Weymouth-Dorset.co.uk Local History


Legends of the smuggling days of old have often held a romantic flavour, yet there is nothing vaguely romantic about the savagery and violence that often accompanied it. Men being so desperate to retain their contraband would go to great lengths to protect it.

Many seemingly "upright" persons, such as vicars, Lords of the Manor and others, were accomplices to the smugglers for they, like most, believed smuggling to be a "free-trade". Contraband was stored in churches, even in tombs or anywhere that would be least suspected. The majority of the coastal and rural people turned a blind eye to what went on. Even some of the customs officers who were responsible for collecting the taxes payable on imported goods were corrupt. In Rudyard Kipling's words of the famous smuggling song:

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horses feet,

Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,

Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie,

Watch the wall my darling, while the Gentleman go by.

Five and twenty ponies,

Trotting through the dark,

Brandy for the Parson,

'Baccy for the clerk;

Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,

And watch the wall my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.


Such were the hazards faced by the Revenue officers in carrying out their duty, that during the late 18th century smugglers hardly bothered to hide what they were doing. By their sheer numbers and aggressiveness few officers would dare approach to apprehend them. Doing so might lead to severe injury or even death of an officer.

Coastguards were from 1822 employed by the Crown to patrol the coastline watching out for any attempts of evasion of duty payable. Lace, silk, velvet, spirits and all manner of other luxury goods were smuggled into England from Europe and the Channel Islands.

Being a Coastguard or of any associated occupation such as a Riding Officer, was a dangerous occupation. Many a time, men protecting the country's revenue were faced with armed gangs of smugglers, intent on keeping their contraband at all costs. For the smugglers, capture by those employed to apprehend them could result in seizure of the contraband, seizure of their sailing vessel and being hauled before the local magistrates with the possibility of imprisonment.

The smugglers themselves also suffered injury or fatality. The Preventy men were armed with pistols and to their credit, they mostly only used them in firing warning shots or in self-defence. The Revenue's vessels were equipped with guns, but sometimes there were not enough officers to cover them. Smuggling reached a peak in the 1820's and sometimes the smugglers became the victims of their own successes.

In 1822 a seaman, and smuggler, by the name of William Lewis of Weymouth was on board his ship the Active when it was approached and given chase by the Revenue men. Ordered to lower her sails, the crew of the Active did so, but a shot was fired from the Pigmy and struck Lewis, killing him. At the inquest into the death of Lewis, the jury concluded that he had been murdered and that the shot had been "wantonly and maliciously fired".

Sacred to the memory of

William Lewis

Who was killed by a shot

from the "Pigmy" schooner

21st March 1822 aged 33 years


Of life bereft, by fell design, I mingle with my fellow clay. On God's Protection I recline, To save me on the Judgement Day. There shall each blood-stained soul appear. Repent, all, ere it be too late, Or else a dreadful doom you'll hear, For God will soon avenge my fate.

Gravestone in Wyke Regis Churchyard of William Lewis, smuggler.  Shot by coastguards in 1822

Gravestone of William Lewis at Wyke Regis.

Picture taken 1982 when the stone was still easily readable. It has since deteriorated being so close to the roadside with the constant traffic.


Eventually, local customs boards got more than a bit fed up with trying to catch smuggling gangs. The violence became so bad that at least two Customs Officers were thrown over the cliffs to their deaths.

One local gang, in operation along the coast from Weymouth to Lulworth Cove and the Isle of Purbeck, became particularly notorious. The customs boards at Poole, which covered the Isle of Purbeck, and Weymouth, were exasperated by them and desperate to catch them. These men ruled the coastline and could be ruthless in pursuit of their business.

Emmanuel Charles, landlord of the then Crown Inn at Osmington Mills was the ringleader. His brothers, sons, cousins and other relatives were all involved. It is noticeable in the family history of Emmanuel Charles how often the family intermarried with the Champ and Seaward families, all of them involved in the same illicit trade.

Emmanuel Charles was born on 17th January 1781 to Henry and Mary and baptised at Osmington church on 20th February that year. He led an eventful life right to the last. He was quite a character it appears. Fearsome to the preventy men and anyone who got in his way, yet having a charming sense of humour and a nerve so bold as to infuriate the authorities.

Emmanuel Charles met Elizabeth Hardy of Puncknowle around the year 1800, but at first Elizabeth would not have anything to do with him. It is said that she tried to "broomstick" him with a broom! Some time later, she must have changed her mind about him as they married in 1804 at Osmington. Family lore says that the two of them had a wheelbarrow prior to their marriage and hauled stones to Osmington Mills to build on what is now the Smugglers Inn. The following year, in 1805, Emmanuel was pressganged to serve in the Napoleonic wars.

Out of 13 children of the marriage, a son Richard was born in 1809. Richard grew up to follow in his father's footsteps and was employed on the smack Integrity under the direction of his father. Still just a young man he would do the smuggling runs often, but one winter night in 1828 his luck ran out. The local Customs Officers captured him on his return journey from France. He subsequently appeared before the magistrates at Poole and was sentenced to serve in His Majesty's Navy at Portsmouth.

