Late one night in March 1682 shipwright Charles Daw was awakened by strange noises in Poole High Street. Putting his head out of the window, he saw men manoeuvring bundles and barrels into the next door George Inn, now known as Scaplen’s Court. Clearly this was no legitimate operation. When the men spotted Daw watching they told him to shut the window and mind his own business. The bundles were tobacco, illicitly landed from the Robert of Poole whose captain, Robert Bennett was also keeper of the George. What is more, even while the contraband was being brought in, Bennett was in the George drinking with merchant William Orchard (co-owner of the cargo), Thomas Barney, Surveyor, Thomas Miller, Collector and John Emerson, Deputy Controller of Customs.
This was one of many cases which came to light later that year in a survey by William Culliford into the conduct and integrity of the customs service. Culliford came from Encombe near Corfe Castle and knew the local ports well. In fact his father was a burgess of Poole and he himself a Poole Justice of the Peace. In his career with the customs service, he had become something of a specialist in rooting out corruption. He was therefore a natural choice by the Board of Commissioners of Customs for their investigation into the ports of the South West and Wales. By the time he arrived in Poole in July 1682, he had already carried out a survey of Bristol and ports in South Wales and Somerset, leaving a trail of dismissed officers behind him. The Poole merchants and customs men must have viewed his arrival with trepidation since, as soon became clear, they had plenty to hide.
Culliford was knowledgeable, energetic and not afraid of confrontation. He was also probably primed by the Commissioners about which officers were suspect. At Poole he found inefficiency, the reappointing of dismissed officers and connivance in fraud on a vast scale by merchants, ship-owners, masters and customs officers of all ranks. His main method of investigation was to use informants, many of them lower ranking customs officers. On arrival in Poole, he quickly identified William Vincent and Thomas Keeping as key witnesses. The two were employed as tidesmen whose job was to inspect the cargos of incoming and outgoing ships, search for concealed goods and make sure that nothing was unloaded illegally.
Vincent’s evidence revealed several examples of fraud involving tobacco from Virginia. Cargos from the colonies intended for re-export had first to be landed in an English port and the customs dues paid. If such goods were re-exported within a certain time, the merchants could apply for certificates known as debentures allowing them to reclaim most of the import dues. Vincent related how on 24th July he had witnessed 12 hogsheads of tobacco being secretly relanded from the David about to sail for St. Malo, and rolled into a cellar belonging to William Orchard, ‘which this informant offering to seize was beaten off by persons disguised and unknown’. William Orchard was a leading merchant, three times mayor of Poole. While pretending to export the tobacco, he had in effect imported it without paying customs duties.
In June, Thomas Keeping told Vincent that he had seen several hogsheads landed from the Claire, due to sail for Rotterdam with a cargo of Virginia tobacco. The next night, about midnight, Vincent also saw about 5 hogsheads landed from the Claire at William Orchard’s quay. Attempting to seize the goods he was driven off by men wearing ‘Vizard Maskes’. He said that he did not try to inform his superior, Thomas Barney because he had refused to search for run goods before and when making a seizure based on information supplied by Vincent ‘would never give this Informt one farthing for his pains, but have put the whole profitts in his own Pockett’. As a result of this testimony, Culliford went to the Custom House and put a stop to the payment of debentures for the Claire and the David.
The case of the Robert was one of Culliford’s most telling pieces of evidence. The main witnesses were again William Vincent and Thomas Keeping, appointed tidesmen on board the ship. They related how they had been induced to leave the ship ‘upon the importunity of John Penny, the King’s Searcher, & the Master of the shipp who earnestly solicited this Informant to consent to the running some Tobacco, by giving this Informant severall hints, that Mr Barney was willing thereto . . & there was that night run out of her 17 hhds of Tobacco & severall Baggs and Bundles.’ Vincent and Keeping each received £2 for keeping silent. The next day more tobacco was brought round by boat, landed near the church and carried through the alleys to the back door of the George in broad daylight. With the inducement of backhanders and all-night drinking sessions, William Orchard and Robert Bennet were able to reland a large part of the cargo. They also claimed that some of the tobacco was damaged and not eligible for customs duties, even though it had not been inspected or certified.
Thomas Keeping and tidesman Robert Checkford described another corrupt device apparently used by Barney. At the end of each day on board a vessel unloading at the Quay Barney would demand the tidesmen’s books and then alter the figures and accounts ‘as he pleased himselfe’. He also often removed tidesmen from a ship and gave their books to others ‘that no perfect acc’t might be kept of the said shipp’s delivery’. Checkford described one occasion when the John was at the Quay, laden with linen and Barney ordered the hatches to be opened in the absence of Samuel Wetwang, the landwaiter appointed to the ship. He then called for 8 rolls of ‘broad Hanovers’ to be put in the Town Cellar and 15 more rolls to be loaded on to the Winchester Waggon ‘that drove away immediately’. None of the rolls was opened or examined.
