Irish born Thomas Selvey in the Coastguard

The Story of Irish born Thomas Selvey in the Coastguard.

RiggingI have found out that a boatman was a crew member of a yacht or brig known as a ‘Cutter’. Their purpose was to apprehend smugglers. For centuries the Bristol Channel was a favourite haunt of smugglers, their heyday being between 1750 and 1830. Contraband was regularly run along the coast between Portishead and Uphill, just south of Weston-Super- Mare. This remote area of cliffs, moorland and mud, together with a notoriously hostile stretch of water, was patrolled by Customs Cutters. The Bristol Channel pilots were apparently smugglers par excellence, being expert sailors with fast vessels and with knowledge of the fast channel. Many of them came from Pill, near Portishead. Each Customs officer had to oversee approximately four miles of coast. Although outnumbered, and often outclassed the Customs men did have some successful recoveries. In 1798 customs officers discovered 20 ankers of rum and brandy after dragging the river. (One Anker = 7 ½ Gallons)

In 1810 the cargo from a ship called ‘Rebecca’ “drifted” into the bay at Weston-Super-Mare where “farmers carried off milk pails full of spirits”. This was termed “wrecking” although most of the ships were wrecked in storms, not by more devious methods. The salvage from wrecks should have belonged to the ship-owners, but usually the cargo was spirited away before the wreck was reported.

New improved Revenue Cutters were introduced in 1816, but later these were taken back under the control of the Admiralty for the Navy. The older, smaller, cutters were used for the newly formed Coastguard from 1822 which provided a unified service and absorbed the role of the sea-going excisemen. Woodspring Bay to the North of Weston-Super-Mare was a well known smuggling haunt. As was Steep Holm Island in the Bristol Channel, which in 1832 had an inn selling duty-free which presumably “fell off the back” of a passing schooner. Other popular commodities were tobacco, wine, coffee, tea, vinegar, sugar, tropical fruit, ginger and other spices, salt, starch, soap, candles, silk, lace, sailcloth, brass ornaments, pewter, in fact anything which bore import duty and could be sold profitably on the black market, even pins and buttons.

Such goods were heavily taxed and many saw smuggling as a fair retaliation to unjust laws. Smugglers also occasionally carried people and letters. Napoleon admitted that much of his information came from British smugglers. Smugglers preferred to be called free traders and often had connections with the local gentry, clergy, military and the law who between them financed, pardoned and protected the smugglers. Thus their popular image as dashing and romantic heroes- tax evaders, not thieves.

The less palatable truth is that some of these smugglers were also pirates, or colluded with such men. Smugglers risked heavy fines and the indignity of having their boats seized if caught in the act. Apprehended smugglers were given the choice of being drafted into the Royal Navy or facing trial, only a few ended up being transported or executed.

The quality of the men who manned the Revenue Cutters was impressive. Many had served with distinction in a number of famous naval campaigns. The job was popular with ex-naval men and petty officers as the pay was good ( 3 shillings a day in 1831). They could live at home with their families and there was always the chance of prize money or booty. When the Revenue men were lucky enough to make a successful capture they confiscated everything in the ship, cargo and equipment, and on the land the horses, vehicles and booty. Officers however had no chance of promotion before 1831.

Pill, near Portishead had its own Customs House, rebuilt in 1850 after Thomas had retired. It occupied a strategic position on the river Avon at the beginning of a stretch of water known as “Hung Road” where big sailing ships waited for the tide to continue their passage up river to Bristol. Uphill also had a Customs post. Thomas was lucky to have retired by the age of 79. In 1834 three Riding Officers of the revenue Service were retired on a pension, their ages were 84, 80 and 72 respectively, each having served for 50 years or more.

Sources of Information:

  • Round about Articles by John Bailey published in the Weston Mercury (local newspaper for Weston-Super-Mare)
  • R.J.Sutton. “Honest Rogues” The Inside History of Smuggling A National Trust series for Children. Heritage Books 1977 ISBN 0 906045 01 0
  • K.C.Watkins “Welsh Smugglers” Published by James Pike Ltd. 1975 ISBN 0 85932 133 9.

0 Comments · 7451 Reads · Print  -> Posted by keenans on February 12 2008


No Comments have been Posted.

Post Comment

Please Login to Post a Comment.