I am very fortunate to spend time regularly on the Isle of Wight, especially in Shanklin where we have a small house. The village, with its historic thatched pubs and sandy beach, was one of the main centres of island smuggling in the past, and there are still traces of its secret history present today.
For centuries, smuggling was endemic on the Isle of Wight. Goods were brought in on vessels from continental Europe, concealed on the island and then moved to the mainland for distribution. At its height, it was estimated that two thirds of the island’s inhabitants were involved in ‘free trading’, from the fishermen and sailors who shipped the contraband to the women who decanted it into small receptacles for its ongoing trade journey. Tobacco was one of the most popular ‘imports’, as well as brandy, gin, tea, fruit and textiles. All these goods could fetch a high price in the UK, particularly if you didn’t pay the excise duty.
The smugglers’ pub was at the centre of local operations and there were several in Shanklin, which are still in business today. On the beach is the Fisherman’s Cottage, located at the bottom of the deep ravine of Shanklin Chine. It was built in 1817 by William Colenutt, who was also responsible for cutting a path through the dense foliage of the chine so that it could be opened to the public. Merchandise would be smuggled in from France, unloaded on the beach at Shanklin and then carried up the Chine, under cover of darkness.
Halfway up the Chine is the Chine Inn, whose sign (pictured above) is a reminder of its historic covert activities. Built in 1621, it’s one of the island’s oldest pubs and, in the 18th century, it provided ale and broiled bacon to smugglers. The present owner uncovered an internal well, which was probably used to hide contraband. At the top of the Chine is the Crab Inn, another smugglers’ haunt. A wooden board game from the Crab hangs today in Pencil Cottage next door, now a gift and teashop. The position of the counters on the board, which is in the form of a clock face, would give signals as to when it was safe to bring the illicit items ashore.
There are other buildings in Shanklin which share its smuggling history. Vernon Cottage, famous for its cream teas, has a double floor in the main lounge, which was used for storing goods. There is also believed to be a secret tunnel running from the wine cellar of Vernon Cottage to the Chine Inn. Near to our property is Jessamine Cottage, where the customs officers stayed – I’m not sure how successful they were in stopping Shanklin’s illegal trade.
Find out more about smuggling in my latest article in Your Family History magazine – out now!