Another with a tale to tell was mariner John Tombs. He described how the Vine ketch of Poole came into Studland Bay in September 1681 with a cargo of salt, wine and brandy. The Vine was owned by George Lewen, a partner of William Orchard. During the two days that the ketch was anchored in the bay, the customs smack was at Brownsea but did not approach the ship. Meanwhile, several tons of wine and brandy ‘upon Mr. Lewen’s acco’t’ were taken off by ‘Dragger boats’ belonging to John Thompson, Thomas Bennett and others and carried to Poole. As a seaman employed on the Vine, Tombs had helped to load some of the boats himself. The dragger boats were fishing boats built to operate drag nets and in Poole used extensively to run contraband. On other occasions the William of Poole and the Mary hoy came into the bay and unloaded their cargos into dragger boats ‘without any notice taken of it by the officers, who this inform’t cannot but believe must be privy thereto’.
Unloading vessels before they reached the Quay seems to have been common practice, sometimes even in daylight. Goods were then brought to be unloaded at private quays or ‘the Piles in the Strand’. In February 1682, according to William Vincent’s account, Thomas Barney and Dudley Hopper, master of the customs smack, were sailing to Brownsea and passed within a stone’s throw of three boats deep laden with wine without seizing them although they must have seen them as it was bright moonlit night. Later that year, Vincent saw the John at anchor against Brownsea Quay. Between 10 and 11 pm., more than 20 packets of cloth were unloaded into 2 boats and brought to Poole. Vincent informed Thomas Barney of the incident and also that he believed the goods belonged to Mr. John Carter, one of the magistrates of Poole, but Barney never searched for the goods.
Culliford ordered that any dragger boats found to contain smuggled goods should be seized and condemned and ‘openly & publickly to be burnt upon the Key . . . this being in my Judgement the most Effectuall way to affright them from persisting in their accustomed trade of delivering (with these Dragger boats) a whole shipp’s loading in a night’.
Two members of the customs smack crew, mate Edward Cummings and seaman William Jordan had more information to disclose about Dudley Hopper. One incident ocurred in June 1681 when a ketch came into Swanage Bay and Hooper sent some men on board where they found many anchors of wine and bales of goods without proper documentation. Hooper threatened to take the vessel in to Brownsea but the master offered him £5 instead. The men were sent to search an incoming collier and when then got back, they found Hooper and his wife in the cabin with the captain of the ketch and heard ‘some money Gingle upon the Table’. Hooper said that the master had now satisfied him and so left the ship. The informants described Dudley Hopper as ‘a very carelesse, negligent man & is seldome sober, when he is any where that he can come at drink.’ He was also believed to have pilfered various items from the smack including rope, tallow, a musket, tongs, a boat hook and a water bucket.
Another local man believed to be involved in smuggling was John Carter, merchant,shipowner, former mayor and magistrate. He owned several properties in the High Street, near the corner of what is still called Carter’s Lane, and some of his premises were said to contain secret stores where run goods could be hidden. He was also believed to use the Baiter windmill and its stables to hide contraband before it was moved inland. To deter curiosity and intimidate the customs men, he employed ‘men armed with Clubbs and Swords, Vizards on their faces’ when moving goods through the streets of Poole. It is likely that Carter had inside information about the progress of the enquiry. When Culliford carried out a raid on Carter’s property many hiding places were discovered but no illicit goods.
As a result of Culliford’s findings procedures were tightened up. For instance he ordered that both landwaiters and the King’s searcher should ‘attend the king’s beam & take an exact acct of all tobacco weighed for export, with the particular marks and numbers thereof’. The custom house was relocated to a better position with a view of the Quay. Culliford also protested against the re-employment of John Willie, a former Collector of Customs dismissed for fraud. Willie was acting as Deputy Customer although as a magistrate he could not officially serve as a customs officer.
Thomas Barney, John Emerson and Dudley Hopper were dismissed from the service. Others were rewarded for the information they had provided. Thomas Keeping and William Vincent were judged basically honest and allowed to keep their posts but were dismissed a couple of years later. Robert Daw was appointed as a tidesman and later became the landlord of the Plume of Feathers, next door to the George Inn. John Tombs was made assistant boatman to Robert Corbin, the Waiter and Searcher at Studland. One dragger boat was publicly burnt as threatened but three other condemned boats mysteriously disappeared before they could be destroyed.
In 1691, George Lewen’s Vine fell prey to Barbary pirates and the crew of six were taken to Sallé in North Africa and sold into slavery. Appeals for their ransom reached Poole but what happened next is unknown. In 1697, another ransom appeal showed that at least one of the crew, Henry Hart, was still held in ‘the most horrid and crewell bondage and slavery’, and it is doubtful that any of them saw their old smuggling ground of Poole Harbour again.
Over the long term, it is unlikely that smuggling was greatly reduced in Poole. Culliford had no powers to act against the merchants involved in the frauds he uncovered which must have reduced the effectiveness of his investigation. There is another chapter in his relationship with the leading men of Poole. On November 14th 1683, he attended the Poole Town House for a formal ceremony, his election and swearing in as a free burgess of the Corporation of the Town and County of Poole. Among the members signing (probably with gritted teeth) the record of his election in the Corporation Record Book were John Willie and William Orchard.
Sources: The Report of Wm Culliforde Gent of his Survey of the Port of Pool. 1682 TNA Ref T 65/139 pp.43-52 / Guttridge, Roger. Dorset Smugglers. Dorset Publishing Company 1984 / Stephens, W. B. The Seventeenth Century Customs Service Surveyed: William Culliford’s Investigation of the Western Ports, 1682-84. Routledge 2017