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Tue 7 Apr 2020
Illegal Activity on the Holderness Coast in the 19th Century
Pam & Peter Tomkinson // Research Volunteers
A real-life true story of 'finders keepers', as Hull & Yorkshire folk smuggle & salvage from shipwrecks.

Illegal Activity on the Holderness Coast in the Nineteenth Century 

The owner of Burton Constable Hall has held the title of Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness since 1559 . This title bestows on the Constable’s the authority to claim whales washed up on the shore but also, more crucially, to take charge of shipwrecked goods until the authorities decided what should happen to them. Pam and Peter Tomkinson have been investigating more about shipwrecks and smuggling on the Yorkshire Coast – and discovered one episode where the Constable’s were under some suspicion of themselves harbouring such illegal happenings!

British Smuggling

Smuggling and salvaging goods from wrecked ships have taken place all around the British coastline at one time or another, although it is perhaps more usually associated with the south-west of England.  Yorkshire men and women have always believed in taking advantage of opportunities that came their way, however. With 120 miles of very varied coastline in Yorkshire from rugged cliffs to deserted beaches, it is no surprise that smuggling and wrecking have been recorded in this region!

Smuggling records can be very difficult to find due to the secrecy that naturally surrounded such activities.  The Revenue men were often single officers responsible for a long stretch of isolated coastline, while hostile locals were often unwilling to help.  Occasionally military personnel might be sent to support the Revenue officer. Even with this help it was not uncommon for ‘informers’ to give the Revenue officer false information, leading him to wait patiently at one beach as goods were smuggled ashore elsewhere.  By the late 1820s Revenue men were assisted by Coastguard Services, who were often very tough, well-disciplined ex-naval officers.

The Marine Hotel, Hornsea - 1845.

Preferred Contraband

Although the typical smuggled cargo that springs most easily to mind is alcohol, tea and tobacco smuggling was equally as common.  John Wesley is said to have refused to drink tea and denounced smugglers as ‘thieves who picked the pockets both of the King and all his fellow subjects’.

One report from 1832 describes the Excise men chasing men pushing handcarts containing smuggled tobacco down Holderness Road in Hull. In 1843 the Collector of Excise admitted that he had ‘no doubt that there were landings of large quantities of tobacco’.

The Holderness coast appears to be among the last bastions of the traditional style of smuggling. The broad, straight, sweep of the coastline from Bridlington down to Spurn Point, despite having no rocky inlets with suitable smugglers’ coves, would appear to have been commonly in use for the landing of contraband up to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Hornsea’s smuggling ring is particularly notable – it’s believed that in 1836 fifty to sixty tubs of geneva (a gin-like spirit from Holland) were thought to have been landed at Hornsea. The Coastguard did however manage to recover 20 tubs from a store found on the beach.  The last known smuggling run at Hornsea was in July 1846, when a fishing coble from Hull was seized with its cargo of sixty bales of tobacco.

In November 1807 a sloop called the James was wrecked and driven ashore near Waxholme with all hands drowned.  Its cargo was extremely varied with goods ranging from ale and wine to domestic furniture, books and gunpowder Although the cargo was secured by Mr Baron, the bailiff, there were rumours that the mob had staved in a ‘pipe of rum’ and drunk its contents.


A list of the Lords of the Seigniory of Holderness

Seigniors of Holderness

The owner of Burton Constable Hall holds the title of Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness. The title has been held by the Constable family since 1559 and covers the geographical area of part of the East Riding - everything east of the River Hull to the coast, from the Humber to Bridlington. The Seignior is, in fact, the representative of the Crown in Holderness. Control of the coast is administered by the appointment of bailiffs and in the early 1800s eight bailiffs covered this area.  The Seignior has the authority, through his bailiffs, to take charge of anything that washes up on the coast of Holderness from wrecked ships and to arrange for it to be held safely while decisions are made as to how it should be dealt with.

The job of the Seignior must at times have been a tricky one – especially as finding and carrying away wreckage from the beach seems to have been one of the highlights of the villagers’ existence along the coast! Such bounty would have been a rare excitement and an opportunity to pad out often-strained purses. Even usable parts of the wrecked ship itself would sometimes be taken, perhaps for use in buildings.  These villagers were either unaware of or chose to ignore the fact that such items must be reported to the local bailiff, and this resulted in many disputes. 

Ship owners went to great lengths to reclaim their property.  The Constable family papers contain copious amounts of correspondence regarding the various disputes over goods washed up on the shore, with some cases dragging on for years before the ownership of the goods was finally settled.




Smuggling at Burton Constable?

At the beginning of April 1829 there was a case of illegal activity which involved several local men and premises belonging to the Burton Constable estate.  A wrecked ship had been found on the beach at Sand le Mere and carts traced to Burton Constable, in particular to the water engine house which was about ¼ mile from the Hall. This contained a horse-drawn wheel which drew up water from a well to be pumped to the Hall. 

The hidden goods consisted of 318 gallons of brandy, 184 gallons of geneva spirits, and 4084 pounds weight of tobacco.  Although many local men appear to have been involved in transporting the goods in carts from the coast, only three were caught in the act of trying to retrieve them from the water engine house, and were convicted at court in Brandesburton.  They were Robert Graham, Edward Hall and John Thompson and they were each fined £100.  As with all cases of this type, it was the local carters who were prosecuted, and not the principals in the transactions. 

The Constable family’s lawyer William Iveson wrote a letter to Mr Howard, the Collector of Excise at Bridlington, to explain the situation on the Holderness Coast.


‘…the high duties and consequent high prices which the fair traders must necessarily charge for these articles [means that] if a thief comes away with any articles of private property, the sympathies of the people are with the loser of the goods and (with few exceptions) will assist in catching the thief; but the case is the reverse towards the smuggler.’



Sir Thomas Aston

Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable the owner of the Hall and the Seignior of Holderness, but he was living at his house at Tixall in Staffordshire.  Mr Howard did however urge him to firmly state to the Brandesburton court that he was not implicated in any way, perhaps indicating that there was some concern that the use of his own grounds for storing the goods might imply that he himself was a willing participant in such nefarious happenings! Whether he was so wholly unaware as he claimed, history can never show.





Principal references:

DDCC/136/32  Correspondence of William Iveson relating to wrecks, 1767 - 1811

DDCC/136/38  Wreck of the sloop ‘James’ at Waxholme, 1807

DDCC/136/73 Letters and deposition relating to seizure of smuggled goods at Burton Constable, 1829

Smuggling on the Yorkshire Coast, Jack Dykes, Dalesman Books, 1978

Smuggling in Yorkshire 1700-1850,  Graham Smith, Countryside Books, 1994