Themes make ordinary novels powerful. As a historical author, I try to keep my overarching theme “anchored by hope” in mind while setting characters in a real time and place. When I began writing my Nelson’s Tea and Regent’s Revenge Series, I chose England, between 1800-1815, because the French Revolutionary War in 1792 sparked England’s seafaring dominance until 1802, when they experienced a one year reprieve before Napoleon’s surrender in 1815.
What a time in history, me hearties! And what a hotbed of adventure! Who knew pirates and smugglers could be a cunning and necessary evil?
Frustrated by a new excise tax needed for wardship and parliamentary subsidies funding the king’s purse and war, the people of Southern England turned to smuggling to offset hunger, poverty, and despair. As a result, free-trade became highly profitable to those who plied it without getting caught. The use of lead lights to wreck and then salvage cargo is the stuff of lore, but hordes of people did descend on foundering ships to strip them clean. There are documented cases of caches hidden below churches, taverns, homes, attics, coves, caves, crypts, even beneath a woman’s skirts, and sunk to seabeds with ‘sinking stones’ in order to escape preventative men from the Board of Excise and Customs Office.
Who were these sly men and women? Priests, officials, politicians, innkeepers, wives, seafaring men, fishermen, crewed colliers, coasters and river rats with quick minds. They wore boots, smocks or striped jerseys, baggy trousers, heavy overcoats, sou’westers, and handkerchiefs round their necks to cover their faces and conceal identities.
Why was it so easy for free-traders to ply their trade? Over 20% of the 18th Century population in Southern England lived in rural areas. They were landless laborers cut loose by failing tin and copper mines and crops, living in miserable poverty, desperate men willing to do anything to feed their families because only one fifth of the population were allowed to benefit from parish relief.
How hard did a smuggler work? It was a lengthy, tiring business lasting twelve to thirteen hours a day, including Saturdays. Woodland had to be cut to build ships and fuel needed to be found for glass and steel industries, making firewood scarce. Most ate cheese, which didn’t require cooking and was easier to come by.
What did smugglers smuggle? Aristocrats fleeing France, baled tobacco, wrapped in watertight oilskin, black and green tea, coffee, cider, chocolate, cocoa, spirits in tubs or half-ankers containing about 4 gallons (gin, brandy, beer, cognac, rum), sugar, salt, pepper, fruit, figs, leather, soap, fine cloth (silk, cambric), stockings, silk shawls, wool, nutshells, pistols, precious stones, elegant figured paper (wallpaper), cork, china, and playing cards.
How profitable was smuggling? When menial landlubber jobs could be found, a week’s wages included 7s or 8s (35-40p), compared to one night’s work as a tubman or batman in a smuggling ring at 5s and 7s 6d (25p-37.5p).
What was the profit? Tea cost 7d (3p) and was then sold in England for 5s (25p). Tobacco cost 7d (3p) and sold for 2s 6d (12 1/2p). A tub of gin or brandy cost ₤1 but could fetch ₤4 from customers before it was ‘let down’ to drinkable strength.
What was the risk? Being caught by revenue men and the newly-formed Waterguard patrol offshore, tried, hung, or put in prison (goal) where conditions tended to be so grave, the sentence often led to death.
What about you? Do you think you could have been a free-trader in the 18th Century?