Newport – 18th Century Smuggling

Colin Andrew gave a talk on Captain James Dunn an 18th century smuggler on 27th March 2019.

Although the title was about a particular Cornish smuggler- an ancestor of the speaker -and his activities in Mevagissey we were given a most interesting and thorough review of the life and role of smugglers in the 19th Century.

We learnt that smuggling was a very important part of life at the time. Maybe there were 25,000 smugglers and a further 100,000 people involved in the further distribution of the smuggled goods. The Royal Navy itself only had 50,000 men. The total population of the country was 6.5 million compared to the present figure of about 65 million. If we scale up to compare with the present time this means an equivalent of 1 million employed in smuggling- almost as many as employed by our biggest current employer- the National Health Service.

At the time ⅔rds of the Government’s tax revenue came from goods which, however, could be smuggled in to avoid these taxes. Since 80% of the Government’s expenditure was for fighting almost non-stop wars (mainly against France) and the man in the street saw no benefit from the taxes he paid there was considerable support for the smuggling ‘industry’- and it was certainly profitable for the smugglers and beneficial to its customers.

We learnt of the role of Guernsey as a depot for the goods obtained from France and awaiting smuggling to England. Because of tax rights given to the island by King Richard II the British Government could do little to stem the smuggling trade.

Only after the British victory over Napoleon’s France which freed up naval vessels so that they could deal with smuggling boats, and a change in the tax system introduced by Robert Peel, which concentrated on Income Tax rather that Goods Taxes, did the tide turn against the smuggling trade.

Captain Dunn himself was resourceful and when the tide turned against smuggling he diversified into ship building (of vessels to further the smuggling trade) and privateering so as to continue to enjoy a rich life.

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