Everyone knew smuggling was going on, and the receivers of the gains from 'free trade' were representative of the whole strata of society, from the rich man in his castle to the poor man at his cottage gate. Liquor had a better taste when untainted with excise duty, and after a smack of the lips over a nightcap the bed was more comfortable to the body between the sheets of Irish linen that had come ashore without the knowledge of the King's officers. It was easy for the night-runners to conceal their contraband in the wild country of Exmoor, and smuggling was taking place on a prodigious scale from the time of Charles II until well into the 19th century. The beginning of a gradual diminution was seen when Pitt the Younger reduced the high duty on goods from overseas. Better a guaranteed return from the revenue than the extent of the free trade. For Pitt calculated in 1784 that of 13 million pounds of tea consumed in this country, only 5.5 millions had paid duty.
Peter Bond was a Minehead shoemaker. His story is a three-fold illustration of smuggling; its extent; connivance in it by gentry and business people; and the measures taken, under a masquerade of justice, to shut the mouths of informers. In 1682 Charles II sent his Surveyor-General of Customs, William Culliforde, to West Somerset to investigate what was euphemistically called free trading, with particular reference to the ports of Minehead and Watchet. Culliforde was horrified by his findings, not least at the connivance of local revenue officers with the smugglers. Peter Bond, of whom a public example was to be made later, by whipping him through the streets, swore information to Culliforde. Although this was 1682, Bond went under a label that had been, in many cases unjustly, attached to his kind since the 15th century that of 'common night-walker, eavesdropper, spy (on neighbours) and disturber of the peace'. In its narrowed context it meant that Bond was often about when wiser citizens were abed, and he was likely to see more than was good for him or for the comfort of those engaged in free trade. Minehead had two port officials or 'tithes-men", James Hellier and Henry Clement. Hellier was the principal, Culliforde rumbled him as 'a very cunning fellow who hath governed the port many years to His Majesty's prejudice'.
Churchwarden in it
Night-walker Peter Bond had made startling disclosures, and not only about James Hefner. He had named a prominent Minehead merchant, Thomas Wilson, who was also a churchwarden. According to the information Bond gave, Tithes-man Hellier was on duty one night when a Bristol vessel put into port. And Hellier did nothing to prevent 40 packets of cloth being carried from the ship to the back wall of Thomas Wilson's house on the quay. Bond also told Culliforde that he had seen wine and brandy landed and taken to the cellars of Samuel Crockford and Isaac Davis, and Irish linen to the quayside stable of Robert Seager. All the time, said Bond, those rascals Hellier and Clement were walking the street to see that the coast was clear. Bond might have laid some of his information with impunity against smaller fry. But in dragging in the name of Thomas Wilson he had gone too far. He must be stopped at all costs. So a brother merchant of Thomas Wilson, named Richard Start, went to Col. Luttrell, the chief magistrate, and applied for a warrant against Bond, on the complaint that Bond was 'a night-walker for whose activities it is impossible for honest merchants to do their business'! Such Rogues as Bond, Start said, should be publicly whipped for a warning to other rogues. Bond was kept in jail for five days, and the magistrates ordered him to be publicly whipped through the streets. No-one among Minehead folk could be found to wield the lash, and Col. Luttrell had to send one of his own staff... it was probably the coachman ... to administer the whipping.
Porlock Weir smuggling robbed the customs of a lot of revenue. Many temporary hiding places for illicit goods have been discovered in the area since smuggling died out. At Higher Doverhay Farm there was a 'hide' between an inner and an outer wall. A second wall had been built outside the main wall of the house at the dairy end. The thatched roof was brought down to cover the space between the two. The new wall therefore looked from the outside like the main wall of the house. The 'hide' was approached from the dairy through a small opening which could be concealed by placing a milk pan before it.
It was near Porlock that another hiding place was exposed during a foxhound run, a hound having disappeared down a hole in the middle of a field.
Running contraband under the eyes of conniving revenue officers in a port seems to lack the traditional atmosphere of smuggling. .. best expressed in the lonely beach, the muffled oars, the crunch of a footstep on shingle, and the waiting wagons. So let us to the flat shore east of Minehead... at Blue Anchor . . . though not to look, for that would mean death within a year. This was the story the smugglers put out to dissuade anyone with inquisitive tendencies. On any dark night, it was said, between midnight and the small hours of the morning, a ghostly cortege consisting of two horses, a hearse with nodding plumes and coffin might leave the beach and proceed inland. Look and you die ere twelve months have passed. With superstition so rife in the first half of the 19th century, no-one was going to risk a premature end by looking upon a phantom hearse. The 'cortege', of course, was of familiar substance . . . two horses and a farm wagon loaded with packages. There is a story of the wagon losing a wheel as it went through a village. The men in charge quietly knocked up the local blacksmith, who did a quick repair job and was handed a cask of brandy ... a guarantee of his contentment and silence.
The caves along the rocky coast from Minehead, past Hurlstone point and the Exmoor cliffs are naturals as smuggling links, and a few may have been enlarged by human hand in the smuggling days. One is under Hurlstone point. It is accessible only at low water. It runs back several hundred yards, and a coastguard who went in as far as he dared expressed the opinion that the cave did not owe its size entirely to the action of the natural forces. An old Selworthy story has it that a passage from Selworthy church leads into this cave, but it must be submitted that not even the most Herculean of smugglers would have undertaken such a task of excavation.
Just west of Minehead, and below Burgundy combe, there was a cave marked on an old map as Smugglers' Doom. It fell in about 80 years ago.