Thomas Armstrong: the smuggler king of Cullercoats
On the surface, Captain Thomas Armstrong was an upstanding, if sometimes over-zealous, member of HM Customs service, patrolling the north east coast of England against smugglers. However, an examination of the customs records at The National Archives revealed a different story, tied to the imposing house that Armstrong built on the cliffs at Cullercoats. Nick Barratt tells his amazing story and highlights the records as a rich source of 18th century family, local and social history.
Dr Nick Barratt works in The National Archives’ Advice and Records Knowledge department, but previously he ran a historical research agency and he was involved in researching and presenting a number of television series, including Who Do You Think You Are and House Detectives. He has published several books, most recently Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs. He also lectures regularly about history and the media. His specialist area of records knowledge is 13th century finance.
It is actually very nice to be giving a talk on a subject that isn’t something I usually talk about. I seem to have spent the last 12 years or so bouncing between 13th century state finance and fiscal history, or behind the scenes of Who Do You Think You Are? I’m going back even further than that for the subject of today’s talk.
I want to explore the life of a certain Captain Thomas Armstrong who I first encountered researching on a programme called House Detectives. The records that I use, which I want to explain in a bit more detail, were just so rich, full of social detail about not just his life and those of his colleagues but also about the 18th century coastal communities in which many of the Customs Officers served.
What I’m going to do is take you through the story of Thomas Armstrong; transport you back in time to the 18th century. So there’s going to be a lot of imagining going on. Normally when I do talks I don’t go anywhere near slides or PowerPoint presentations or any of that sort of stuff, but I have got a few images up today: partly to illustrate where the story took place but also to show some of the richness and diversity of the material at hand. All of this, I should add, is here at The National Archives. It’s an incredible material and most of it is very easily indexed and accessible. So more about that very shortly.
The journey begins, I suppose, with a house. This house in particular, Cliff House [shows image]. Marked up in the corner; called Ark House at that time. This again comes from our collections; it was bound up in 19th century correspondence: the Granville Papers, from someone called Fanny Arkwright who visited the house and is writing back to her friend the Duke of Devonshire, where she stayed.
This is where the journey began because for House Detectives we were called in by the occupants of this particular property. They wanted to find a little bit more about who owned the house and in particular when it was built. They’d already tracked down a rather mysterious note, which was published in a secondary source: Historical Notes on Cullercoats, which is a tiny little hamlet on the North East coast of England. It cites that on 28 July 1768 Benjamin Fleming of Newcastle etc – you can read that for yourself – and it named the person who built the house, which is quite unusual. That was the first major clue.
Thomas Armstrong of North Shields, a Commander of His Majesty’s Cutter: the Bridlington. As part of the investigation into the story of Cliff House we wanted to find out more about the chap who had actually designed and built this property because there were some very strange architectural features.
For a start, it was perched right up on the cliff edge. Yet there were some very deep, double cellars that we uncovered, linked to the shore via a tunnel that came out just above the high tide mark. What on earth was he doing building a tunnel to his cellars? So that was the first mystery we had to solve. I followed up on this piece of information here; he was a Commander of His Majesty’s Cutter: the Bridlington.
So first of all, it was really a case of working out what was Cullercoats like? What was the community in which Thomas was living? As you can see, for a start there’s a lot of oppressive dark grey skies [shows images]. These are local paintings from the 1810s, 1820s. Most of the community were engaged in either fishing or a bit earlier salt pans: drying out the salt water, getting the salt and then using it to dry or cure some of the fish. So it’s a coastal fishing community. As we can see, lots of activity, it doesn’t look particularly hospitable.
Alongside fishing came the rise of another, darker, trade or activity that many people engaged with at an informal level. That was smuggling: making sure that goods were run to shore in many of these small coves or inlets to avoid the Customs collectors at the major ports. Many of the local people derived income from taking the goods from many of these ships that would moor up, unload, and then disperse the tea, sometimes whisky, but quite often exotic goods into the local communities a bit further inland. They took a cut of any of the money that was used when these goods were sold on. Historically, we see lots of pictures such as this [shows image]: of people coming in, fishing, but many of them were actually involved in smuggling as well.
