During the 18th century smuggling was rife in the UK. Due to the huge expansion in trade and wars with France, the Government introduced heavy import duties onto goods. Smuggling provided a cheap alternative to avoid paying the duty and items such as tea, silk and tobacco became popular on the black market.
You can experience a sense of smuggling by visiting Robin Hood’s Bay. The village’s maze of narrow streets was ideal to slip through unnoticed and it soon became a major hub for smuggling on the Yorkshire coast. Smuggled goods were distributed via the local inns and passed up through the village along a network of secret subterranean passageways and tunnels. It was said that a bale of silk could travel to the top without leaving the houses.
Goods continued inland on pony trails running from Robin Hood's Bay to Fylingdales Moor, along a route known as the Fish Road or Salt Road. Many Robin Hood’s Bay wives walked these tracks carrying baskets of fish and smuggled silk around their waist. Legend says they carried pig bladders full of gin under their petticoats!
The Government became worried about the loss of money caused be smuggling and calculated that around £4 billion worth of revenue was lost to illegal imports of tobacco and alcohol every year. At one point 80% of all tea in the UK was drunk illegally and smugglers could earn up to a week’s wages from just one pound of tea.
After the battle of Waterloo, the navy was redeployed to deal with the smuggling crisis. From the 1830s faster steam vessels were introduced to be used instead of smugglers sailing ships. This, along with stronger law enforcement brought about the demise of smuggling.
Follow the smugglers route...
You can find places to stay that are linked with the history of smuggling or capture the ambience of this time by visiting Robin Hood's Bay.
- The Bay Hotel is on the site of the old inn at Wayfoot, which was a key site in distributing smuggler’s caches
- Smugglers Bistro creatively recaptures the atmosphere from this time
- There are many cottages that date back to this period, it's easy to imagine they were part of the smuggling scene
- You can find out more about smuggling at Robin Hood’s Bay Museum and the National Trust’s Old Coastguard Station Visitor Centre
- Fancy a smuggling tour? Ask at the National Trust centre for details of smugglers walks and ghost tour
- Experience a 17th century Elizabethan house at Thorpe Hall, situated in the stunning village of Fylingthorpe