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Smuggling at Beachy Head

East Dean
United Kingdom

A good general account of smuggling in Sussex and Parson Derby's Hole at Beachy Head is detailed by Donald Maxwell, in his book "Unknown Sussex" (1923). Of particular interest is the first hand testimony of a shepherd about the true use of the holes in the Beachy Head cliff for smuggling. Estimating the dates that this story relates to suggest that it is contemporary with Click to discover SMUGGLING SUSSEX the Osborn family being at Telscombe and then East Dean up to the 1850s. It also details the story of searching for moonshine in Piddinghoe and the use of the Cuckmere river for smuggling up to Alfriston. The text is reproduced in original printed form and can be read by clicking the picture left.

The following is taken from: Banks J (1966 first pub. 1871) Reminisces of Smugglers and Smuggling, Howe, Gateshead. Being an account of actual incidents, around the time of John Souter Osborn and his wife Caroline, it is important in that it links Eastbourne, Beachy Head and Hastings smugglers. Caroline and John were similarly linked to all three places.


I do not know what I can do better than transcribe the account of the singular incident that I have found in "The Battle and the Breeze", a periodical published about the time. The writer was evidently belonging to the Coast-blockade, and betrays an animus against the smugglers not at all times justifiable however, as I happen to know some of the transactions which he describes, they may , on the whole, be considered to be reliable.

The coast of Sussex, between Eastbourne and Seaford, exhibits some of the most magnificent cliff scenery in Europe. The noble promontory of Beachy-Head, with its stupendous pinicled outwork, called "The Charleses", seven hundred feet high- the long line of undulating Downs extending thence to Cuckmere Haven, comprehending that extraordinary succession of eminences know to seamen under the denomination of the Seven Sisters - terminated towards the west by Seaford Head, presenting for miles a precipice of the purest white, so perfectly perpendicular, that a plummet dropped from its brink would descend without interruption to its base, the whole, as seen from the sea, resembling an enormous curtain, gracefully festooned along its summit, and having its surface horizontally interlaced at intervals by double lines of flints, imbedded with such regularity, that they appear to resemble penciled lines drawn by a ruler.

Throughout the extent of this interesting district, and from Cow Gap, at Holywell Quarries, east of Beachy-Head to Cuckmere Haven, near Seaford, a distance of at least five or six miles, the vast rampart of chalk is altogether inaccessible, except at three places; first, at the Gun Gardens, a frightful fox-track or squirrel-path - (squirrels live in woods) - running along the face of the precipice in a diagonal direction, and opening upon the Downs above, by a sort of spout of chimney, behind the sister pinnacles of the Charleses; secondly, Birling Gap, a road cut through the cliff from the bottom of a valley near the village of East Dean, used for the purpose of dragging up wrecked goods, drift timber, or sea-weed for manure; and, thirdly Crow Link Gap, a difficult path leading from the beach, by steps cut or worn into the chalk, towards a solitary farm-house near Fiston Church, a spot so celebrated for landing contraband cargoes, that for years the spirit shops in London were accustomed to advertise their stock of Hollands as being genuine Crow Link; nor did the title fall into disuse till upon application made by Captain M'Culloch, founder of the Blockade service, a watch-house was erected in the pass, and a party of preventive officers and men permanently stationed there.

It may probably be imagined that upon a part of the coast so guarded by nature, it would require little precaution to prevent illicit importation, yet it soon became doubtful whether there were not greater facilities for smuggling in this precipitous region that even on the sandy shores of Bognor, or the shingly deserts of Dungeness. As the sea at high water reached the base of the cliff, it was, of course, necessary to withdraw the sentinels from the beach at such periods, in order to station them along the summit; but the gap-ways being so far apart, this change occupied a considerable time, particularly during winter, when the men became tired and drowsy from the fatigue of incessant walking, and the wearisome length of the night watches. The smugglers, aware of the circumstances, and being enabled by the withdrawal of the sentinels to land their goods without molestation in any of the little bays formed upon the beach by the projecting angles of the precipice - having previously, during daylight, fixed upon the exact spot for their enterprise, and notched or otherwise marked its corresponding point upon the edge of the cliff above, they seized the opportunity when the tide drove the watchmen away from the beach, and before they could reach the summit, rushed to the appointed place, fixed a light wooden derrick upon the grass, securing it firmly by an iron crow-bar thrust through a hole at the end. In the centre of this derrick was a hinge similar to that in the joint of a boot-jack, and at the outer extremity a running sheave inserted in a notch, which projected over the cliff, plumbing the bay below. Through the notch traversed a rope, by which a basket was rapidly lowered to the confederates on the beach; and at the bottom of the basket hung a small hand-bell, the ringing of which, though unaudible above, was sufficient to indicate the descent and position of the basket to those beneath. Ten or twelve tubs were instantly crammed into it, the rope jerked as a signal to pull up, and the other end of it being fastened to an active horse, the basket was drawn up at a gallop, and the hinge of the derrick allowing it to turn inward, threw the cargo out upon the grass without further difficulty, the whole process being accomplished in less that ten minutes; which was repeated or not, according as the smugglers' scouts, posted to the right or left gave notice of anyone approaching - the height of the cliff making no other difference that as it might require a few fathoms of rope, more or less, to effect the object.

