Smuggling in the Suir Estuary

This months guest blog is provided by James Doherty. It takes a look at the incidence of smuggling in the harbour from a historical perspective. Its a very exciting topic, and one that has not received much attention in the past. I sincerely hope people enjoy reading it as much as I have.
One of the first instances of formal taxation dates to the reign of King John I, when in 1203 he ordered a tax placed on woollen goods leaving his jurisdiction for the continent. Inevitably as soon as rulers sought to levy taxes men sought ways to avoid such taxes. The history of smuggling is intricately linked with the history of taxation.
Smuggling in its
simplest form is the movement of goods from one jurisdiction to another with the
express purpose of avoiding taxation or levies. The non-payment of duties owed
makes the smugglers goods considerably cheaper than his legitimate competitors
whilst still offering substantial financial return.
By its nature
smuggling is a difficult subject to research; the most successful smugglers are
the ones that no one has ever heard of. The level of detection is low and
primary sources are scarce. The majority of historical evidence comes from the
perspective of the people trying to catch the smugglers. This article hopes to
provide a brief explanation of the factors that influenced the growth and
decline of smuggling, the type of goods smuggled and provide some local
examples of this clandestine trade.
Revenue cutter pursuing a suspect circa 1830
Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Generally when
people think of historic smuggling the image that comes to mind is teams of men
unloading casks of brandy or gin, however a wide range of products were smuggled.
In addition to premium items such as spirits a  wide range of other  items were moved such as tea, wool, salt, playing cards, banned publications (such as
bibles during the penal times) and people
leaving Ireland as fugitives.

Being relatively light and highly taxed
spirits, tea and tobacco were a popular choice for smugglers. However the
earliest large scale smuggling in Ireland revolved around more mundane items
like wool and salt. Wool and salt provide two good examples of the two main
external factors that influenced Irish smuggling namely taxation and trade
To pay for his
military campaigns King William III introduced a tax on domestic salt
production in England in 1693[i].
However this tax did not apply in Ireland which had the unintended consequence
of leading to an explosion of smuggling from Ireland into England. This
smuggling was carried out on such a scale as to decimate the traditional salt
industry on the coast of England[ii].
Throughout a
large portion of its history England followed the economic theory of mercantilism.
The basic tenant of this theory is that imports into the empire had a negative
effect whilst exports were positive. During the 17th and 18th
century parliament in Westminster passed several acts that were designed to
restrict Irish and benefit English trade. In 1663 the Cattle Acts prohibited
the export of cattle to England this encouraged Irish farmers to switch to wool
production. When the Irish wool trade flourished it threatened manufacture in England.
As a consequence of this perceived threat to industry the taxes on wool imports
into England (which already were subject to duty) were greatly increased with
the Woollen Acts of 1699. A novel feature of this act stated that it was
illegal to be buried in a shroud made of Irish wool (unless you were a victim
of plague). Effectively excluded from the English market these trade
restrictions greatly increased the scale of wool smuggling from Ireland into
France where the price of wool remained high and the markets open[iii].
Example of a medieval burial shroud
accessed from:

One of the
earliest recorded local mentions of the clandestine trade dates from October
1594 when Sir William Russel Lord Deputy of Ireland “granted a commission to
search in Wexford, Rosse, and Waterford for prohibited wares to pass for France[iv]”.
The Lord Deputy didn’t state what wares his men were looking for but wool would
have been likely.

The high-water
mark of smuggling was from the period of 1750- 1850. This period saw high
taxation as England fought a series of wars with France. It was also a time of
high consumer demand for luxury products which were smuggled into the Ireland
such as tea, spirits and tobacco. The beginning of the 19th century
would also see increased preventative measures with revenue cruisers patrolling
Irish waters and the formation of the Coastguard.
Waterford would
play a key role in the war on smuggling, when seven permanent cruiser stations
were established in Ireland one of the locations chosen was Dunmore East[v].
The successes and failures of the Dunmore based cruisers such as The Hound or The Pygmy was covered extensively by the local papers[vi].
The often substantial seizures by these cutters gives an idea of the scale of
smuggling being carried out along the Irish Coast during this time period.
1822 would see
the formation of the Coastguard which was an amalgamation of several services
and ended the piecemeal approach to combating smuggling. As a series of
station houses and accommodation for the Coastguard was established, private
houses were rented as a temporary measure.  The only area along the coast where this rental
caused difficulty was Ballymacaw Co. Waterford. The Inspector General of the
newly established force Sir James Dombrain noted that all available houses where owned by a local merchant with
smuggling connections. In the same report Dombrain stated that the smuggling in
this part of the coast was being carried on to an extent “that almost exceeded
The smuggling
sloop Isis provides a good example of
the activity Sir James Dombrain lamented in his report. In September of the
same year that the Coastguard was established the revenue cutter Richmond seized the sloop Isis after a 6 hour chase which had
started  near the Saltee Islands.  A modest 18 kegs of gin were discovered on-board
after the sloop was inspected at Waterford Quay. Its prime cargo however was
tobacco, the Isis contained 300 bales
of tobacco weighing over 13000 kilos. Although the Isis had sailed from Holland it was revealed that a local man from
Tramore was part of the crew. When earlier in the same week a similar vessel
was seized its cargo was valued at between 6 and 7 thousand pounds[viii]
(worth nearly a million euro in modern terms).
An artistic impression of gin smuggling
Accessed from:

