A smugglers tale in Lymington

Carole Varley uncovered some hidden secrets when she embarked on a guided tour through Lymington.

The quaint cobblestoned area of Quay Street in Lymington was thronging with languorous tourists buying pasties, paninis and ice creams to take down and savour by the quayside and watch the yachties on the boats bobbing around in the marina glinting brilliantly in the sunshine. This pretty seaside town and ferry terminal seemed to be one happy place and with so much of the town remaining unchanged throughout history, one that is seemingly proud of its past.

Not quite so, though, according to my companions for the day, local and social historians Helen Theobalds and former accountant Roland Stott. And what they don’t know about Lymington probably isn’t worth knowing. Both are guides on a series of summer walking tours and I was lucky enough to be accompanying them on a taster to find out some of Lymington’s darker secrets. This happened almost straight away for, as we passed by the Ship Inn just a few minutes into our tour, Roland explained that once, on what was a relatively small piece of quayside, as many as six public houses jostled for space. It wasn’t so long ago, added Helen, that people, brought up at the other end of town, could remember their parents warning them against visiting the area because of the salty types inhabiting it. Indeed, you don’t have to look far into Lymington’s history before you hit upon first-hand accounts and memoirs of the days when it was not just the ladies of the night who plied their trade down there, but also rough men trading contraband in a town that was once, in the words of visiting writer Daniel Defoe, “teeming with smugglers and all sorts of desperados”.

            Helen, who has been conducting tours around Lymington for 23 of the 26 years that she has lived here (she moved from Winchester with her husband, who was involved in the boating industry) says, “When I first arrived, there was very little written down about the town’s association with smuggling. If anything, it was something over which a veil had been drawn, something to keep quiet about. It was a bit like the Mafiosi omerta in Sicily.”

Now, in these more liberal times, stories of derring-do, cutlasses and contraband have caught the public imagination, and while most smuggler-trail tourists may not expect to catch sight of suntanned villains with eye patches in striped jumpers and neckties mingling with the summer visitors (although there are those who still do, chuckle Helen and Roland) the upsurge of interest has led to legions of tales, many of them very tall indeed. This is a concern to Helen and Roland, both of whom take their social history very seriously and are anxious to ensure that all the information they impart has been properly authenticated.

“If you were to believe all the stories of the tunnels under the town, it would surely cave in,” says Helen. One that she does consider a “definite goer”, however, is a tunnel that was very likely under our feet in The Angel Inn, where we first met. The Angel (whose history stretches back to at least 1680) was long notorious for its association with smugglers and it is thought that the tunnel led from its cellars to those of the Nag’s Head, across the High Street. Smuggling may not be the oldest profession in the world, but it has to be up there as one of them. The very word stretches back to Anglo Saxon times when the verb smugan meant to creep. The first documented evidence about Lymington’s smugglers comes as early as 1328 when the customs comptroller, father of Geoffrey Chaucer (whose Canterbury Tales show that he also knew a thing or two about illegal goings-on) accused the men of the town of avoiding customs duties. This happened again in 1354 and at regular intervals until the middle of the 18th century, when there was a positive explosion of the crime, with large and well-organised gangs moving in to get a piece of the action  – the so-called Golden Age. So much so, that our obviously dismayed Mr Defoe was led to observe that in Lymington he could see few signs of “any foreign commerce, except it be what we call smuggling ... the reigning commerce of this part of the coast.” The reasons causing this were manifold, but not least was the sudden rise in taxes. In 1760, when George III ascended the throne, there were 800 items on which duty had to be paid. By the end of the century, well over a 1,000 more had been added, including everything from lace and linen to sugar and spices and, strangely enough, prisoners-of-war and spies.  

Before long we had arrived at the town’s salt marshes, which Helen and Roland explained were one of the reasons why Lymington had become so heavily involved in smuggling. It was easy to see why the five miles of flat marsh and low, sloping beaches proved treacherous to the customs’ cutters but brilliant for hiding both goods and people, and the town’s situation by the Lymington River, meant that contraband could not only be hidden and stored, but also surreptitiously transported into depots well up in the depths of the New Forest. The scale of the enterprise is well illustrated in a story by the Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 1778 which reported that a smugglers’ haul had been apprehended between Lymington and Christchurch that consisted of four wagons and four carts, drawn by 33 horses, in which there were 46 small casks (four-gallon tubs) containing 172 gallons of brandy; 34 casks containing 123 gallons of rum; 43 casks containing 161 gallons of geneva, or gin; 510 oil-case bags containing 13,232lb of tea; 61 oil-case bags with 1,584lb of green tea; and six oil-case bags of 282lb raw coffee. An operation on such a scale must have involved a lot of local people from all walks of life, from the venturer (the man financing the enterprise) to the landers, who would walk the goods to shore in their wooden pattens. As Helen said, there must have been a time in Lymington when “everyone was involved in smuggling in one way or another – whether it be full time, part-time, those who benefited from the goods or just people turning a blind eye”.

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Thomas Johnstone

One of the most notorious smugglers of the day was one Thomas Johnstone, who was born into a smuggling family on the coast near Lymington in 1772. Standing well over 6ft tall and, reputedly, a very handsome man with brilliant blue eyes and a mop of dark curly hair, his life reads like a picturesque novel.

He began smuggling at the age of 15 and his seamanship skills soon won him the respect and love of both men and women. His turbulent, often violent, but never boring career, led him to stints as smuggler par excellence, privateer, spy, courier, jailbird, escapee, lover and Channel pilot. After having made a small fortune, he settled down with the daughter of a minor Somerset squire in a house by the Thames in London and had three children, before being invited to undertake one last escapade, when he was offered �40,000 (a sizable amount in those days) to rescue Napoleon from exile and ferry him across the Atlantic by submarine (yes, we are talking 1821 here) to freedom in the fledgling US.  

Fortunately the latter died before Johstone could go ahead with the audacious plan, because, given the nature of the vessel, he, like so many of his erstwhile colleagues, would have likely met a sudden and horrible death at sea. Strangely for a smuggler, he died quietly at home in bed some 18 years later at the ripe old age of 67.

Lymington Town Walks

All walks last approximately 90 minutes and topics include Sea, Salt and Smuggling; The Story of Lymington; Courts & Alleyways; Pens & Personalities; Wavy Walks; Buckland Rings; Trains, Tolls & Tributes; and the Story of Milford. For more information, telephone 01590 644438 or 675409.

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