This was a major problem in the 18th century, particularly on some of the wilder and more rugged parts of the North East coast. So to try and cut out this problem, there was a very sophisticated system in place, run by the Board of Customs in London and establishing outports where Customs Officers would work. There were two sorts of Customs Officers. There were those who handled the goods that were legitimately passed through each of the ports: the ships would come in, unload their goods, they would be held in warehouses so they were assessed. The relevant amount of duty would be paid and then they would be distributed on from there.
But equally, you had the preventative arm of the Customs. You had on the shore the Riding Officers making sure that many of these smaller coves or inlets were patrolled to stop people unloading goods unlawfully. And alongside the Riding Officers, you would have Custom ships sailing up and down the coast, challenging vessels that were heavily armed or were looking to veer away from the ports and land their goods surreptitiously, often at the dead of night.
So there was a real effort to try and cut out tax evasion and people from the local community would often sign up to the Board of Customs and work the coasts because they were familiar with all of these coves and inlets. That, really, is where our story of the Armstrongs begins.
Tracking down an individual is actually quite easy for the 18th century. It’s one of those areas where the organisation of central government made it much more likely to find the individuals who were being employed in the service. I’ve just given you a few of the sample books here [shows image]. These are the correspondence files: the outport records. The correspondence files both from the local Collectors back to the Board in London who had the national administration and would co-ordinate all of the local activity, and then the responses back. So you get a two-way dialogue from the centre, to the regions and back again.
It would cover a vast amount of material. We’d find information such as personnel records. We’d also find information about the boats and ships that were being used. Immediately we find names and rank. We can find an awful lot about the 18th century seamen and mariners from local communities who were being hired by the Customs Officers to go out and defend the shores. It’s also a source for people interested in some of the shipping of the time as well, it’s not just about people, it’s about the mechanics of mobilising various boats and ships. The dimension of the ships and how well they were repaired.
So the correspondence files, these outport records have a huge amount of detail of the expenditure that was put out, not just in building the ships and equipping them, but actually in making sure the whole operation worked. Expenses claimed for ballast, expenses claimed for the seizures on board. And of course this could be quite a profitable business for the Officers who were involved. This is again from Thomas Armstrong’s account of the ship he was in charge of, the Bridlington, that we’ve seen referenced already. In these years he was clearly accruing quite a lot of money.
These are seizures, these are the amounts of goods that he seized from ships who were trying to unload their cargos unlawfully and then return them to the Customs Office. They take a share in this, so you can see that it was in his best interests to be as effective and efficient as possible. The amounts starting out quite low: £94 – 41, rising to a quite astonishing £1210 in 1767; he was clearly very proficient at his job.
These records also tell us a little bit more about the type and quantity of goods that were coming into Britain during the 18th century. Here we have an account from 1772-1774 for raisins and sultanas and currants that were being unloaded into and out of Newcastle. You have a whole range of different materials coming in: cloths and damask coming in from India for example, a vast amount of tea coming in. You can work out pretty much how many people were drinking tea in the North East at this time because there were simply tons of the stuff coming in, literally. And of course various sorts of liquor: anchors of brandy, whisky. So a lot of material coming in and out of the ports that just give you an insight into the sort of lives people would have led and the sort of possessions and goods they were looking at.
Of course the area that I was particularly interested in when I first came across Thomas Armstrong was the anti-smuggling operations and how these individuals, often drawn from the local community, would then interact with their friends and neighbours and what tensions this might actually produce. So the records are more than just a series of correspondence bouncing backwards and forwards from London to the outports. It gets you to the heart of what life was like for these folk in the 18th century, many of whom had grown up with the sea, with the threat of smuggling, many of whom perhaps had even started out helping the smugglers and then had turned coat and joined the Customs.
That’s the landscape that we’re going to investigate with Thomas Armstrong. Small, isolated coastal communities. Quite often very poor, reliant upon goods or the smuggling associated with the goods, or, alternatively, signing up and helping the Crown fight off the activities of their friends and neighbours.
