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The imposition of excise duties during the wars with France in the eighteenth century, encouraged the smugglers to defraud the government of revenue. Smuggling had been confined to Kent and Sussex, but when the Coast Blockade was set up in that area on land and sea, smuggling became risky and profits were lost. The smugglers then moved along to the coasts of Hampshire and Dorset and encouraged the local inhabitants in the trade. The broken coasts of these counties gave many opportunities for the smugglers to land.

There were four main routes inland from the coast:-  

  • From Swanage to Dorchester or Blandford "according to the demand and whereabouts of the revenue men".

  • From Christchurch and Boscombe via Ringwood and Verwood (Burrow's Lane) to Cranborne.

  • From Poole through Hamworthy and the Lychetts to Blandford .

  • From Canford through Colehill to Hinton Mills, where the mill dam gave a secure hiding place while waiting to hear whether the contraband was to go on to Cranborne or back to Wimborne Minster.

As the routes from Christchurch, Boscombe and Canford converged on Cranborne, it was in this area that the greatest efforts were made to put an end to the illicit traffic. At Cranborne and Verwood, excise officers and dragoons were quartered to intercept smugglers on their way to Handley Chase. Many encounters took place.

A notorious smuggler, Gulliver, lived at a farm house at nearby West Moors, now called Gulliver's Farm. He married off his several daughters to the local gentry. The family name of Gulliver was finally changed by deed poll to that of Palmer. For Much More detailed information about Gulliver then follow the link (East Dorset Smugglers) which also contains details of many more notorious smugglers in East Dorset and Hampshire.

On March 19th 1779 the excise officer at Cranborne received information of a train of twenty horses in the vicinity and duly despatch his dragoons to intercept them. The smugglers were overcome easily, but while returning to Cranborne with the captured contraband, the dragoons were overcome by fifty smugglers, losing all, including their horses. The dragoons reached Cranborne with many wounded and two dead. Reinforcement dragoons were sent from Wimborne Minster and two smugglers were captured. One died of his wounds and the other was hung in chains, it is said at Eastworth. Heath Poult Inn at Eastworth was a clearing house for smugglers (see drawing by H. Haworth).

A notorious character of Cranborne, Dan, was one of the most daring of the Dorset smugglers, he was constantly under suspicion, by the excise men. Eventually his contraband hideout was found and the goods taken to the Custom House at Cranborne. Dan brought in reinforcements from Christchurch and broke into the Custom House removing the contraband. Dan was never caught by the law but met an untimely end being dragged in his stirrup by his horse. He was a popular man and before his death established a Charity at Verwood.

Captain "Hawkhurst" it is said, controlled most of the smuggling gangs in the country, and had an agent in Wimborne Minster "a most highly respected man". The Poole Customs House had an enormous quantity of confiscated goods locked within, under guard by excise men. Hawkhurst heard of this and ordered all the smugglers in the area to be in Poole at a given day. One morning, with Hawkhurst at their head, some marched through Poole to the Customs House, others hid in nearby houses. They opened fire, forced their way into the customs house and removed the goods, taking them by land and sea, the smugglers dispersing throughout the country.

Although they were connected with illicit traffic and brutal murders, the smugglers of Dorset adder' a bright spot to Dorset 's history.

In 1791 the Noblemen of Cranborne Chase proposed the disfranchisement of the Chase, as their property and the public were being injured by the "Chase Rights''. The Chase, they said, was a den of temptation, vice and immorality, the parishes were nests for deer stealers "bred to it by their parents" and a harbour for smugglers who worked with the deer stealers. It was not until 1829 that an Act of Parliament was obtained for the disfranchisement of the Chase, when it passed to Lord Rivers and his heirs.

Copyright P Reeks.     


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