Smuggling has been practised ever since there have been custom duties to avoid, but it was during the 18th century that it reached its peak in both fact and fiction.
The Essex shore, because of its nature and isolation, was the scene of considerable smuggling activity, and many of the inhabitants of the remote coastal villages were involved in landing the contraband, in concealing it as necessary, and in handing it over at agreed rendezvous to those “gentlemen” who disposed of it in London and elsewhere, not forgetting the “brandy for the parson ‘baccy for the clerk”.
A typical exploit occurred during the night of 2nd July 1742 when “some smugglers landed a large quantity of tea on the shore near Clacton, where their riders were assembled in order to carry it off; but Mr Todd of Brightlingsea, and the Custom House officers, being apprized of their design, appeared on the shore and attempted to make a seizure of the cargo, in which the smugglers opposed them and secured Mr Todd on board their vessel, and placed a guard over the other officers till they had landed the goods on horses, after which they released the officers and rode off, being seventeen horses and as many men.”
Contraband was sometimes concealed in the cliffs, or anywhere that was convenient if the customs officers were about. Sea Lane, on the border of Holland on Sea and Clacton, would have provided an ideal run, and even today, although surrounded by modern development, is screened by high hedges and trees. About 1885 an old local lady recalled the smuggling that was practised early in that century, and remembered a character named Nicholson who was known among his cronies as Colonel Nickers. “This Nickers” she said, “used to have ‘runs’ up there at Sea Lane, and my father used to buy the stuff and carry it to Colchester.”
Holland Gap was another place ideal for smuggling and one such man closely linked to these nefarious activities was James Bushell. He was born in 1673 and lived for a while at Little Holland where he “fished for wrecks”, apparently sailing out to wrecks on the sands, and there taking all that was of value. He married Joanna, daughter of Thomas Warren, a mariner of Wapping, from whom he inherited Frinton Hall where he lived until his death in 1738. Bushell was known to be involved in smuggling and, along with others, would bring various goods, including gin and tea, ashore, engaging the services of locals to help transport it to various hideouts for later disposal. The reward for the helpers was often a generous helping of the contraband (whether as official or unofficial payment) but this did, at times, lead to tragedy. In 1830 Richard Brett, a labourer from Great Holland, was working with other on the sea wall and on Christmas Eve assisted some smugglers to bring ashore some ‘cargo’. Rewarded with a good supply of gin, Brett and the others became so inebriated they could hardly walk. In crossing over the Holland Brook, on a makeshift bridge, from Little Holland to Great Holland, Brett fell off the plank into the icy water. His companions managed to get him out, covered him up as best they could and left him by a haystack but on returning to collect him the next morning, Christmas Day, they found him dead; Brett left a wife and six children. Just a few years later, Martin Lott, a young man from Little Holland who, having assisted some smugglers, died from having consumed too much raw spirit.