The Isis was a dedicated smuggler whose
success relied on evading the authorities. Another tactic employed was that of
deception. Smugglers would hide contraband cargo amongst legitimate cargoes in
a very similar way to how a lot of modern smuggling is carried out. The covert
hiding of tobacco became more popular as the number of seizures mounted
throughout the 1820’s. A couple of weeks before the seizure of the Isis members of the Coastguard inspected
the schooner Nelson. Hidden amongst
the cargo of apples and potatoes lay a large amount of tobacco[ix].
The following years would similar levels
of activity with the local papers reporting in 1825 that Waterford Gaol held 33
men on smuggling charges with three ships captains out on bail[x]

Ships like the Nelson and the Isis primary cargo was contraband tobacco with their crews taking a
calculated risk with the hope of earning a tidy profit. Opportunistic smuggling
was also widespread throughout the first half of the 19th century.
Sailors returning from countries where tobacco was cheap often brought smaller
amounts of tobacco with them with the view to supplementing their wages. In
1825 the Morning Register newspaper reported that two ships recently returned
from Quebec were being held on the quay in Waterford as tobacco had been found
on board. In this case the paper reported that one young “lad” had been
convicted of smuggling[xi].
It is unlikely that a young man perhaps on his first voyage would take it upon
himself to engage in smuggling so the reasons why he was convicted over his
shipmates can only be guessed at.
An advert to twart the smugglers
Accessed from:

A darker side to
smuggling existed and as preventative measures increased the smugglers often
resorted to brute force or the threat of violence. The reports of smuggling
seizures and chases mentioned if the smuggler was armed or not and the level of
force used by the revenue cutters to seize vessels.  An early violent encounter occurred in December
1792 when the Waterford Herald reported on two incidents of smuggling the first
was a seizure of 320 kilos of tobacco at Bunmahon and the second was an armed
confrontation between an unnamed ship  and two revenue cruisers.  It was reported that one of the cruisers sent
a boat to board the smuggler which was fired upon by the smuggling crew. Despite
the best efforts of the two revenue ships in this case the smuggler escaped[xii].

preventative measures would force smugglers to change their tactics it was a
change in economic policy that would lead to the eventual decline of smuggling.
From the 1840’s on the British would start to move towards a policy of free trade which saw the removal of import duties and the lessening of taxes. This
policy made smuggling less profitable and the practice gradually died out.
It is very
difficult to measure the size of smuggling activity along the Irish coast with
some estimates saying that half of all tobacco consumed in Ireland was
contraband during parts of the 18th and 19th century. It
is evident however that large scale smuggling occurred along the Irish coast
and was organised on an impressive scale.
This is the third or our guest blogs. The intention is to offer a platform to others who are writing about the maritime heritage of Waterford harbour an opportunity to publish their stories. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email me at The only criteria is that it needs to have a maritime connection to the harbour and a maximum word count of 1200 words. I will format, source the photos if required and add in the hyperlinks. Guest blogs will be published on the last Friday of each month. Our next guest blog is scheduled for Friday 31st March and comes from Brendan Grogan. Its a piece about his Grandfather, Captain Farrell who went to sea at age 16 in 1878 and went on to become a master mariner and harbour master of Waterford. I can’t wait to share the story with you.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:
F  T
[ii] Ibid
[iii] History of the Commercial and Financial
Relations between England and Ireland from the Period of the Restoration
[iv]Journal of Sir William Russell, Lord Deputy. From 24 June 1594 to 27
May 1597.
[v] King’s Cutters and
Smugglers 1700-1855, by E. Keble Chatterton
[vi] Example :  Waterford Mirror
[vii] Sir James Dombrain and the Coastguard
[viii]  Waterford Mirror : 25/09/1822
[ix] Waterford Mirror : 30/08/1822
[x] Waterford Mirror : 01/12/1825
[xi] Morning Register :19/07/1825
[xii] Waterford Herald :13/09/1825