Alongside these outport records there are supplementary documentation. The Treasury’s a great source. We also find some personnel files of establishment lists where you find pay. But for me, the correspondence is the best part of all.
I’m going to talk a little bit about Thomas Armstrong because he’s both the hero and the villain of the piece. And to understand the house and the community in which he lived we have to understand a little bit more about the man.
Bit of genealogy: baptised in Earsdon, again, very close to North Shields on the North East coast, 1735, to Nicholas Armstrong and his wife Mary Shevill. They’d married the previous year and Nicholas was a very upstanding member of the community. He’d signed up to the Customs at a young age. He was a Riding Officer, in charge of the inland side of operations. Riding on horseback, of course, up and down the coast, co-ordinating his limited number of resources and men, making sure that there was communication between the major ports of Newcastle and Sunderland and all the creeks and ports in-between. So in many ways he was the eyes and ears of the Customs operation on land. And as a result he was able to use a lot of his power and influence to secure good jobs for his sons, of which he had many and numerous over the next ten to 15 years.
Nicholas, as we’ll find out, started out on board the ships but many of his other sons took important positions within the administration. Thomas’ brother Richard, for example, ended up in the writing office of the controller of the local Customs. A very important job helping to create many of the records that we’ll see. Thomas’ younger brother Robert also went on to the boats and had a very colourful career.
Thomas, let’s say, was a very fiery character from an early age. He got his first break when he was appointed the first mate of the snoop the Bridlington. This happened when he was only 23 years old. So he’s got a really important position, he’s very young, he’s very green, but he’s also very eager and keen to show his worth. Possibly to show his father that he was a very important figure; but I think more likely because he had an eye on the main chance at a very young age. Within a year he was already fighting with his crew and he was trying to use his position to climb up the career ladder.
He was embroiled in a fight just one year after he’d been appointed with a chap called William Allison, a mariner, over a cooking pot which Allison wanted to bring on board but Thomas Armstrong wasn’t so happy about and so he struck him. This caused a fight and Armstrong then knocked the poor chap out. It’s a bit unfortunate because he went on to be his brother-in-law so quite how that family dispute was settled, I really don’t know. But equally, when William Allison is complaining about Thomas’s actions – him knocking him out over a cooking pot – he mentions that Thomas was embezzling some of the seizures that the ship was bringing on board.
So they’d go up alongside the smuggling vessel, challenge them, say ‘Why haven’t you put these goods to the local port?’, take them on board and then return them to the Customs House so that they could be weighed and valued accordingly and sold on. It was typical, as I’ve explained earlier, for some of that to then be retained by the crew as a reward or a bonus for their good service. ut it seems that Thomas was already being accused, within one year of taking on the job, of keeping some of this to himself and not actually declaring it to his paymasters. This seems to have caused great tension between himself and his captain: a Captain Coverdale. Coverdale himself complains about Thomas’s activities, that he wasn’t handing over the right amount of seizure.
Matters came to a head and Nicholas Armstrong was asked to intervene. He was given a letter saying ‘Ride Off, bring Captain Coverdale on shore, thrash it out amongst you, reach resolution’. Nicholas tried to do this; Coverdale had nothing to do with him. Basically because he was being as corrupt as his son. The upshot: Nicholas and Thomas engineered Captain Coverdale’s dismissal and Thomas took over the command of the Bridlington.
So this really is a foretaste of what’s to come. Thomas is ruthless, zealous, eager, but already tainted with suspicion: is he really on the side of the Customs or is he doing deals with some of the smugglers?
Now you could perhaps understand why many of the Customs Officers either were quite afraid to put to sea, and that was one of the charges against Coverdale that he wasn’t actually going to sea as much as he should, or perhaps found it easier to do deals with the smugglers who were quite often heavily armed and not afraid to use the weapons they had at their disposal.
