Smugglers’ Britain

Egypt Bay and Shade House, Cooling
TQ777782 7m E of Gravesend. Go east from Cooling along Britannia Road, and take the first left up Clinch Street. About 1.5 miles from the junction the road continues as a track beyond a locked gate. Follow the track N. The square brick outline and white shutters of Shade House soon come into view on the left, and Egypt Bay is a little more than a mile from the gate.

Egypt Bay on the Hoo peninsula was a typical Thames estuary landing spot, though its soft and changing outline has now been made regular and permanent by the concrete sea defences. Inland from the bay, though, there’s still a reminder of the smuggling activity that was once rife here: Shade House was built specifically to aid the landing of contraband on the southern shores of the Thames: significantly, all the windows of this peculiar box-like building face inland, to provide a good view of anyone approaching within a mile or so. The cottage is even now extremely isolated, but would have been more so in the 18th century: the marshes were malarial, and most people lived on higher ground farther inland. Local stories tell of vaulted brick tunnels leading from Shade House towards the river, but there is no visible evidence today to back up these tales. However, we do know that the North Kent gang used Shade House in their smuggling activities, driving the many marsh sheep along the trails they had followed inland so that there would be no tell-tale footprints.
High Halstow

Northward Hill is at TQ7876 5m NE of Strood. The wood is now a National Nature Reserve administered by the RSPB. Park at the end of Longfield Avenue in High Halstow and walk through the fenced alley to Forge Common. Cross the stile and bear left across the common to the wood (map 178).

One smuggling trip in this area is particularly well-documented, and especially interesting because of the insight it provides into the organization of smuggling in the early 18th century. The story is told in a deposition made in 1728 by a couple of Medway men [12]. They travelled across the Channel in February 1726, and bought tea in Ostend. It was a very small-scale operation, since in all the men brought back just 400lb, plus a few yards of calico and some silk handkerchiefs. There were seven men on the ship, the Sloweley, and the trip was organized a bit like one of today’s cross-channel shopping excursions: everyone bought tea, and paid their passage in tea, too.

Once the goods had been landed, they were carried to Northward Hill, and concealed in the woodland that you can still see on the hill. By the time the tea and fabric had been hidden it was three in the morning, and two of the group departed, leaving some of their fellows on guard — perhaps the plan was to rendezvous the following day to divide up the profits. After a long night in the cold, The three men who were left behind went into the village to get food, and when they returned to the hiding place, two more of their fellows joined them. By this time, though, the silk and calico had disappeared, and since the tea was in six bags, it proved impossible to give each man his exact share. The delay in distribution provided the preventive forces with an opportunity — there is a suggestion that one of the group was an informer — and at 5 O’Clock four customs men arrived. We’ll never know what sort of a deal took place in the gathering dusk on Northward Hill, but whatever happened, it wasn’t entirely to the benefit of the customs authorities. They took 3/4 of the tea, but the smuggling conspirators retained the remainder, and were never prosecuted. The most likely explanation is that the customs men were ‘squared’, and simply sold the tea they had seized in order to line their own pockets. The mastermind of this and many other similar trips was one Edward Roots of Chatham. Though this small trip was organized on a cooperative basis, most of the others followed more conventional business lines, with a London financier, and a ‘fence’ in Blackheath who had organized an efficient distribution system through the pubs of Deptford. It’s no coincidence that High Halstow is within sight of Shade House. In fact, the whole of the Hoo peninsula played an active part in the free-trade, aided by the area’s reputation as a malarial and mist-shrouded swamp. Smuggled goods were commonly landed on Chalk Marshes, and at Cliffe, and often stored near to Chalk Church, and at Higham.

This information has been quoted with permission from Smugglers’ Britain © Richard Platt 2009 For further details and a fascinating read click here

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