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Smugglers’ Mills and Nefarious Thrills

Throughout the ages, the role of the miller has been subject to all sorts of stories and stereotypes: millers have been slandered, satirised, respected and romanticised all in equal measure.

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Langstone Mill, Havant. Photo: Ashok Vaidya

Oft-times in literature, the miller has been the recipient of a similar treatment to smugglers and pirates, his contemporary romantic ruffians: filling the role of a somewhat shady yet dazzlingly handsome heart-throb, feared yet envied, who takes part in some suspiciously clandestine but thrillingly passionate scandal or adventure.

It surprised me not at all, therefore, when flicking through a delightful 1930s tome in the Mills Archive library called The Mills of Man by George Long, I came across an account attesting that at one time, the jobs of milling and smuggling did in fact go hand in hand.

Mr Long describes how, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries “when that nefarious traffic reached its zenith”, the miller had an important role to play in the highly-organised smuggling trade. The miller was “frequently the individual responsible for the actual delivery to the consumer of the articles ordered. The reason for this was that the mill was situated in every village – either wind or water – and could easily deliver contraband articles concealed beneath the sacks of grain or flour which formed its legitimate trade. Further, those small mills which had no delivery vehicles of their own could hand the articles to the callers as they brought their grist and took away their flour.”

So it seems that millers took a leading part in the work of delivering orders to the customers in towns and villages – an ingenious method indeed! This business would not have taken place completely secretly: often the whole village would have been in on it as many of them would have benefitted, as we hear in Rudyard Kipling’s poem A Smuggler’s Song: “Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk”. Those that didn’t benefit chose to subtly turn their heads:

“Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling as the gentlemen go by!”

Langstone Windmill

Stories of the smuggling days are particularly rife around the Hampshire and Sussex coastline, and I was delighted to find in The Mills of Man a tale about Langstone Mill, very near to where I grew up. George Long even calls it the “Smuggler’s Windmill”, as “This district was for some years the head-quarters of the celebrated Langstone Gang, whose exploits are worth of a book to themselves, and their favourite rendezvous was the Royal Oak Inn, close to the windmill.”

There is an old tradition that an underground passage once connected the two inns of the village, the “Royal Oak” and the “Ship”.” It is also said that yet another tunnel ran from the Royal Oak to Langstone Windmill, just next door – and now we see how the smugglers ‘land crew’ would get the contraband to the miller, right under the noses of the customs men. When I stand on the Langstone shore and look over at the old, black tower mill which gives the feeling of having seen many an escapade over the years, I am inclined to agree with George Long when he says “I think we are safe in surmising that the Langstone Windmill, like its neighbour at Bedhampton, had its full share of illegal activities.”

Smuggling in its heyday was common across the whole of the southern coast of England, from Falmouth to Folkestone and anywhere in between. Down on the rugged west coast, we can read an account of “The resourceful smugglers of Crantock” in the book An Introduction to Cornish Watermills by D. E. Benney.

Treago Mill. Photo Martin Bodman

“Treago Farm [in Crantock near Newquay] is situated behind a sand dune ridge in a hollow, secluded and isolated from the outside world, and at the back of the hollow against the open rock face is Treago Mill. [The smugglers] ran cargoes of spirits, tobacco and tea into Porth Joke and concealed their contraband in the Mill at frequent intervals, until it could be removed to safer hiding places or distributed.”

It makes sense that a mill, a large structure with plenty of space to store a cargo that could perhaps easily be disguised as bags of flour or grain, would be the perfect smugglers’ hiding place. One place, according to the newspaper cutting below (from the West Sussex County Times, 1936), was even too good – so much so that the smugglers forgot it was there!

Smugglers chose their hiding places well, and often mills just happened to be ideally suited to their requirements – for example Ewhurst Mill on Hurtwood Common, Surrey. The windmill’s neighbourhood is very solitary so unlikely to attract attention, but near enough to London. Around the mill are numerous grassy tracks, soft roads along the downs which were well-suited to the smugglers’ pack horses, but useless for the wheeled traffic of police and customs men. At the summit of the hill, near the mill, a number of the tracks converge, whilst 10 minutes to the west in Puttenham, are vast underground store houses where the smugglers would keep their cargoes.

Staplecross Mill, Ewhurst

At the other end of the south coast we find the village of Rottingdean, near Brighton, where a gang of smugglers made their disreputable business for two hundred years. Up high upon the hill, the aptly named Beacon Mill (also known as Rottingdean Mill), a grade II-listed smock mill, still stands. The fact that it is now used as a navigational mark for ships out at sea indicates how useful the windmill’s situation on the hill would have been for smugglers, who apparently used its sails to signal that the coast was clear, a message or warning being conveyed by the angle at which the sails were set.

(Many mills seem to have used this signalling method, almost like semaphore – I wonder how long it was until the customs men caught on!)

This mill’s infamous adventures have been immortalised by Rudyard Kipling (who seemed to have had as much of a love for smugglers tales as I do) in his poem “Rottingdean Mill”:

“The smugglers used her dusty lofts
And dozed there through the day,
Or waited signals from the sea
To bring “moonshine” away.”

Rottingdean Windmill

This shows us that even when millers weren’t directly involved in the smuggling mission, it seems that they were able to take full advantage of the free trading by allowing smugglers to use their mills and turning a blind eye to whatever else went on.

It’s no wonder millers throughout the ages frequently had bad reputations; these stories of smugglers’ mills, and many more to be found, confirm that millers could be men of low (or at least opportunistic) morals. It’s strange to think that these smugglers’ daring deeds actually happened in real life, not just in the pages of storybooks or folksongs round a fire!

However, it’s curious to see that instead of casting condemnation on millers and smugglers and imparting counsel not to take up their wicked ways, each tale instead glorifies their misdeeds, painting them as loveable rogues; which I think actually is how smugglers were often seen in those days, as Robin Hood-type figures who robbed from the rich (by refusing to pay extortionate government taxes on imported goods) and gave to the poor (by trading with the general public at pre-tax prices).

Whatever questionable morals they promote, these tales really do conjure up evocative images of times past. They certainly give extra fuel to our imagination when we’re looking at an old windmill or watermill which has lasted for one, two or three hundred years or more, and wondering what epic adventures it’s seen: excitement, tragedy, bravery, romance, and the enduring, steady beat of day-to-day life. Yet again, Kipling describes it best:

“And yet she braves the centuries
And the wrath of storm and flood;
But the corn she ground, the corn she ground
Has passed into our blood.”