The job was dangerous; not only could you have accidental deaths such as poor William Allison who after his fight with Thomas moved away from the ships and ended up linked to one of the ports. He was the tidesman and boatman; their job was to go out in smaller vessels to meet the ships as they came in. In rough and stormy seas his boat overturned along with six other men and he drowned. Which again I think is a really important point to make: just like many of the naval mariners in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, many of these people simply could not swim. So going on board these vessels was incredibly dangerous. If you go overboard you would probably drown and that is what happened to poor old William Allison.
Of course there were other dangers as well. This extract here, which occurred on board Thomas’s vessel: as he was trying to board a smuggling vessel the crew fell upon them with axes and other offensive weapons. So basically tried to cut up the crew of Thomas’s ship. Some very detailed description there. So it’s perhaps understandable why Thomas and many of his other colleagues gave as good as they got. There was virtually a naval battle going on in the North Sea throughout this period.
We have one of the ships that Thomas approached complaining about him, a ship called the Prosperous, who said that Thomas had fired so briskly in the chase that many shots were lodged in her hull and mast and her sails shot through. One of the crew was killed in the engage. And Thomas was criticised by Customs House saying that he was highly blameable for firing first and Armstrong extremely culpable for not seizing the vessel when he had possession.
So there’s danger on the water, there’s danger on land. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t show sufficient force, you’re out to get cut to pieces, but then if you fire first and kill some of the potential smugglers, you get castigated that way as well. This is why so many of the Officers led this sort of shady double life. Are you for us or are you against us?
By 1771 it was clear that Thomas had perhaps overstepped the mark. Once again, he’s called to account for his honesty and probity. He’s accused of embezzling five bags of tea – not tea bags! – but obviously huge sacks containing the raw tea leaves. 48 half anchors of Geneva, which he said was taken from smuggling cutter line off the coast on 11 August 1771, and he failed to declare this. Now of course this was a cardinal sin; if you can’t trust your Customs Officers to do their job properly and to take all the goods they’ve seized back to port so it can be valued and sold on, then to be honest, as this particular report says, they can’t trust them and they should be dismissed.
Now Captain Armstrong is hauled in to his local outport. The collector, the man in charge of the operation, gives him a dressing down and writes back to London saying ‘This is what’s happened, what do you recommend?’. Normally, as the answer suggests, he would have been dismissed. It is a crime of the highest nature and well deserving [dismissal]. But Thomas gets off relatively lightly. He’s suspended from duty for three months with loss of pay and he’s also fined a further three months’ salary. So this is a pretty hefty punishment. To add insult to injury, which was the intention, this was publicly handed down to him in front of all of the other Customs Officials in the port. So public humiliation, financial loss, and of course a final warning for Thomas.
It’s round about this time that other aspects of his life firstly start to come under greater scrutiny at work, but also fall apart at home. In digging around a little bit more deeply here in the records at The National Archives, I stumbled across a quite extraordinary family feud that seems to have broken out.
Now if you remember, I mentioned earlier that Thomas had married into the Allison family. He’d actually married Jane Allison, sister of William Allison in 1760. In 1770 her father dies: Charles Allison, he was also on board the ships, again reaffirming this connection between the sea and many of the families that worked both on land and on the Customs ships.
So Charles dies and Thomas is named as the main executor of his will. Now this is treated with great suspicion. Obviously he didn’t get on well with the family. He’d had his big argument with William who’d conveniently died and it sounds as though he’d had very little to do with his father-in-law or indeed his mother-in-law either. So much so that doubts were raised about the legitimacy of the will that Charles was meant to have written up. It appeared to have been in a very different hand, one suspiciously close to Thomas’s. When you actually look at the terms of the will, perhaps people were right to be suspicious because every single scrap of wealth, goods, possessions or house was left to Thomas’s wife. And Jane, her mother, was cut out of the will completely.
She went to court contesting this saying ‘Something is going on here’. As soon as she’d gone down to London to the Court of Chancery to put in a bid of complaint against Thomas’s actions questioning the validity of the will, raising doubts about whether or not he’d forged it, he snuck into her house and took away all of the possessions and goods and legal documentation, claiming that he needed them to carry out the terms of the will. He basically took away the evidence she needed to prove her case.
