The Village of Beer: East Devon


In the late 18th century and early 19th century, smuggling provided many citizens of Beer with an income on both sides of the law. According to George Pulman in ‘The Book of the Axe’, published in 1875, “In former days, when the coastguard was inefficient and the exciseman lax, the Beer men were the very kings of smugglers.”

Beer fishermen had always had a fine reputation for their ability to handle and sail boats. With this ability and the ideal geographical location for landing contraband and transportation to remote farms and houses, smuggling became an alternative “trade” for some of the fishermen. By 1750, the area was so notorious that the local revenue officers were reinforced by dragoons posted in Beer, Branscombe and Seaton.

The boats used were Beer luggers, built in Beer, between 25ft to 35ft in length. They usually had a 4 man crew. Much of the contraband was brought in from the Channel Island of Alderney, but in some cases the smugglers would collect contraband from the North coast of France. As well as casks of brandy, tea, tobacco and silk were other commodities that were smuggled into Beer.

Not all of the inhabitants of Beer were smugglers, indeed some worked for the authorities to catch the smugglers. This could prove complicated and there are reported instances of coastguards being bribed to turn a blind eye at the appropriate time. The honest citizens could also make money from smuggling by informing on the smugglers or by retrieving the contraband. Revenue Cutter captains were rewarded for the contraband once it was handed over to the authorities and sold.

If a smuggler was being chased by a Revenue Cutter or had received a signal from shore, usually a fire, that coastguards were about, then the casks could be roped together in a raft and sunk offshore and its position marked by a float for later retrieval by “creeping”, fishing up the tubs using grappling hooks. In the event that the smuggler did not have time to sink a raft, then the kegs could be thrown overboard. To secure a conviction, the Cutter required both the smuggler and the contraband, so by separating himself from the contraband increased the smuggler’s chances of escape, especially as the contraband could be of financial benefit to the Revenue Cutter captain. Revenue cutter crews would also “creep” for contraband if they thought they knew where a raft of kegs had been sunk.

One of the most famous smugglers was Jack Rattenbury. He was born in Beer in 1778 to a Beer woman, Anne Newton who was married to a Honiton man, John Rattenbury. After thirty years at sea as a fisherman, pilot, seaman and smuggler he wrote about his life in a book, ‘Memoirs of a Smuggler’, which was published in 1837.

In 1896 Sir Walter Besant and James Rice wrote a novel based on Jack Rattenbury and set in Lyme Bay. The titleof the novel is “Twas in Trafalgar Bay”.

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