When smugglers pulled the wool over Excise eyes

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We tend to think of smugglers as engaged in bringing the likes of brandy, tobacco, fancy silks and lace into the country from overseas.

But in fact the pioneers in Sussex were the Owlers who carried on their smuggling trade in the opposite direction.

Wool-smugglers of Romney Marsh, from the 13th century the Owlers were engaged in the “export” of the fine wo ol of southern sheep to the Continent, most notably to the skilled weavers of Flanders.

This illegal trade went on for some five centuries and only dwindled towards the end of the 17th century when the overseas demand for wool sharply declined. Around about this time the smuggling tide turned and this shadowy fraternity began the business of bringing contraband goods into Sussex.

Writing some 150 years ago, Sussex historian Mark Antony Lower told the story of a blacksmith who was on his way to Ditchling with a keg when he was accosted by an Excise man.

“I must have that keg of yours, I reckon” said the officer. “I suppose you must,” answered Nick Cossum, the blacksmith, in a civil way, “though it’s rather against the grain to be robbed like this. However, I’m going your road, so we can walk together. There’s no law again’ that, I expect.”

The officer said there was not, so he took the tub on his shoulders and they went along, chatting quite friendly and “chucker” as the Sussex word was, till they came to a cross-road, where the blacksmith wished the customs man goodbye. Then turning back, he called out: “Oh, there’s one thing I forgot. Here’s a little bit of paper that belongs to the keg.” The officer examined the paper. “Why!” he exclaimed. “This is a permit. Why didn’t you show me that in the first place?” “Oh,” said the blacksmith, “why if I had done that, you wouldn’t a-carried my tub for me all this way, would you?”