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Christchurch’s ‘fraught and dangerous business’

W A Hoodless tells the story of the Battle of Mudeford

painting by Charles Gore

A cutter and lugger in a fresh breeze, painted by Charles Gore in about 1775. Such sea chases of the more heavily armed luggers were not uncommon.

On 6 July 1784, Captain William May was not a happy man. Because of the appearance of the Revenue cutter, the Rose, he had been forced in the small hours to take his cargo of contraband back to France. As he had loaded up at Alderney and Guernsey and set sail for Christchurch, this was most inconvenient. His lugger was the Civil Usage, owned by 34-year-old John Streeter of Christchurch. Streeter was a respected business and family man, although known to be a Venturer, that is someone who financed and arranged regular smuggling runs.

In smuggling, just as in legitimate businesses, time was money and the last thing either Streeter or May wanted was interference from Revenue cutters like the Rose. Yet on 9 July, Captain May had precisely the same problem and once more scuttled back to the safety of Cherbourg – a better course of action than allowing the Rose to intercept him and escort him to port, which would have meant paying duty on the spirits and tea. So he unloaded his cargo at Cherbourg and also learnt that there was another full load ready to be shipped. He then sailed back across the Channel, escorted by the Rose. When the Revenue men boarded his ship before dawn in Christchurch on 12 July, it was to find merely ballast – no illegal imports there! But for Streeter and May it had been an expensive episode

The former Haven Inn

The former Haven Inn is the left-hand part of what is now a fully residential terrace. Shots were fired from this notorious pub at the Revenue men.

Eighteenth-century Christchurch was a relatively poor town and one conspicuously lacking in glamour. Smuggling must have been a most welcome diversion from the everyday grind. One way or another, virtually the whole town was involved in this highly successful method of tax avoidance. For some, the choice lay between starvation and smuggling. For others, it was essential to toe the line or suffer brutal punishment at the hands of the so-called Free Traders.

As Venturer, Streeter held a conference at the Haven Inn on Mudeford Quay with May and William Parrott, who regularly captained another of his luggers, the Phoenix. With their collective dismay at events no doubt fuelled by a few drinks, it was decided to double the odds in order to retrieve the situation – both luggers were to go back to France to collect May’s original cargo together with the fresh one.

After an uneventful passage, on 15 July the lookout on Hengistbury Head spotted their sails, gave the signal to Christchurch, and Streeter brought together his Lander’s party of 300 men, 400 horses and 100 wagons. He must have felt that his double-run plan was vindicated and the big profits were virtually within his grasp. Imagine his anger when a patrolling Revenue cutter, the Resolution, advanced from the Needles Channel. It anchored nearby and its Captain, James Sarman, sent a boat to parley while the illicit goods were being frantically unloaded. From this point on, Streeter evidently decided to make a success of things, whatever the cost. He therefore did not co-operate, forcing the Revenue party to return to the Resolution and merely observe events. Sarman’s men being few in number and his cutter’s four-pounders being greatly outgunned by the two luggers, he could do no more. Some 5000 casks and 400 tea chests were reportedly landed.

Mudeford Quay and the Run today

Mudeford Quay and the Run today, as photographed from the viewpoint of a desperate and armed smuggler on the first floor of the Haven Inn.

Meanwhile, the corrupt Supervisor of Riding Officers, Joshua Jeans, was making no waves. He was the senior Revenue man in the area but always worked in collusion with the local smugglers – they provided his ‘official seizures’ and he did not try to stop their operations. That way, everyone was happy. One of his officers, Bursey, went to the scene in the usual fashion to ask about their allocation. He duly escorted some smugglers’ wagons from the beach, a total load of a good 100 tubs, including both ‘seizure’ and personal cut. But of the four Riding Officers, one was well aware of his duty and despite being told to go home by Jeans, James Noyce rode to Lymington for military help. The soldiers were sent out but nothing was found – the run had been a complete success and all the contraband had disappeared. Streeter now concentrated overnight on ballasting his ships for escape; he knew his ships should be confiscated because of what had been witnessed from the Resolution. That same night, Captain Sarman saw a slow-moving light in the darkness and estimated that it could be the Orestes, a large and well-armed naval sloop, captained by the formidable James Ellis. When a boat was sent out to investigate, he was proved correct. Later in the day, another Revenue cutter, the Swan, was spotted, captained by Sarman’s brother, George.

