From smugglers to full sails

PUBLISHED: 10:38 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

Looking towards the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club on the River Crouch

Looking towards the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club on the River Crouch

Few places in the county sum up our sailing heritage quite as well as Burnham on Crouch. Nicky Adams regales the tales of hidden booty and high society

THINK of Burnham on Crouch and it's hard not to bring to mind an image of stately yachts, their hulls glinting in the sun and their white sails billowing in the wind as they cut an effortless path through the choppy tidal river waters.

Indeed, sailing in Burnham is a thoroughly dignified affair, with no fewer than five yacht clubs set at the river's edge and the much-anticipated Burnham Week attracting thousands of the deck-shod fraternity from all points of the compass.

However, Burnham's relationship with the river has not always been such a respectable one. In fact, it was for a time extremely roguish. Rather than today's sedate sailing vessels, the most famous boats to ply the river 300 years ago were rough and ready, loaded with contraband and armed to the teeth. Yes, Burnham was a favourite haunt for smugglers.

The River Crouch provided the perfect setting. Just as the 18th century Poldarks knew every nook and cranny of the Cornish coastline, so the brigands of Burnham were intimately familiar with every twist and turn of the Crouch. The smugglers' detailed local knowledge of the bends and backwaters coupled with the eeriness of the Dengie made it a perfect stomping ground. The Dengie was chosen by HG Wells in the War of the Worlds as the location for where the first martian machine is destroyed and apparently inspired Alfred Hitchcock to create some of his most atmospheric works. But it also gave the smugglers the upper hand when it came to outwitting the customs officers, with the result that many Burnham families grew rich on the proceeds of sneakily imported contraband goods.

Silk clothing, tobacco, tea, brandy and gin were the favourite illicit cargos. Sailed across the channel from France, Holland and Belgium and unloaded in the dead of the Dengie night, they brought a wealth to the local people of Burnham that could never be accumulated by oyster fishing.

It is likely that most of the local population were involved in smuggling, either directly or indirectly, wittingly or not. There was certainly an unwritten rule that as long as a pitcher of brandy appeared outside the door in the morning, then the household had heard or seen nothing all night.

However, the Inland Revenue was set on thwarting this enterprise. Customs men were sent to patrol the riverbanks and the jetties on horseback, and during the smugglers' golden age of 1730 to 1830 they even used two cutters, each with a 30-man crew, to try to bag the booty and make sure the import tax was paid.

But such were the profits to be made that the smugglers went out mob-handed, outnumbering the customs officers and using their expert local knowledge to outsmart them at every turn. Some armed their boats ready to fight to protect their ill-gotten goods, while others were more crafty and made use of the barges carrying coal, timber and stone to conceal their contraband.

However, such contravention of the import laws could not be allowed to continue and in 1822 the Preventative Water Guard, the forerunner of HM Coastguard, was formed under one command. Their co-ordinated patrols by boat and on foot sounded the death knell for Burnham's smugglers, although a few die-hards did continue to give the coastguard the run-around for many years to come.

In general the people of Burnham were forced to rely on more law-abiding uses of the River Crouch for their livelihoods throughout the mid-1800s. But, with most dependent on local agriculture and trade on the river, this was a precarious time. Burnham was entirely at the mercy of the weather, and whole cargoes of crops could be lost on their way to London on the Crouch if a storm should blow in, or the river should suddenly calm and leave the produce rotting in the holds of stranded vessels.

In July 1889, Burnham received a lifeline. The Great Eastern Railway came to town and suddenly this isolated waterside community was put in touch with the world. The construction of the rail link between Liverpool Street and Southminster allowed for a halt at Burnham and it wasn't long before the new visitors from London and beyond spotted the suitability of the tidal Crouch for sailing.

From the elegant architect-designed clubhouses to the more functional marine buildings that crowd the quayside at Burnham on Crouch today, it's clear to see that the river plays a vital part in the life of this Essex town. But, as the yachtsmen and women moor their craft ready for this year's Burnham Week, perhaps the ghosts of past smugglers will be watching them.

Latest from the Essex Life