As soon as she’d done that, staying in London putting in this bid of complaint, he went up to the local assizes and had her thrown into prison on her return for contempt of court, for daring to challenge the will.
So Thomas now begins to come across as a rather nasty, manipulative individual. The gloss is beginning to wear off. This huge family feud rumbles on. We get repeated bills of complaints drafted from Morpeth jail, where this poor woman is languishing, via the legal representation that she’s still able to get. Complaining that all the evidence is gone, she now can’t prove her innocence, it’s been taken by Thomas. And that’s where she ends her days, she never gets out.
So he’s lost his father-in-law at sea under mysterious circumstances, his brother-in-law was drowned and now his mother-in-law is banged up in the local prison to stop her being a nuisance. One can only wonder what his wife thought of his actions at this time.
Alongside the family feud, we begin to see a lot more about the way tensions between Customs Officers and the people that they were meant to be serving in the local communities came to a head. Now we turn our attention to Thomas’s brother Robert, who by this stage had also got a commission on one of the ships. Robert Armstrong was the second mate of the Eagle cutter and the Eagle, and Thomas’s new ship the Mermaid, tended to patrol together. Very convenient: all four main officers were friends; their connections go way back. They often stood surety for each other, which meant they basically put up money to confirm that they were going to abide by the law. So obviously if they didn’t, that surety would be paid over to the Customs.
So they were a very close knit group operating the two main Customs cutters. Robert is part of this; he’s very implicit in the net that Thomas is starting to cast. There’s a spectacular falling out because one of the mariners on Robert’s ship, Thomas Crowther. The feud explodes into life in 1773. Robert tries to seize a Customs ship in the neighbouring port of Sunderland. The officials there suspect that he’s actually in league with the smugglers, chaps called Lucas and Wallard, and refuse to let him on board. A fight breaks out and during the course of the fight he strikes someone called Thomas Crowther.
The feud escalates and by 1774 Crowther tries to break into Robert Armstrong’s house on shore to seize some of the goods that he’s claiming Robert had taken from the ships illegally, to prove that he was actually embezzling like his brother Thomas has been doing. Robert shoots him in the groin, claiming that he’s defending his wife. He shot him through a closed door so quite how that works I do not know. Of course this case is then once more brought before both the Customs Officers and the law enforcement agents. Both men are incarcerated whilst the merits of their case are judged. Again, this is a really interesting instance where the Customs procedures work in parallel with the normal due course and process of the law.
Thomas Crowther is once again put in prison by Thomas Armstrong. And once again you see this modus operandi where Thomas comes along and seizes all the material that Thomas Crowther needs to prove his innocence. All the ship’s papers that he’d been gathering, all the notes he’d been taking about the seizures reported and the seizures actually made. So Thomas Armstrong is trying to strangle him, using the process of law, to stop him falling into the hands of the Customs Officials, ie to blow the cover on what he’s meant to be doing. But it rather backfires because Thomas Crowther is let out and makes his complaint and the whole dispute escalates.
Robert languishes in Morpeth Gaol for common assault for shooting Thomas Crowther and he stays there for the best part of 12 months. He also loses his job. But the complaints against Thomas Armstrong keep on coming. More people are suddenly disputing his version of events. His crew start to desert until you’ve got a loyal core working on both the Eagle and the Mermaid. It’s almost as though he knows his time is up. He starts to attack shipping with greater ferosity and greater regularity over the course of the next 12 to 18 months.
The letter books are full of complaints from ships’ captains saying ‘What on earth is going on here?’. Thomas Armstrong is out of control. He spends more and more time at sea so he can’t actually be brought before the Collector and his officials to be upbraided for his actions. So he’s literally staying at sea to avoid the ultimate reckoning. But of course he can’t stop. He’s got a taste – not quite literally, for the geneva and other liquor – but he’s got a taste for the money that all this ill-gotten gain can bring in.
