Your guide to Mersea Island

Mersea Smugglers

Mersea Smugglers

Legend has it that Mersea and the surrounding area was well used by smugglers from the 16th to 19th century. The story goes that smugglers used to hide their stock at The Peldon Rose & The Dog and Pheasant in East Mersea. It is rumored that the smugglers would weigh down tubs of spirits and lower them down on ropes into the pond at The Peldon Rose until the revenue men had completed their searches.

In the 18th and 19th centuries a major part of the Government revenue came from customs duties and pursuing the smugglers was a profitable pursuit.

In the past a surprising number of goods had excise duty placed on them that resulted in these goods being smuggled, over the centuries they have included:

Alcohol, tobacco, salt, tea, coffee, sugar, nutmeg, pepper, silk, lace, leather, soap, ship parts and sails. During the war years and post war years, many rationed goods were also smuggled.

An extract from an article in The Daily Mail from 1977, written by James Wentworth Day read- “My grandfather was one of those that did in the Revenue men in their long boat one night more than 100 years ago, an ancient fisherman and wild fowler confided to me. The Revenue men had a watch boat, other side of the river by Stansgate Abbey, Wedgwood Benn’s place. Nearly all the fishing chaps from Maldon, Tollesbury,  Mersea, Goldhanger, Bradwell, Steeple and Mayland were in the Free Trade  smuggling. Those Revenue men were after them day and night. So one day. the smuggling boys held a meeting in the Old Victory on Mersea island, and planned to do in the Revenue chaps. They set a rumour that a big cargo was to be run ashore on the seaward end of Osea In a creek they’ve called Death Creek ever since. Nobody knows what did happen that dark night, but next morning they found the Customs long boat drifting on the tide In the creek with 24 dead Revenue men aboard. And nobody was ever caught. Those were the bad old days, we don’t want murders again”.

The very active customs men on the south coast encouraged the smugglers to try the East Coast and Mersea proved to be a popular choice with smugglers.

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Rector of East Mersea from 1871-1881, chose Mersea Island and the Blackwater as the setting for his classic novel “Mehalah” which is based on smuggling and intrigue. The novel is set at the beginning of the 19th Century.

In Mehalah we read:

‘The mouth of the Blackwater was a great centre of the smuggling trade: the number and intricacies of the channels made it a safe harbour for those who lived on contraband traffic. It was easy for those who knew the creeks to elude the revenue boats and every farm and tavern was ready to give cellerage to run goods and harbour to smugglers. Between Mersea and the Blackwater were several flat holms or islands…and between these, the winding waterways formed a labyrinth which made pursuit difficult.’

The local Coastguard stationed at West Mersea together with modern communications were able to reduce much of the smuggling in the 1850’s.


This post has been categorised under: History.

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