Smugglers tales – U.K.

Five and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark, 
Brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk, 
Laces for a lady, papers for a spy, 
So watch the wall my darling, 
while the gentlemen go by.

When Rudyard Kipling wrote those words in 1906, the ‘gentlemen’ were smugglers and he was thinking of Sussex, my present home on the south coast of England. The local pub right across the road from my mum’s care home was renown as a smugglers headquarters and it’s common knowledge that many old Sussex families owe their wealth to their smuggling ancestors.

Smugglers, or ‘free traders’, as they called themselves, were the latter day Robin Hoods. They felt no shame in their crimes, cheating the government and as well as their wealthy patrons they benefited hard working, struggling folk who could barely exist on their meagre earnings without the income from ‘free trade.’

Between 1700 and 1840 smuggling was at its height at a time, like now, when there was a vast gap between the very rich and the poor. There were several large scale gangs along the Kent and Sussex coastline unloading sailing boats from France in the middle of the night. Leader the organisations were a number of well known figures who supported the business as financiers, distributors and providers of safe houses.  Historian Adam Smith commented, “the smuggler would have been in every respect a good citizen and while a common man who was fortunate enough to be in work might earn seven shillings a week to support a family by joining the smugglers for just one night, he could earn ten shillings”.

The government in that day held a very different view since it was losing out on taxes. In modern times the issues have changed. First it was alcohol prohibition in the USA that prompted speakeasy’s, Al Copone and an underground supply chain. More recently legalisation in a growing number of countries has curtailed marijuana prohibition in the western world and changed the smuggling trade dramatically. My personal experience is that the majority of marijuana smugglers have never experienced blackmail, extortion, murder, violence or villainy. I’ve met a number of ‘free traders’ during my travels and, as I share their stories, I’ll let you decide which era of smuggling is the most appalling or appealing. ( To protect these modern day renegade robins I’ve changed their names)

Garfield engaged in his first act of smuggling aged 15. When returning to the U.K. from a Boy Scout camp in Spain he hid a couple of bottles of wine under his seat on the Scout bus at the customs check in Dover as the whole troupe was told to disembark for an inspection. On return he found his bottles sitting on top of his seat with no comment at all from the customs inspectors. “Ok” he thought, “I guess they don’t care about small amounts.”

This theory was confirmed some years later in London when visiting a friend and smoking a joint in his parked car. Two ‘bobbies’ strolled by and must have smelt the illicit fragrance. “Ere, ere what’s all this then,” they said after knocking to get the door opened. “Let’s see what else you’ve got on you shall we?” they ordered. Garfield, caught red handed and red faced, was in a bind. Impulsively, he chose to fess up and showed them the jar of sweet weed which he’d dropped on the floor when the surprise visitors arrived. The first officer took a look and inhaled deeply, “Mmmm check this out Frank,” he said to his colleague who then made his own examination and confirmed the verdict with a big smile on his face.

He looked directly at the nervous Garfield and using his official voice asked, “This is very fine weed young man where’d you get it.” Spontaneously Garfield admitted to smuggling. “I brought it with me from the States and just wanted to share a bit with my friend here.” Assuming Garfield was American like his friend the officer replied, “Well you know that over here we don’t often see this stuff but it’s still illegal so you boys better take it easy.” And with that he wished them both “good day” and the ‘bobbies’ walked off to look for some real criminals. Garfield thought then how rational the British law enforcement attitude seemed to be towards marijuana.

In 1987 Garfield tested this theory a bit further while planning to attend the European Jugglers Festival in Bradford, England. He thought he could liven up the party by indulging in a bit of ‘free trade.’ Times had changed since the nineteenth century and in his day lots of smugglers preferred using dry postal air services rather than watery slow shipping routes, at least for small amounts. He went through his normal routine carefully weighing, double wrapping and packaging his product mindful to eliminate fingerprints or odours. Using rubbing alcohol for the former and coffee for the latter he duct taped the lid of his plastic containers. He was feeling confident when he mailed his two packages of Cali buds from the U.S.A. to two separate post office addresses in the U.K. Over several years he’d successfully smuggled dozens of similar packages through the domestic mail service in the U.S.A. to cities as far apart as Anchorage, Honolulu, New York and Miami. He was now to discover that international deliveries were subject to much stricter surveillance.

Upon arrival in England he successfully but nervously picked up the first delivery and drove to the festival where he made hundreds of pot smoking jugglers very happy. Marijuana was the drug of choice for some of the most prodigious object manipulators who felt it enhanced the experience and made repetitive physical actions more fun, especially when music is involved. In the minds of many, alcohol the typical drug of choice in the U.K., tends to deaden the senses and heighten negative emotions which isn’t ideal for creating a positive party mood…… just as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh testified.

Garfield stopped twice at the local post office to pick up the second package and was told it had been delayed by a postal workers strike in Liverpool. On the third attempt he was handed the hot potato and drove away with it failing to notice that the duct tape no longer matched the first package. Something else he missed was the two customs officers following his every move. Apparently during the strike, unlike normal times, they’d had ample opportunity to check every package waiting delivery. That evening while exiting the festival performance Garfield was surrounded by police officers and arrested. In the police station he was finger printed, photographed and officially charged with importation of a controlled substance. It was a long lonely night spent in a cold hard cell with a light permanently glaring down at him. His heart was heavy as his world had just imploded.

Life as a ‘free trader’ was different in the 20th century but was still fraught with risks and consequences. Garfield never got hung or impaled but he was harangued and later imprisoned. Ironically, he went to a nineteenth century prison where some of the luckiest unlucky smugglers from the past might have sat in the same exact cell. Garfield realised it might be an alluring profession for the successful but it sure isn’t glamorous for the losers.

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