Bootleg Tea

By James Norwood Pratt




Tea had become England's national drink by 1800 and she was importing an average of twenty-four million pounds a year, it is said. It is now time for me to admit that all figures relating to earlier tea consumption in England are merely official, which is to say, misleading. The English drank vastly more tea than any John Company records before 1784 reveal, thanks to a nationwide network of "free traders" or-from the government's viewpoint-smugglers.

About a decade after the Company began importing tea on a regular basis, the Crown slapped a duty of five shillings on each pound irrespective of quality. This did not much affect the price of the most expensive teas, but it served to knock the cheap right out of the market, or rather, to create a black market for it. The cheapest sort one could legally buy then cost seven shillings a pound-almost a laborer's whole week's wages-while just across the Channel or across the North Sea in Holland tea of this same quality could be had for two shillings. With a 350 percent profit to play with, "free traders" were not long in multiplying along the whole length of England's coastline. Mr. J.M. Scott, to whose grand book The Great Tea Venture these pages are much indebted, has written: "The trouble and talk which resulted publicized tea as nothing else could have done, and as the illegal industry spread and prospered it carried the new commodity to every door. It was calculated that at the height of this illegal campaign two-thirds of the tea drunk in England had been smuggled."

Many a fine old home near the English coast was built on the proceeds of a venturer, one who put up the smuggling capital but kept well in the background, leaving the risks to the captain and the lander. The captain purchased his goods quite legally abroad and then waited for a dark night to run them across to one of several spots the lander might arrange. The lander arranged with the local farmhands for transport, with the local parson, perhaps, for storage in the church, and for eventual sales. Besides the venturer, very often the only principal in the whole business who could read and write was the quill driver, the man who kept the accounts. Eternal vigilance is, to be sure, the price of law breaking if it is to be successful for long, and this is but one of the ways tea smuggling was carried on from 1680, the year of the tax, until 1784, the year of its repeal. In 1733, no less than fifty-four thousand pounds of bootleg tea were seized; present-day American consumption of illegally imported drugs can give us some idea of how much was not.

The smugglers succeeded mainly because they had the sympathy of the whole countryside. On the Isle of Man they often un-loaded as much tea and brandy as a hundred horses could carry, and stored their contraband in large caves no revenue man ever managed to discover because, as a pious old Manxman said, "Who'd ever be so wicked as to tell them?" The free traders knew every time a coast guard craft went into drydock, or when a riding officer had the gout or planned a raid. The country folks dealt with the smugglers less for the sake of getting luxuries cheap than of getting them at all. But the larger the band, the more contra-band, and the more overawed the revenuers and the populace. The day of the small-scale free trader had passed well before the mid-1700s. And as the business grew, as rich men found it profit-able to own three or four sloops engaged in illegal traffic, it be-came the part of wisdom to know nothing of what went on.

Without regard for secrecy, smugglers boldly stole their car-goes back from government customs houses more than once. Long cavalcades of horses loaded with tea were led quite openly through Kent; it is said six tons a week were run from France through Sussex. "The best that can be said of this period," ob-serves J.M. Scott, "is that it was the beginning of yacht racing-revenue cutters chasing smugglers who almost invariably won the cup of tea." There were, of course, occasional casualties on both sides. One of the famous "Wiltshire Moonrakers," who used the old church in Kingstone as their hiding place, is buried in its churchyard under this epitaph:

To the memory of Robert Trotman, late of Rowd, in the county of Wilts, who was barbarously murdered on the shore near Poole, the 24th of March, 1765:

A little tea; one leaf I did not steal.
For guiltless bloodshed I to God appeal.
Put tea in one scale, human blood in t'other,
And think what 'tis to slay a harmless brother.

Stripped of their glamour, most smuggling gangs must have been rather like the one Daphne du Maurier depicted in her novel Jamaica Inn: bloodthirsty and wholly out for themselves. Still, in a time when inland communications were unimaginably bad, when most roads in England were tracks, dangerous at night and unusable part of the year, when most of the populace was illiterate, living and dying within ten or twenty miles of their birthplaces, smugglers undertook a nationwide sales campaign of an expensive novelty-and succeeded. They were only put out of business entirely after Waterloo, when the country finally had spare troops enough to enforce the laws. But the large-scale smuggling of tea had ended in 1784, when the government finally repealed the tea tax at the behest of Richard Twining, chairman of the dealers of tea. For most Britishers, it was the first intelligent act of government in living memory, coming as it did three years after their American colonists had ended another dispute over tea by compelling the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.