In the 18th century, smuggling was big business. Fleets of fast cutters and larger ships up to 200 tons were purpose-built for running illicit cargoes. Entrepôts in France and the Channel Islands had warehouses stuffed with goods to sell to the smugglers. Violent conflict, even murder, was frequent. The revenue men had the support of the navy and could sometimes call upon army detachments on land. The smugglers could summon gangs of 30 or 40 men, armed with sticks, loaded whips and sometimes firearms from the largely sympathetic population. Even when seizures were made, the smugglers were often able to wrest back their cargoes by attacking revenue officers or breaking into the custom warehouses. One such violent confrontation in 1787 was to cost at least two men their lives and another, his career.
On the evening of 5th November, the smuggling cutter Phoenix with a cargo of brandy, gin and rum, was sailing off the Dorset coast, planning to run her goods ashore between Poole and Christchurch. A boat load was sent ashore at Bourne Bottom but the men were ordered to break off in a hurry, probably after a look-out had spotted the revenue cutter Resolution in the vicinity. Captain Sarmon of the Resolution ordered the mate, Thomas Quick to take six men and one of the ship’s boats along the shore. Quick went into the entrance of Poole Harbour where he landed and went with his men down to ‘flag road-way’, looking for any unusual activity. Three horses were standing in the road leading from Poole and three men were spotted lying in the dunes. Then another man appeared on horseback and asked their identity and how many of them there were. Obviously something was afoot but for the moment both sides retreated.
After a chilly and uncomfortable night, Quick took his boat out of the harbour and spotted the Phoenix with a boat on board at anchor in Studland Bay. As the revenue boat approached, the cutter slipped her cable and made for the open sea, confirming her nefarious intentions. Quick needed a faster vessel and more men and so landed one seaman to go overland to Swanage and alert the Resolution, a distance of at least 4 miles. Fortunately the man returned after only ten minutes or so having spotted the revenue cutter already on her way from Swanage. The two vessels set out in pursuit of the smugglers’ vessel.
The Phoenix had returned to Bourne Bottom where the little Bourne stream flowed from a wide wooded chine to the sea. This lonely stretch of shore was a notorious smugglers’ landing place. The only buildings for several miles were the Tapps Arms Inn and the little Decoy Cottage a little way up the valley, both of them frequented by smugglers. Here the cutter sent her tub boat ashore and the smugglers were unloading casks of spirits in the surf when the revenue vessels came into sight. The Resolution quickly launched her second boat with 4 men on board and this made for the beach, closely followed by Quick’s boat. Seeing that the odds were against them, the smugglers abandoned most of their goods and fled with what they could carry.
It was a moment of triumph for the revenue men. They had made their seizure and Quick confirmed by tapping one of the casks that it contained rum. Now they needed to secure the casks on board the Resolution but this turned out to be a problem. The sea was so rough that they could not launch their boats against the waves. Then they transferred the cargo to the smugglers’ tub boat, specially designed to operate in the shallows but this also proved impossible to launch. As they struggled, a seaman from the smugglers’ boat called John Breedon or ‘Jack the Painter’ appeared and cheekily asked Quick for a tub, as he had lost his cut from the voyage. Quick refused, remarking sarcastically that he might as well give him the whole seizure. As the minutes ticked by, the efforts of the revenue men became increasingly desperate. They knew only too well that they were in hostile territory.
Two hours after the revenue men had made their seizure, their fears became reality. A company of around 30 horsemen suddenly appeared riding down the chine, brandishing sticks and whips. In a moment the odds had changed dramatically and the 11 revenue men hastily grabbed their firearms and ranged themselves in front of the boats. Quick challenged the smugglers to keep off or they would fire. Their reply was brutally clear: ‘Damn your eyes, you buggers, for we are come resolute.’ As the horsemen rushed forward, the revenue men fired and at least one smuggler fell. Then the revenue men were overwhelmed.
