The Bembridge Smugglers

The Bembridge Smugglers

My Isle of Wight smuggling trail has already taken me to Shanklin and to St Helens, where I discovered the scandalous story of Sophie Dawes. I have uncovered many secrets of the Island’s shady past and visited some very atmospheric smugglers’ pubs (I wanted the full experience!). My next stop was Bembridge, where I enjoyed a delicious alfresco lunch in the Crab and Lobster, and came across some female smugglers.



Bembridge is a small village at the easternmost point of the Island, overlooking the Solent. In the 18th century, along with most places on the Isle of Wight, it was renowned for smuggling or ‘free-trading’. Fishermen sailed from Bembridge harbour across the English Channel in small vessels to France, landing in Cherbourg and Honfleur, to stock up on tobacco, brandy, gin (my favourite tipple) and other luxury goods, which they then transported back to the Island without paying the exorbitant duties. High above the village, Bembridge Windmill, which was built in 1700, served as a marker for the returning boats.



An estimated two thirds of islanders took part in smuggling, and the raids were usually organised at meetings in public houses, one of which was the Crab and Lobster. Perched on the cliffs above the shore near Bembridge Harbour, it is the perfect spot for night-time operations. Once the goods arrived on the beach, the local community helped to shift the goods, ready for concealment, re-distribution and sale on the mainland. When I was researching smuggling activities in Bembridge, it came to my notice that many of the women of the village were caught taking part.

On 9 February 1833, Harriett Harbor was caught transporting a half a gallon of brandy in two animal skins and a bladder, without paying the tax. She was fined £25 but was unable to pay, and so spent a month in prison. Harriett had two accomplices, Mary Ann Fagan and Mary Ann Fry, who were also found to be concealing brandy, but they managed to abscond were never captured.



In the early decades of the 19th century, a number of women on the Isle of Wight were prosecuted for conveying and concealing contraband liquor, which they hid in their baskets or under their voluminous skirts. In 1830, Mary Sweatman of Ryde was convicted of smuggling, along with her partner John Stagg. Both were prosecuted for identical crimes, yet Mary received a fine of £50, whilst John only had to pay £25. There was no mercy for any women (or men) who defaulted on fines, and many of the female culprits ended up behind bars for a while.

One of my favourite stories of female smugglers is that of Elizabeth Cooper, who was convicted of concealing spirits. When her brother faced a similar charge, a local news reporter said, ‘Although the family of Cooper is not an extensive one, our bridewell is seldom without one of them’.



The female islanders were mainly responsible for decanting liquor from barrels and casks into smaller receptacles, such as bottles and pots. They removed the French identification stamps by burning and then hid the goods in places such as chimneys, under false floors, hedges and even in tombstones. Children didn’t miss out on the action either, and they were used as go-betweens, passing messages from one family member to another. On the Isle of Wight, smuggling was a real family affair!

My next stop on the smuggling trail will be Rookley, which is alleged to have been the smuggling centre of the Island. I’m sure there must be a pub there to visit…




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