KEVIN GORDON - Cuckmere a haven for smugglers

The coastguard station on the western cliffs overlooking Cuckmere Haven SUS-141022-104638001
The coastguard station on the western cliffs overlooking Cuckmere Haven SUS-141022-104638001

I have been told that the Cuckmere River is the only river on the south coast that flows out to sea in the countryside.

If that is the case, it is no wonder that it has been used for smuggling for centuries. There are many reports and stories about the prevalence of smugglers and they were particularly active on the remote stretches of Sussex coastline.

The Cinque Port of Seaford flourished in the late 12th century. It was at this time King John introduced a customs duty on the export of wool to the continent. Initially it was relatively small, but during the long war with France (the Hundred Years War) the duty increased.

By the 17th century it became worthwhile risking imprisonment or worse to illegally export wool particularly after 1614 when the export of wool was banned. The men who slipped out of Cuckmere Haven were known as Owlers (presumably as they worked at night).

The Government has never been too keen in losing revenue and in 1671 a Board of Customs were established to collect customs duties at ports. Ten years earlier illegally exporting wool had become a capital offence. It was at about this time that regular patrols along the coast were introduced. The ships called ‘customs cutters’ did not deter the smugglers who were now also starting to illegally import goods and who started to arm themselves.

By the way, a Board of Excise was also established at this time – excise is the gathering of taxation from domestic source – income tax, purchase tax and taxes on tea, salt, soap, beer and even windows and wigs!

By the 1700s smuggling was rife and there are many reports of the ‘cat and mouse’ incidents between the customs men and the smugglers.

In March 1788, the Seaford Customs men pounced on a gang of smugglers near Cuckmere Haven. They managed to hem in several hundred men who in the confusion rode over each other in a panicked bid to escape. Horses and wagons were seized although there is no mention of any arrests.

The illicit trade was rife during the Napoleonic Wars. It seems strange to me that local people did good business with the French even though we were officially at war with them.

The Government employed even more people to prevent smuggling. In the 1790s Richard Winter was employed as a ‘Tide Waiter’ at Seaford and had to keep a look out for smugglers when the tides were right for illicit landings. There were also blockademen, coastguards and excisemen.

As the Cuckmere River was known for its smuggling, a coastguard station was built on the western cliffs over looking Cuckmere Haven on land leased by the Government from the Chyngton Estate. It was ready by 1823 and housed not only the men but their families. By 1831 the Coastguard had taken over all the other preventative forces and became solely responsible for coastal protection but just ten years later smuggling had declined. The industrial revolution had started and British manufacturers began to petition parliament calling for ‘free-trade’. Duties started to diminish and it no longer was worthwhile smuggling goods into the country.

The Coastguard Station at Cuckmere, however, remained. Although smuggling was declining the coastguards were still needed. The increase in shipping, assisted by ‘free-trade’, meant that many more ships were passing our coast. More shipping meant more shipwrecks and the coastguard shifted their emphasis on rescue rather than smuggling.

In 1909 the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise merged to become “HM Customs and Excise”. The men remained at the Cuckmere Haven and by 1912 the Government was paying Chyngton Estate £25 rent per year for the site.

Today the Coastguard Cottages stand closer to the cliff edge than they have ever done. The view past the cottages to Cuckmere Haven, the Seven Sisters and Belle Tout has become an iconic symbol of not only Sussex, but of England. Indeed people travel from all over the world to see the view. There is a reason why you see so many oriental people at Exceat. The view is used as a screen-saver on many computers in the far east.

I was shocked to discover that the Coastguard Cottages were not listed buildings and, as they are now so close to the cliff edge one can see a time in the near future when they may have to be evacuated if sea defences are not put in place. I would love to discover more about the cottage and the people who lived there and hope I can report back in the near future.