Thomas Quick was hit on the head and knocked down. Struggling to his feet moments later, he got another blow on the back of the head and was knocked unconscious. Several smugglers then began beating him as he lay on the sand. Others were fighting the revenue men along the beach or in the sea. Walter Anderson, a seaman from the Resolution, went to help Quick but was struck himself and knocked to the ground. One of the smugglers tried to fire a pistol at him and when it failed to go off, thrust it into Anderson’s mouth, knocking out several teeth. As the smugglers passed the two prostrate men, each struck a blow at them in vengeance for one of their own apparently killed. Then one seized Quick’s ear and was about to cut it off with his knife when another smuggler intervened.
A cart and a wagon arrived, the tubs were quickly loaded with the casualties laid on top, and the smugglers set off up the chine. The Resolution which had been cruising offshore, powerless to help, fired her six-pounder at the retreating company but failed to stop them. The revenue men were left to count the cost of the action. Thomas Quick was lifted barely conscious on to a makeshift stretcher made of two oars and carried as far as ‘Bourn-sea’ before he could be got on board the cutter. He was taken to Poole, more dead than alive. As for the smugglers, their wounded must have been treated in secret and any dead buried quietly to escape the attention of the authorities.
In the next few days, the revenue men gave their reports, and enquiries were started to find the perpetrators. One of the first men to offer information was the chancer, John Breedon. Various names emerged including a certain Dominick and a man called John Bishop alias Butler, both of them believed to be ringleaders. Dominick escaped capture but Bishop was finally caught and put on trial at the Old Bailey in February, 1788. Described as a genteel young man, about 25, Bishop was identified by Walter Anderson and Robert Cross, another seaman from the Resolution as being in the forefront of the group that attacked them.
Another witness was Thomas Quick who had to be helped into the court and was allowed to sit down while giving his evidence. He had received a fractured skull which had affected his legs with paralysis and had also lost the use of his left arm besides other injuries. In the words of the prosecuting lawyer he was ‘a cripple for life, and in the vigour of his age; he must retire, and get his living in some way where honesty is more required than activity’. Quick described the events of that day but could not swear to the identity of Bishop. However two witnesses were enough. Bishop offered no defense and was found guilty, the sentence being death. He was executed before the Debtors’ Door at Newgate Prison on 25th April 1788.
It was not until September that another of the alleged smugglers, George Vincent, was brought to trial. According to the press ‘the unfortunate man is a very respectable looking person and until this fatal circumstance lived in credit as a farmer at Red Hill near Pool.’ However his nickname, ‘Brandy George’, was a bit of a giveaway, if true. Once again Anderson and Cross identified the accused and Quick recognised him as the man who saved his ear being cut off. John Breedon turned King’s evidence and also identified Vincent as being part of the smugglers’ gang.
The accused man’s defence was that he was somewhere else at the time of the attack. Four witnesses came forward to support Vincent’s alibi. Benjamin Harvey of Holdenhurst said that he had seen Vincent at home at Red Hill for a short time between 10 and 11 am. He also said that he was a man of ‘a very good character, a civil, honest man’. According to Ann Osman of Parkstone, Vincent was a frequent visitor to her house when on his way to Poole and was there on the day of the incident around 12 noon. Another place apparently visited by Vincent was the house of Mary Spurrier whose husband kept a bakehouse and grocery shop at Parkstone. She said that he arrived on foot on 6th November and stayed about an hour from around 11 to 12 am. Finally Lydia Moore testified that Vincent visited the public house she kept at Parkstone around 1.00 pm. on the day in question. He arrived on foot, did not seem in a hurry and carried no whip or stick. All the witnesses had known the accused for several years.
After deliberating, the jury decided to disbelieve the defence witnesses and gave a verdict of guilty with the added plea to the judge: ‘My Lord, if his humanity can recommend him to mercy, we think very favourably of him.’ The sentence was death – but did George Vincent suffer the ultimate punishment? I have not found any record of his fate. Other questions remain unanswered such as whether Thomas Quick was granted a pension for his injuries and whether the elusive Dominick was ever brought to justice. The lonely stretch of beach where the fight took place is now of course the Bournemouth Pier approach, the very busiest part of the town’s seafront.
Sources included: Old Bailey website: www.oldbaileyonline.org , Smuggling in Hampshire & Dorset 1700-1850 by Geoffrey Morley and Smuggler: No Gentleman, Smuggling with violence around Christchurch and Poole Bays by M.A. Hodges