Monday, 29 February 2016

The Allonby Smugglers

Writing about smuggling poses a particular problem for the local historian. The only contemporary accounts are of events when the smugglers were caught. The successful ones are never mentioned.
In 1731, eighteen casks of brandy were found on the shore, near Dubmill Point. Two local men, Joseph Simm and Daniel Miller reported this to the authorities. They were asked to keep watch on the contraband. While they awaited the return of the customs men, two of the smugglers, John Sharp and John Osborn, turned up and gave them a beating. The two informers brought assault charges against the smugglers. A jury of local men dismissed the charges!

In 1764, Customs Officers found ‘a very considerable gang of smugglers, armed with guns and pistols, escorting about forty horse loads of brandy and tea’ on the road between Allonby and Hayton. The smugglers managed to beat off the officials and escaped.
A smuggler's pannier or belly flask. It would hold about two gallons and could be hidden under a man's coat or disguised as a woman's pregnancy.

Such reports are quite rare in the area, although there were many, many cases on the other side of the Solway. Throughout Dumfries and Galloway there is a great deal of folklore about the trade and a large number of caves where the contraband was allegedly stored. For any more information, it is necessary to ‘read between the lines’ elsewhere.

The 1841 Census for Allonby lists twenty-six men as either sailors, mariners, fishermen or boatmen. It is difficult to imagine they could all make a living purely from catching fish. Even more telling, in a village of around three hundred souls, there were five innkeepers, two wine and spirit merchants and, most telling of all, two full-time customs officials.
The Customs Vessell 'Ferret' was stationed at Skinburness.

There is also a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting that one highly respected, Quaker family were involved in the illicit trade. The Beeby’s fish yards could just have been a ‘front’ for a whisky smuggling operation.

Most of this evidence comes from Mary Beeby’s own ‘Memorandum’. In it, she gives details of two shipwrecks in which her father, Daniel, was involved. The first occurs off the coast of Islay in the Hebrides. This is not a herring fishing area but the island is world-famous for its malt whisky. After carrying out emergency repairs to the vessel, it was able to return safely to Maryport with both crew and cargo unharmed.

The second shipwreck was in Ireland. After being caught in a violent storm, the ‘Assistance’ put in for repairs at Dunfanaghy – not a million miles from the famous distillery at Bushmills.

Mary says the local people ‘behaved with great kindness . . . those of respectability deterring others who might otherwise have been disposed to have taken liberties with the property of strangers’. After a month ashore there, the crew re-shipped the cargo and returned home safely. It is difficult to imagine a cargo of fish lasting that long!

It is also rather strange that, in both these cases, Mary refers to the ‘cargo’ rather than the ‘catch’.

It is said that, on the other side of the Solway, the smugglers often used barrels with false bottoms to hide their cache. The fish yards had their own cooperage. It would have been a simple job for Richard Harker to produce such items; salted fish on top, illicit spirits below.
The Beeby family's fish yards can be seen centre left on this old postcard.
Some of the Beeby family wills also make interesting reading. John Beeby died in 1768 and an inventory of his personal possessions was compiled. They were valued at £527, about £74,000 at 2012 prices. In addition to these items he owned a lot of property in Allonby and several houses in Maryport. It is puzzling how a man listed as a timber merchant could have achieved such wealth.

When his son, another John, died in 1789 he was £321 (£42,000 today) in debt. It was around this time that Mary Beeby’s family moved into the John’s house and fish yards. We can only guess at the family dramas surrounding their move.
Around the 1860s, most of the family seem to vanish from the local records. 

This was when the government finally equalised the duty on whisky in Scotland and England. The Beeby’s property in Allonby seems to have descended to Ann Satterthwaite. There was a complex court case over the will of a William Beeby which ended when the Court of Chancery ordered the entire estate to be sold. In July 1871, the whole lot was auctioned in the Ship Hotel; it made a total of £5,405 – just over half-a-million pounds at 2012 prices.

This article was originally written for Peter Ostle's book “Allonby – A Short History and Guide” but was not included in the final version due to pressure on space.

The text of Mary Beeby's Memorandum is available at