:

“They sanded the streets at night with leaves of tea, leading the officers to believe that the contraband had gone in a certain direction and when the latter were busily engaged following the supposed track, the men of Marske were equally busy in transferring the tea to a totally opposite direction.”

Folklore also tells us of a useful horse who proved a valuable tool in the illegal trade. This horse was able to find her way home from the River Tees to Saltburn without a rider, carrying smuggled tobacco on her back! Even infants were not above pitching in, though unwittingly in some cases. One enterprising mother who found herself victim of a surprise search, wrapped a jar of spirit in her baby’s clothes, and walked past the guards with it cradled in her arms.


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Smuggling: The house detective
Trade and the British Empire
Saltburn Smugglers Heritage Centre
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