Ask any student of Jersey history to name some of the industries which brought wealth to the island over the centuries and fishing, the oyster trade, shipbuilding and privateering will probably feature in their lists. But there is another activity related to the sea which was also extremely profitable, although not quite as legitimate.
For the truth is that the wealth of some Jersey families was based on smuggling, which the island’s strategic position between England and France made it well placed to exploit.
And the availability of the offshore reefs – Les Ecrehous and Les Minquiers – most notably the former, as a staging point between Jersey and France, helped considerably to foster the illicit business. The argument was that because the Ecrehous were part of Jersey, there was no reason why goods should not be taken there, and what happened to them afterwards was nobody’s business.
Although smuggling had probably been a part of island life for a long time before, it was in the late 17th century that it really began to attract the attention of the English authorities. What apparently alerted them was that Jersey merchants were buying far more tobacco than residents could possibly smoke.
It transpired that they were buying it in Southampton, getting the rebate on duty due to them when exporting it to Jersey, then taking it back to England, landing it in deserted south coast coves on moonless nights.
In 1681 Customs House officer Lawrence Cole was sent to Jersey to try to find out exactly what was happening and he was given authority to ‘board all vessels coming and going and take account of their loadings’. But, if he and his successor in 1685, William Hely, expected to be helped by the island authorities they were to be disappointed. Too many of them were involved in the smuggling activities and Hely was persuaded to join them.
Four years later it was not the return of tobacco and other dutiable goods to England which was the main concern when William of Orange took the throne as William IV, but the open trading with France, with whom England was again at war. William issued a proclamation in 1689 ‘prohibiting the importation or retailing of any commodities of the growth and manufacture of France’ but that only opened the doors to more smuggling through the Channel Islands, and Jersey, being the closest of the main islands to the French coast, with its offshore reefs, was the centre of activities.
Those islanders who were not actively involved in smuggling were supportive of what Lord Teignmouth, in Smugglers, described as ‘men who risked life and liberty itself for the purpose of bringing goods to the poor man’s door far more cheaply than grasping governments would permit’.
As William tried to clamp down on the major smugglers, smaller operations through the Channel Islands prospered, and they began to be seen as a threat not only to the customs duties needed to finance the war, but the war effort itself.
In 1690 the Privy Council complained:
- ”The inhabitants are sending ammunition to St Malo. The trade is carried on in the Ecrehous. This traffic is encouraged by the fact that lead is worth in Jersey but twopence or threepence a pound. Upon a signal given, which is the lighting of a fire on the Ecrehous, small vessels belonging to Normandy and Jersey make for that place and drive a trade for lead, powder and other things prohibited by law.”
The King called on the island’s Lieut-Governor Edward Harris to take action to stop the smugglers, but that was not going to happen because Harris was himself one of them. In 1691 the Council received a report:
- ”The french come to the Ecrehous and make great fires, which is the signal for boats to come from Jersey. The Lieut-Governor grants passes for these boats. The King's Advocate and the Vicomte publicly declared that whoever when about to obstruct the trade with France should have his ears cut off.”
Trinity Centenier Aaron Cabot thought that it was his duty to stop a boat going to the Ecrehous, but he found himself being ordered by the Royal Court to beg the Lieut-Governor’s pardon on his knees. Grouville Constable Charles Le Hardy fared no better when he stopped a boat laden with lead from going to the Ecrehous. The Lieut-Governor stripped him of his role as Major in the Militia and made it clear that any boat with a pass from the Governor should not be stopped and searched.
Customs Commissioners' report
The appointment of a professional soldier, Colonel Thomas Collier, to replace Harris in 1685 did nothing to stem the flow of contraband to France, and smuggling to England increased until at the end of the century the Customs Commissioners reported:
- ”The unlimited practice of the island of Jersey, by the help of their small craft, to run French goods upon the coast of England, notwithstanding all the care that is taken to prevent them”.
Smuggling continued throughout the 18th century and into the 19th. Respectable Jersey merchants imported large quantities of French spirits and sold them to smugglers to be run ashore on the English coast. Tobacco went in the opposite direction where its manufacture was a state monopoly.
One of the most popular locations on Jersey’s coastline for loading and unloading smugglers’ boats was St Brelade’s Bay. In the 20th and 21st centuries this proved to be the most popular beach for tourists and has seen extensive development in the past 70 years, but before that it was well off the tourist trail and nobody but those involved in smuggling would have dared venture there at night.
George Balleine’s History of Jersey records the scale of operations as reported by the British Customs House in 1823:
- ”On 17 March a Caswand boat took in at St Brelade’s Bay upwards of 300 ankers of brandy. On 31 March a Plymouth cutter took in at the same place upwards of 600 tubs of brandy and geneva. On 10 June a cutter from East Looe took in the same place 690 casks of brandy, and during the same month a Cawsand boat took away a large cargo of spirits”.
An advertisement in the Jersey newspapers indicated just how perilous an existence was that of Customs officer:
- ”Whereas it has been represented to the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs that Humphrey Oxenham, being out on duty about one o’clock of the morning of Thursday 19 June, saw a smuggling vessel in the offing and some carts on the beach, which were accompanied by upwards of 40 smugglers, armed with bludgeons, who surrounded him, struck him a violent blow above his eyes, which knocked him down, and whilst on the ground, beat him severely, until James Hudie, an extra boatman, came to the assistance of the said Humphrey Oxenham, on which the smugglers disappeared. The Commissioners offer a reward of £50 to any person or persons who shall discover or cause to be discovered any one or more of the said offenders, so that he may be apprehended and pay dues to Southampton upon conviction’.
£50 was a substantial sum at the time, but hardly large enough to persuade anyone involved in the smuggling or aware of their identities, to turn them in to the authorities.
An English Customs House was operating in Jersey from 1810 to 1973, but this did not stop the smuggling trade continuing; if anything it just required those involved to be a little more careful to conceal what they were doing.
In 1831 Customs seized sacks of what looked like potatoes, but turned out to be rolls of tobacco covered with a thin skin smeared with mud. In 1834 the Jersey smack Rambler was arrested in Langstone Harbour with 141 casks of spirits hidden in a false bottom.
The confession of the master of the Eliza, a brig owned by Philippe Nicolle, was recorded:
- ”On the morning of 8 June, instead of proceeding to St Germain, for which we had cleared, we went to Bonne Nuit and there took in 2½ tons of tobacco, spirits in casks, segars and snuff, which I have agreed to take to Wales at the rate of £50 per ton. We proceeded to Fishguard where we arrived on the fifth day and, running in about eleven that evening, assisted in conveying the goods to a store close by. We then went on to St Germain, took in 32 sheep and returned to Jersey. At 3 am on 22 September I left St Helier without clearance, proceeded to Greve de Lecq, and took on board 5 tons of leaf tobacco and several bags of tea and cases of spirits. We reached Fishguard the night of the 25th and landed all safely.”
It can be seen that Jersey smugglers were involved in transporting a wide variety of goods to escape customs duties, and used a variety of Jersey bays to load and unload cargoes. The most popular appear to have been Bouley Bay, Bonne Nuit and Greve de Lecq on the north coast; and St Brelade’s Bay on the south.