KEVIN GORDON - Crime rife in Georgian Sussex

In 1783, it was reported that about 300 men arrived at Cuckmere Haven to unload a large cargo of contraband.
In 1783, it was reported that about 300 men arrived at Cuckmere Haven to unload a large cargo of contraband.
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Crime in our area seems to have been rife in the late 1770s. On 7th October 1776 a maid was travelling along the White Way between Seaford and Alfriston when she was robbed by a footpad.

He threatened to cut her throat unless she handed over her purse and he got away with just over a shilling – a small amount considering the penalty at that time for his crime – death!. Just a few days later a Stephen Martin, a Seaford resident, had his pocket picked whilst he was in Lewes and £95 was stolen.

His seems a huge amount – I have checked this against the retail price index of the time and it equates to about £10,000 in today’s money.

Early the next year on 14th February 1777 the Carr family who lived in Bishopstone were woken in the middle of night, when burglars entered their house. Luckily they were able to chase the thieves away into the night. Just twelve days later two other ne’er-do-wells did not escape when they picked on the wrong man; a Mr Luxford of Hailsham was riding through Seaford when he was attacked by two drunken chimney-sweeps. He horsewhipped the miscreants before handing them over to the local authorities and they were placed in the stocks.

The stocks were situated on the corner of Broad Street and High Street, Seaford and in 1779, maybe due to heavy use, Joseph Stevens was paid 14s/4d (about £80) to repair them.

But back to the sea and smuggling. There seem to be far fewer reports in the late 1770s but I am sure that illicit trade was still going on.

On 31st March 1778, sounds of a naval battle off the Seaford coast prompted fears that a French invasion was about to take place. The cannon fire lasted over two hours but the French never came. The townsfolk were acutely aware of being on the “front-line” in the war with the French; in 1781 and 1782 French war ships came in so close to Seaford that the guns of the batteries were able to engage with them.

In 1781 the Customs men at Seaford seized two Americans who had escaped from a prison in Portsmouth. They were spotted landing their boat in Seaford Bay and were taken into custody and returned to gaol. The customs men had another useful capture in 1785 when a smuggling boat came ashore near the Tide Mills, but the smugglers really turned up in force in 1783 when the Sussex Weekly Advertiser reported that about 300 men arrived at Cuckmere Haven to unload a large cargo of contraband.

In 1788, Mr Marten, a Customs man at Seaford, seized three horses laden with foreign wine and spirits. It is not recorded if any smugglers were detained and one wonders why they made off without a fight. A few weeks later, on 23rd March the Seaford Customs men pounced on a group of smugglers at Exceat.

They hemmed several men in on the causeway causing such a panic that some of the smugglers rode over each other in a bid to escape. Horses and a wagon were seized but again there was no mention of any men being arrested.

In 1792 the Seaford customs men seized 31 casks of contraband spirits from a ship in Se aford Bay and there was more action on 29th October 1798. A revenue cutter chased a smuggling boat around Seaford Bay, the men of which, in order to escape threw a part of the cargo overboard near Blatchington Barracks.

This was viewed by the soldiers stationed there who “took to the water like spaniels” to retrieve the booty.

It is believed that they retrieved about 300 tubs of Geneva Gin. Later in the day the Customs men appeared at the gates to the barracks to retrieve the contraband but the soldiery would not admit them and it is reported that the heavily outnumbered customs men decided it would be prudent to relinquish their claim. The following year a smuggling boat came ashore near the battery at Blatchington and the soldiers took possession of 400 caulks of spirits which they sold to the locals at 5 shillings a tub.

This time the Revenue men used search warrants to retrieve the goods. This is a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Customs men and the men garrisoned in the town.