The incident by which this method of smuggling was detected may appear exaggerated; but there are many officers living who can testify to its truth. One very dark night, when a cargo was to be derricked over the cliff near Birling Gap, by some mistake the smugglers landed their goods before the last sentinel had quitted the beach. The scouts, perceiving him strolling unconsciously toward the spot, gave silent and timely notice of his approach, and the whole party, retreating hastily into their boat, pushed off unseen. In the confusion, however, created by this interruption, they either forgot to give the usual signal for pulling up the goods, or it was unfelt by those at the top of the cliff; so that, in passing along, the sentinel actually ran against the basket, and not knowing how it was suspended, or what were its contents, he began pulling at the rope, when he felt the basket beginning to ascend, and, endeavouring to keep it down by main force, was suddenly swayed off his legs, and carried up with such velocity that, not knowing how far he might have to fall, he had not the courage to release his hold. Although the cliff at that part was three hundred feet high, in a few minutes he was hoisted to the summit, and tumbled out headlong with the brandy kegs into the midst of the smugglers. Not even the suddenness of his aerial flight, nor the number of his opponents, could deprive this gallant fellow of his presence of mind, but before the mistake was discovered, he succeeded in firing his pistol as an alarm, whereupon the smugglers vanished like the witches in Macbeth, leaving ten ankers of Cognac, and the whole derricking apparatus behind them. Soon after, when the writer had arrived at the spot, and ascertained the accuracy of this remarkable storey, he questioned the captor as to his feelings during the ascent. "Why, sir," said Jack, "I held on like grim death, and wasn't long a-travelling to the top."

I have every reason to believe that some of the Hastings people had to do with this derricking business at Beach Head.


The following stories of smugglers are given in "The Battle and the Breeze," previously alluded to, and they will serve to show the tricks that smugglers were obliged to have recourse to, to get their goods away from the coast.

Soon after the derricking affair at Beach Head, another ingenious scheme was hit upon by the "fair traders" of Eastbourne.

Disguising themselves like shepherds, who are accustomed to employ the time during which their flocks are grazing upon the downs, by descending the precipices - not as Shakespeare says, "to gather samphire", but to obtain the eggs of sea-birds, or to rob the falcon of its young - the smugglers, unobserved dug a platform in the face of the cliff, immediately under Beachy Head. Two of them laboured for seven successive days in excavating and leveling this spot, at a height of three hundred feet above the level of the sea; and as this operation was carried on by day, without any attempt at concealment, and there were no means of approaching, or even of getting a view of the place, except by being lowered two or there hundred feet over the precipice, it was supposed they were engaged in collecting eggs, and no further notice was taken of the matter. Having, therefore, completed the work, three or four of the gang descended unobserved, to the platform, where they remained perched till dark; and, at high water, when the blockade sentinels left the beach, a boat rowed to the foot of the precipice, immediately under the platform, to which her cargo was leisurely transferred by pulleys; and the smugglers, lowering each other by the same means into the boat, went off to Eastbourne with their comrades, leaving their contraband good securely stowed upon the platform.

During the whole of this proceeding, the Preventive-men were unconsciously pacing the edge of the cliff above, at too great a distance to hear what was doing, even if they had entertained suspicion of the stratagem; and when the tide receded sufficiently to admit of their descending to the beach, the boat, with every other trace of the transaction, had disappeared. The platform being composed of chalk, like the cliff itself, was altogether invisible, either from the summit or base of the promontory, and the smugglers having also taken the precaution to paint their packages white, they could not be distinguished from the chalk at any considerable distance. The risk of discovery, therefore, was trifling, and on the following night, the smugglers could, without interruption, hoist their goods from the platform to the summit of the cliff, merely taking care to accomplish this at low water, when the Preventive sentinels were stationed along the beach below.

In this manner several valuable cargoes were imported; nor would the plan, perhaps, ever have been detected, but by a direct information which the writer derived from one of the smugglers, who had quarreled with his companions. Fifty-six tubs of brandy were found upon the platform when it was thus detected and demolished.

Many of the Coast-blockade men lost their lives by walking over the cliffs during dark or foggy nights; and upon one occasion two of their bodies were discovered dreadfully mangled within a few yards of each other, having been precipitated from a height of a least three hundred feet. The circumstance of their being killed nearly at the same spot, and at about the same moment, gave rise to an opinion that they had been thrown over by the smugglers*. Be this as it might, some time after, an officer, much disliked for his activity, having fallen into an ambuscade of smugglers, they seized, blindfolded him, and tied his feet together, crying out, "Throw him over the cliff! Throw him over the cliff!" Disregarding his entreaties for mercy, they bore him to the edge, and pushed him gradually over, feet foremost, till his arms and chin only remained above the brink, to which he clung by digging his finger-mails into the grass, and in this cruel position they left him. He remained thus for above an hour, in agonies of terror, screaming for help, and straining every sinew to maintain his hold, till at length the blood seemed to stagnate in his arms; his strength failed, his brain reeled at the thought of the depth beneath, and he was upon the point of letting go in despair, when, as a last effort, he released one hand, tore the bandage from his eyes, turned his head with horror, and beheld the bottom within a yard of his feet!. The smugglers having selected a shallow chalk-pit for their purpose, upon the brink of which he had been so tormentingly suspended.

*I should have been disposed to doubt the truth of this, had I not heard lately of the death of a man, formerly a smuggler, who boasted that he had been employed in a similar manner; and further that he had the inhumanity to stamp on the fingers of the poor fellow who clung with his hands to the edge of the cliff.

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