Eventually, purely by chance, his downfall is secured in 1776 when he seizes a ship and his brother’s ship comes alongside and the order was given to lock all of the smugglers in the brig, apart from the two principle smugglers: Lucas and Wallard who we saw earlier, named when Robert Armstrong had a fight with all the people in Sunderland. Lucas and Wallard, the report goes on to claim, were on such good terms with the crews of the Eagle and the Mermaid, that they frequently breakfast and dined with them on board decks before being escorted in a rowing boat and were allowed to make their escape.
This would have gone unreported if it hadn’t been for a Customs Officer staying on board and witnessing some of these events. As soon as it was realised that he was actually working for one of the ports, they tried to throw him overboard and drown him and get rid of his visual evidence. He made his escape and reported this to Thomas’s collector at Newcastle. As a result, Thomas was finally brought to justice, with:
‘There is the strongest reason to believe that the escape of Lucas and Wallard was concerted between them, the officers of the cutters, and that they are therefore unworthy of any future trust or confidence and we have therefore dismissed them’
So finally Thomas is revealed for what he was first accused of the best part of 18 years previously. He’d crossed the line. Many similar captains had perhaps dabbled in taking a few goods for themselves. Thomas made a career of it. So on the one hand he’s getting paid by the Customs Service to go out and seize the smugglers but it becomes clear, as more evidence starts to be brought in for this prosecution in 1776, that he would quite often board a ship, take something for himself and then let it go again. Or, actively help the smugglers land in quiet bays, knowing full well that his father Nicholas Armstrong would be somewhere else.
He uses local intelligence and his networks, both on land and at sea, to effectively co-ordinate the smuggling operation on this particular stretch of coast at the best part of a ten to 12 year period. Quite often fighting off, not so much smuggling ships as it turns out, but the legitimate trade of this area. When he did feel the need to take a seizure, he’d obviously get a cut of that as well, so he had it both ways. This begins to explain some of the strange architectural features of his house.
In the aftermath of his scandal, you’d think that’s the last you’d ever hear of Thomas Armstrong, but his name keeps cropping up again and again and again in the records. Even though he’d been dismissed in March, it took him until July to actually land on the coast and hand back his ship the Mermaid. And during that time, he had the temerity to claim expenses for whilst he’d been at sea, for both provisioning his men and also he wanted some of the seizures that he claimed to have taken as well. So effectively docks the boat, hands it back, and steals five tons of iron ballast out of the bottom of it which we later learn that he then transfers to a ship that he himself is starting to build. So there we have a quantity of iron ballast wanted. So he’s not only handed the boat back, he’s taken half of the stuff away from it as well.
Having found this revelation about his other career, the house makes more sense because in those two cellars are a series of iron cages. This is what we discovered when we looked at a trap door underneath his study when filming House Detectives. This trap door had never really been seen before. For some reason it had always been covered up by boarding and a rug on top of it. As we were nosing around we opened it up and discovered the secret cellar. We’re pretty certain that this is where he used to run quite a lot of his ill-gotten gains from the shore into his house and then through his distribution network on the shore.
So the myth about all smugglers’ tunnels; this actually was really a smuggler’s tunnel. We were quite delighted. Unfortunately, for health and safety reasons the local authorities had blocked it up at some point in the 1980s so we couldn’t actually find where it went out. It was one of those wonderful television moments where we made the discovery live whilst poking around and then to go back and stage filming it as though it’s a real discovery which is always very frustrating. And we shouldn’t stray onto that territory with Who Do You Think You Are? running at the moment [2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037lfcx].
It explains why he spent so much time and money building this house because he saw it as a key part of his smuggling operation. So of course as soon as his official career is finished he simply takes up where he left off. He’s built a boat. He’s even nicked the ballast to weight it down, from his previous ship. And he carries on as a goldsmith although we suspect that a lot of his activity was still continuing the rapacious attitude towards Customs, Excise and the securing of goods.
The story doesn’t really end there. Thomas dies in 1785 at aged 51 and leaves his possessions to various family members. Quite remarkably, his son Nicholas is then brought into the Customs service. Having had this rather dubious father figure, Thomas Armstrong, the next generation take up the baton. And so Nicholas Armstrong junior, Thomas’s son, Nicholas Senior’s grandson, ends up commanding Thomas’ old ship the Mermaid. He starts out on a very similar career. He goes round capturing as many ships as possible until one day he dies on board in 1788 in very mysterious circumstances. In fact so concerned are the crew that he’s left on board for the best part of three days before his body is eventually removed.
