Smuggling and Piracy on the Isle of Wight

blackgang chine used by smugglers

By Fidelis Morgan


. . . On 8 March, a drug smuggler was jailed for 26 years for leading an operation to bring a record £90 million consignment of cocaine into Britain by yacht. He and five of his accomplices were caught by 150 Customs officers on the Isle of Wight after the smugglers’ landing was hampered by storms at the end of a 3,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. They had planned to unload 879 lb of cocaine on a private beach at Orchard Bay house near Ventnor, but the weather and the failure of their outboard motor forced them to deposit their cargo on another beach at Windy bay, about a mile away. They were trapped and arrested after members of the gang had spent hours carrying large bales of cocaine along a treacherous cliff-top path to their destination. Officials knew about the smuggling because the men had been kept under surveillance by excise men from the Cowes Customs house, among others. I understand that the smuggler had paid £657,000 for the Orchard Bay property. Customs officers on the island had been tipped off that something big was about to happen, and Operation Eyeful, which was a joint investigation with the National Crime Squad, began. It resulted in the successful apprehension of five smugglers.”

Andrew Turner MP to House of Commons 22 July 2002

When arriving today on a Red Funnel craft, you will notice a large sign announcing H.M Customs & Excise.   The local MP, Andrew Turner, recently fought to stop the proposed closure of the Cowes Customs House after an audacious plot to bring in £90 million’s worth of cocaine was thwarted by ‘Operation Eyeful’.

Topographically the Isle of Wight always has been a smuggler’s delight. Surrounded by water, with many rocky promontories to the south (great for wrecking), which also happen to overlook one of the busiest shipping lanes in the western world, the Island also boasts unparalleled lookout points on the cliffs from Freshwater to Blackgang and further along from St Boniface’s Down (officially a marilyn – larger than a hill; not quite a mountain).


Another great plus for smugglers are the many chines – deep cut ravines – which provide cover, are mainly near to sandy beaches and give an easy well-hidden route to carry goods inland. Shanklin Chine, Freshwater, Chale, Rookley, Niton, Wheeler’s Bay, Blackgang, St Lawrence, Steephill Cove, Bonchurch, (above) Luccombe, and Bembridge were all active smuggling areas. Smugglers heading for the Island used the lighthouse at Bembridge as a sea-marker.


Having lived in an independent fiefdom since the Norman conquest, when rule from the mainland came in 1293 the people of the Isle of Wight resented and even despised it. Smuggling was and always had been seen as a local right. During the Hundred Years War the frequent scurries with French ships up the Channel often ended in shipwreck. The Islanders were also known to light ships toward the rocks and to kill all survivors in order to steal the cargoes without a fight.   In 1224 the Bishop of Winchester ordered Island priests to deliver a sermon at least three times a year against such murders, but King Edward1’s Shipwreck Act of 1275, which gave the ship owners a year and a day to claim their cargoes – on condition that ‘one living thing’ survived the wreck – only gave the locals more reason to kill the poor sailors as they clambered ashore.    When the King’s Right of Salvage was enforced, the locals would push the floating barrels of wine and casks of goods out to open sea where all recovery was fair game.

Once the cargoes were ashore, storage was provided in the many inland caves along the south coast.   Owners of big houses also offered stores for the incoming booty.   Many local families made their fortunes this way – The Wheelers of Wheelers’ Bay are perhaps the most famous, while the owners of Mottistone Manor provided a huge loft for storage. The churchyard had a large tomb for seven drowned sailors who had been washed ashore which had been hollowed out to make a store (as in the Faulkner yarn Moonfleet).


The northern side of the Island was not suitable for offloading from smaller ships, having a clean outlook and not many hidey-holes along the low coast.    But larger ships favoured it. By the eighteenth century smuggling was carried out quite openly in the Solent and Yarmouth Roads. Before officially unloading at Southampton or Portsmouth, East Indiamen, heavily laden on their way home from the Indies, would lay anchor and trade with locals who rowed out from Yarmouth and Cowes.

image009cIn 1777 William Arnold (father of Thomas Arnold, grandfather of Matthew Arnold) took the post of Customs Inspector he determined to take the upper hand. He bought his own boats and got effective fast cutters from The Admiralty. Along the south coast he increased the Land Guard. Under a more watchful eye the Solent’s smugglers resorted to tricks like sinking the illicit goods alongside strategically placed lobster pots, then openly going out to retrieve them at a later date. Not all of them escaped Arnold’s watchful eye. Solent ferryman Thomas Sivell was supposedly shot while being chased in his smuggling vessel. During his flight he tossed nearly seventy barrels of spirits overboard and a great deal of tea. His epitaph, in Binstead cemetery reads:

All you that pass pray look and see
How soon my life was took from me
By those officers as you hear
They spilt my blood that was so dear
But God is good, is just and true
And will reward to each their due

In 1801 Arnold died unexpectedly. His memorial tablet, in Whippingham church yard, reads:

‘Sacred to the memory of William Arnold Esq., late Collector of H.M. Customs in the Port of Cowes, Isle of Wight: a man who, by his amiable as well as by his faithful, discharge of his duty in his public station and private character justly entitled him to the warmest esteem and affection of all who were permanently or occasionally associated with him in business, society or domestic ties.’

After Arnold’s death the Customs men slipped back in their efforts, and in 1832 it was recorded that nearly all Islanders were “more or less concerned with smuggling”. Another survey in 1836 estimated that 80% of the population was consuming contraband spirits, tobacco and tea. The same year when a large ship The Clarendon was wrecked off Chale the locals were down to the beaches in a flash, gathering goodies. The timber was dragged ashore and used to enlarge the local pub.

image012cThe Cowes Custom House is between the Island Sailing Club and the Parade. Further along the High Street on a house opposite the Bahar Indian Restaurant you may notice strangely patterned wrought iron work covering the windows. The holes in pattern are constructed to a very specific size, for these windows once protected the bonded rooms used to store both legal cargo and confiscated contraband.   The point of the windows is not to prevent people getting in, but to prevent the people inside passing bottles through to friends outside in the street.

The area of coast between Luccombe Bay and Bonchurch, known as The Smugglers Haven, with eponymous tea rooms, has a car park which provides a marvellous starting point for a glorious cliff-top walk to Shanklin or a more mysterious shady one through the woods to Bonchurch.