The scene was set for the Battle of Mudeford. In a mirror image of the previous smugglers’ conference at the Haven Inn, Ellis chaired a captains’ conference at sea. Seeing his two ships trapped at the entrance to Christchurch Harbour by three government ships at anchor, and now outgunned by the 18 nine-pounder, run-out guns of the Orestes, Streeter went for damage-limitation. There was little choice with this reversal of the balance of power. Since he could not now possibly escape with his valuable luggers intact, they would certainly be lost to him on the spot. Despite a profitable run, this was a bitter blow indeed. His tired and desperate men had the task of removing sails, masts and as much gear as possible for initial stowage at the Haven Inn.

The Orestes’s log shows that in the late afternoon of 16 July, Ellis sent in six boats, some with marines sitting to attention with their muskets in the sterns. One of the first boats to approach the luggers was under the command of the popular naval Warrant Officer William Allen, a sailing master with legal powers of arrest. As he approached, his boat ran aground on the sand bar outside the harbour entrance and he jumped out to push it clear. The armed smugglers had dug themselves in amongst the dunes. According to a later witness statement, it was Parrott who fired the first shot, wounding Allen in the thigh. His men pulled him aboard but he suffered a mortal wound from a second shot in the side, one that penetrated his liver and stomach. Another account has it that the firing began in answer to Allen’s command, ‘Surrender in the name of the King!’ What is clear is that the shooting was not started by the Revenue men.

Now there was a full-scale exchange of fire with the smugglers having moved back from trenches in the dunes and having the tactical advantage of looking down from their ships on to the small boats below. With injuries on both sides and a pressing need to get Allen back to the surgeon on the Orestes, a withdrawal was being considered when the firing stopped. Having rescued some tackle from his ships, Streeter would have been wiser to leave the scene with both his men and the incriminating crew lists; unfortunately for them, those lists had been left on board. Although the luggers were deserted when the marines boarded, firing continued from the Haven Inn and adjoining stable. At one point, Captain May returned from Christchurch with more ammunition.

The boats returned to their ships, the deserted luggers were approached at 3 am the next day to be towed out to the ships at anchor in Christchurch Bay and the 25 year-old William Allen died at 6 am, twelve hours after his mortal wound. There were to be many tears at his full military funeral. Even those who had condoned the desperate trade of smuggling were shocked at his sad death. The verdict of the coroner’s jury was a foregone conclusion: wilful murder. Just two months after the battle, the Orestes was back in action off Hengistbury Head fighting the British Lion, another smugglers’ lugger. Some of the smugglers were killed and all the survivors were wounded – no quarter had been given.

The Smugglers' Intrusion by Sir David Wilkie

The Smugglers’ Intrusion by Sir David Wilkie.
Early 19th century. Much can be read into this picture of the Free Trader delivering spirits
 and disturbing the domestic scene.
Yet most people were happy to have a tub.

Jeans continued in his support of the Free Traders by tipping them off with details from official letters he received in the matter. Streeter, May and Parrott were warned in time to flee to Guernsey. Certainly, most of the 21 arrest warrants issued proved ineffective, with none of those three being called to account and just three minor players being taken to court. The Old Bailey found insufficient evidence against two of the smugglers’ shore party, but convicted George Coombes of murder although he did not fire the fateful shot. On 23 January 1786, he was hung at Wapping and the body brought back to display in an iron cage outside the Haven Inn as a warning to others. That night, his friends are believed to have cut him down and provided a decent burial. Perhaps the main message of the battle is that although smuggling did relieve poverty, it was not some sort of victim-free, romantic and harmless occupation – it was essentially a fraught and dangerous business conducted strictly for profit.

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