The family continue to live in the area and retained the house until the 1820s when it was sold on and then became a boarding house. The story of the Armstrongs would remain completely undetected if it wasn’t for that chance discovery of the newspaper article and trawling through the outport records.
Hopefully that’s given a bit of a flavour of how useful these sources actually are. The records here are in a series of CUST files [http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/browse/r/h/C67]. They’re arranged by the outport that they relate to and a lot of them start from the 1660s onwards. So if you are trying to find a history of a coastal community, these correspondence records are absolutely pivotal. As I said at the beginning, you will find out not just about the flow of goods or the value of seizures, but about the lives of many of these people who perhaps you wouldn’t even know existed but are recorded in very rich, vivid detail.
Thomas Armstrong, I guess, is a very larger than life, colourful figure. Now I’ve glossed over various other elements seriously that you could go through over several days and pick out every single time he fired on a ship or his crew were involved with a scrape with some of the smugglers. But you do get a sense of trajectory and you also get a sense that there is no black or white, right or wrong, when you look at some of these people.
It’s very easy to judge, to say ‘These guys were the smugglers; these guys were there to uphold the law’. It’s a blurred picture and even the Customs Officers themselves who were in charge of discipline – the Collectors and his officials at the port – weren’t above the odd backhander now and again. We suspect that Thomas managed to get off his first brush with the law in 1771 because a mysterious gift of a few casks of geneva made their way to the Collector’s house one evening.
So it allows us to completely reappraise the way we approach coastal communities and how they work and operate. The traditional view that locals were in league with the smugglers? Well yes, there was an element of that as well but those same local people were also being brought in to work on the Customs. They were manning the ships. They faced danger pretty much every single day: whether from drowning by going overboard in very rough and dangerous seas, or from being fired upon, were involved in pitched battles on shore or on the ships. They were under enormous pressure. We can tell that from the way both the captains and mates of the crews drove them forward into very dangerous situations. Under pressure from their own officials, as well, to constantly seize goods.
One thing that’s very marked from just reading through a sequential series of these letter books is just how sophisticated some of the smugglers became, both in terms of the arms and armaments and also the evasion techniques. One the things that Thomas constantly complains about – and this is why I think it’s perhaps a bit unfair to portray him and others as villains for the whole of the time – I genuinely believe that many of them did want to protect themselves and as much of the revenue as they could. And you sense an exasperation in the tone of his correspondence that he isn’t being given more support. He’s always saying ‘I want a bigger ship, I want a better ship’ and yet the Collectors would refuse him this. And so you feel that he turned perhaps a little bit too far to work with the smugglers, partly to increase his revenue but perhaps also to help save his skin. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would turn away from conflict but on a number of occasions he says ‘I just had to break off the chase because we were heavily outnumbered and outgunned’.
So when you think of the 18th century and you think of exotic films such as Whisky Galore and locals rolling barrels from shipwrecks, or perhaps even drawing ships onto the rocks at night, these are the extremes. The truth, as we find from these letter books, is somewhere in the middle; there are lots of grey areas. The fascination really is bringing people back to life.
And if you have got any interest in both the 18th century or coastal communities in general, be they for a genealogical purpose for the Customs Officers and many of the men who would be completely unrecorded in any other source, or perhaps the nature or texture of life in these wild and remote coastal communities, it’s definitely worth just browsing through these outport letters and books. In many ways they bridge the gap between the onset of civil registration in the census returns where we understand more about the complete picture of these communities and a lost way of life.
Cullercoats today is transformed. It’s busy, it’s been swallowed up by Newcastle, but as we saw in those very early pictures we’re going back to a very different nature and tenure of life. And it’s often through correspondence sources rather than pure genealogical sources that we can actually bring these lives back into public attention.
Transcribed by Catherine Pritchard as part of a volunteer project, March 2015