His father, Emmanuel, immediately set about an attempt to secure his release from such service and petitioned to His Majesty's Treasury. Emmanuel Charles claimed that his son was not of a healthy constitution and that he had been to France and therefore aboard the Integrity for the benefit of his health! He claimed that Richard was of "consumptive habit of body and decaying constitution". Emmanuel produced affidavits from George Ellis the elder and George Ellis the junior, both surgeons of Weymouth of their attendance to Richard in consequence of an internal injury. A further affidavit of William Voss, a blacksmith of Osmington was produced, stating that Richard's apprenticeship indentures had been cancelled "in consequence of his inability to make use of any bodily exertion". Another affidavit was produced from George Willoughby of Weymouth to prove the respectability of Voss and Ellis senior and junior. Emmanuel also offered to pay a sum of 100 to the Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury if they would discharge his son.

The Treasury referred the petition to the Customs Board at Poole. Two days later they referred it to the Collector and Comptroller of Poole stating that the vessel on which Richard Charles was found was not a fishing vessel as claimed, but had been exclusively employed for years in smuggling to the serious injury of the Revenue. They went on to say that they believed that "no other vessel similarly employed has been so successful" and that Richard Charles had been employed on the Integrity for at least 3 years previously.

They also stated that they were "quite assured that there never was an individual sent to the Navy under similar circumstances so fit and able as he is". Medical examinations had taken place both at Poole and Portsmouth.

In closing, Customs said with much glee "We cannot forbear expressing our gratification at the capture of the son of the petitioner who under his father we have little hesitation in stating lent his aid in the serious opposition which the Coastguards have recently experienced in this neighbourhood and the father himself we are led to believe, is the organiser of the armed desperate gangs which infest this coast in aid of the smuggler."

The captor, F Spark serving on H.M. Revenue Cutter the Fancy, duly applied for his reward.

After serving his time in the Navy, Richard Charles returned to the family business seemingly undeterred by his previous sentence. Only this time, the price he paid for his misdemeanours was to be far more severe than any naval service. Poole Coastguards finally got their man once and for all, as is recorded in Cherbourg, France:

In loving memory of

Richard Charles

Who departed this life April 9th 1835 aged 26 years

Who was inhumanely shot between the hours of 8 and 9 o'clock

in the evening by a coastguard off the Isle of Purbeck.


Have not seen beneath the darkened sky

Quicker than thought the vivid lightning fly

Equally swift, the insidious blow

That pierced my heart, And fail my heart thus low

Merciful God thou glorious King of Heaven

Forgive the dead, and may I be forgiven.


Emmanuel Charles' brother John born 1772 was part of the gang and in 1791 was spending time detained in Dorchester Gaol for assaulting and obstructing Customs Officers. He was described as being 5 feet 8 inches in height with black hair, fair complexion, hazel eyes, had a wart and was lusty. He married Hester Seaward in 1797. John's life as a smuggler was rather short-lived as he drowned in a shipping accident in 1809 along with his first cousin once-removed, John Charles junior, the grandson of Thomas Charles, brother of Henry who was Emmanuel and John's father. The subsequent administrator of the estates of both men was Emmanuel Charles.

Emmanuel's cousin, Roger Seaward, the son of Roger and Elizabeth (nee Charles) produced several more smugglers within his family. His daughter Susannah born in 1774 married James Champ who was convicted for smuggling in 1823 and again two years later. He in turn led his son, James Champ junior into smuggling and he too was convicted in 1821. This James Champ born at East Lulworth, married the following year to Ann Walters who subsequently became the landlady of the Crown at Osmington Mills, the very same inn that had been Emmanuel Charles' operational base. Needless to say, the smuggling business still continued from there.

Another daughter of Roger Seaward was Hester who married John Charles, the smuggler who drowned in a shipping accident in 1809. Roger Seaward's son, Robert was another smuggler who on being convicted in 1825 was impressed into the Navy. He entered the service at Maidstone, Kent in 1826 and by 1828 was serving on the Esk on the coast of Sierra Leone.

Within the extended family of Emmanuel Charles there were at least 27 convicted smugglers, all of whom were fined for smuggling or served time either in Dorchester Gaol or in the naval service. Most accumulated some wealth through their illicit trade and later appear on the electoral rolls having been afforded a vote due to their land holdings.

Emmanuel Charles, the ringleader and organiser of the most notorious gang to infest the shores from Weymouth to Poole, built Radipole House on the bank of the backwater (Radipole Lake) at Radipole, Weymouth. By the time of the 1851 census however, despite having made a lot of money through his smuggling business, he was living with his son Israel in an impoverished state and died later that year.

Emmanuel's brother Thomas, also a smuggler, was also living in Radipole by 1851. Thomas's son John, twice convicted of smuggling, became an innkeeper 1834-1838 and was recorded in the 1881 census as a postmaster at Lodmoor Hill on the Dorchester Road. John's son, Thomas Richard Charles became an auctioneer and estate agent whose premises were located near the King's Statue, in the rounded building at the end of St Mary Street, Weymouth.


Sources: H.M. Customs records held by the Crown at the Public Record Office at Kew; Registers of Dorchester Gaol held at the Dorset County Record Office; family papers and history.


Smugglers' Britain - Purbeck to Weymouth (external link) A great website for information about smugglers all over Britain

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