The Owlers of Romney Marsh, and the ancient export smuggling of wool.


Romney, Marsh, Kent, East Sussex, Owlers, smugglers, England,
The Owlers.



THE earliest conflicts of interests between smugglers and the Government were concerned with the export of goods, and not with imports. We are accustomed to think only of the import smuggler, who brought from across Channel, or from more distant shores, the spirits, wines, tea, coffee, silks, laces, and tobacco that had never yielded to the revenue of the country; but before him in point of time, if not also in importance, was the “owler” who, defying all prohibitions and penalties, even to those of bodily mutilation and death, sold wool out of England and secretly shipped it at night from the shores of Kent and Sussex.

English wool had from a very early date been greatly in demand on the Continent. The England of those distant times was a purely agricultural country, innocent of arts, industries, and manufactures, except of the most primitive description. The manufacturers then exercised their skilled trades largely in France and the Low Countries; and, in especial, the cloth-weaving industries were practiced in Flanders.


So early as the reign of Edward the First the illegal exportation of wool engaged the attention of the authorities, and an export duty of £3 a bag (in modem money) was imposed, soon after 1276. This was in 1298 increased to £6 a bag, then lowered, and then again raised. English wool was then worth IS. 6d. a pound.

In the reign of Edward the Third a strenuous attempt was made to introduce the weaving industries into England, and every inducement was offered the Flemish weavers to settle here and to bring their art with them. In support of this policy” the export of wool was, in various years, subjected to further restrictions, and at one time entirely forbidden. The royal solicitude for the newly cradled English weaving industries also in 1337 forbade the wearing of clothing made with cloth woven out of the country; but it is hardly necessary to add that edicts of this stringency were constantly broken; and in 1341 Winchelsea, Chichester, and thirteen other ports were named, whence wool might be exported, on payment of a duty of 50s. a sack of twenty-six stone-i.e. 364 lb.

The interferences with the sale and export of wool continued, and the duty was constantly being raised or lowered, according to the supposed needs of the time; but nearly always with unforeseen and disastrous effects. The wool staple was removed to the then English possession of Calais in 1363, and the export of it absolutely forbidden elsewhere. The natural result, in spite of the great amount of smuggling carried on, was that in a long series of years the value of wool steadily fell; the cloth-makers taking advantage of the accumulation of stocks on the growers’ hands to depress the price. In 1390 the growers had from three to five seasons’ crops on hand, and the state of the industry had become such that in the following year permission to export generally, on payment of duty, was conceded. This duty tended to become gradually heavier, and, as it increased, so proportionably did the “owling” trade.

The price of wool therefore declined again, and in 1454 it was recorded as being not more than two-thirds of what it had been a hundred and ten years earlier. The wool-growers, on the brink of ruin, petitioned that wool, according to its various grades, might not be sold under certain fixed prices; which were accordingly fixed.

But to follow, seriatim, the movements in prices and the complete reversals of Government policy regarding the export, would be wearisome. We will, therefore, pass on to the Restoration of the monarchy, in 1660, when the export of wool was again entirely forbidden. Smuggling of it was in 1662 again, by the reactionary laws of the period, made a felony, punishable with death; yet the active smugglers, the rank and file of the owling trade, who performed the hard manual labour for wages, at the instigation of those financially interested, continued to risk their necks for twelve pence a day.

owlers, Rye, Romney, Marsh, Kent, East Sussex, smugglers, England,
The owlers chase the customs officers into Rye.


The low price their services commanded is alone sufficient to show us that labour, in spite of the risks, was plentiful. Not only Kent and Sussex, but Essex, and Ireland as well, largely entered into this secret” stealing of wool out of the country,” as the phrase ran; and” these caterpillars” had so many evasions, and commanded so many combinations and interests among those officials whose business it was to detect and punish, that few dared interfere: hence the readiness of the laborers to “risk their necks,” the risk being, under the circumstances, small.

Indeed, readers of the adventures of these owling desperadoes and of the customs officers who hunted them will, perhaps, come to the conclusion that the risks on either side were pretty evenly apportioned, and they will see that the hunters not seldom became the hunted.

The experiences of one W. Carter, who appears to have been in authority over the customs staff in the Romney Marsh district, towards the close of the seventeenth century, were at times singularly vivid. His particular “hour of crowded life” came in 1688, while he was engaged in an attempt to arrest a body of owlers who were shipping wool into some French shallops between Folkestone and New Romney.

Having procured the necessary warrants, he repaired to Romney, where he seized eight or ten men who were carrying the wool on their horses’ backs to be shipped, and desired the Mayor of Romney to commit them, but, greatly to the surprise of this zealous officer, who doubtless imagined he had at last laid some of these desperate fellows securely by the heels, the Mayor of Romney consented to the prisoners being admitted to bail. Mr. Carter, to have been so ingenuously surprised, must have been a singularly simple official, or quite new to the business; for what Mayor of Romney in those days, when everyone on the Marsh smuggled, or was interested financially in the success of smuggling, would dare not deal leniently with these fellows! Nay, it was even abundantly probable that the Mayor himself was financially committed in these ventures, and perhaps even among the employers of Mr. Carter’s captives.

Romney was no safe abiding-place for Carter and his underlings when these men were enlarged; and they accordingly retired upon Lydd. But if they had fondly expected peace and shelter there they were woefully mistaken, for a Marshland cry of vengeance was raised, and a howling mob of owlers, ululating more savagely than those melancholy birds from whom they took their name, violently attacked them in that little town, under cover of night. The son of the Mayor of Lydd, well disposed to these sadly persecuted revenue men, advised them to further retire upon Rye, which they did the next morning, December I3th, pursued hotly across the dyke-intersected marshes, as far as Camber Point, by fifty furious men. At Guilford Ferry the pursuers were so close upon their heels that they had to hurriedly dismount and tumble into some boats belonging to ships lying near, leaving their horses behind; and so they came safe, but breathless, into Rye town.


At this period Calais – then lost to England – alone imported within two years 40,000 packs of wool from Kent and Sussex; and the Romney Marsh men not only sold their own wool in their illicit manner, but bought other from up-country, ten or twenty miles inland, and impudently shipped it off.

In 1698, the severe laws of some thirty years earlier having been thus brought into contempt, milder penal enactments were introduced, but more stringent conditions than ever were imposed upon the collection and export of this greatly vexed commodity, and the civil deterrents of process and fine, aimed at the big men in the trade, were strengthened. A law was enacted (9 & 10 William the Third, c. 40, ss. 2 and 3) by which no person living within fifteen miles of the sea in the counties of Kent and Sussex should buy any wool before he became responsible in a legal bond, with sureties, that none of the wool he should buy should be sold by him to any persons within fifteen miles of the sea; and growers of wool in those counties, within ten miles of the coast, were obliged, within three days of shearing, to account for the number of fleeces shorn, and to state where they were stored.

The success of this new law was not at first very marked, for the means of enforcing it had not been provided. To enact repressive edicts, and not to provide the means of their being respected, was as unsatisfactory as fighting the wind. The Government, viewing England as a whole, appointed under the new Act seventeen surveyors for nineteen counties, with 299 riding officers: a force barely sufficient for Kent and Sussex alone. It cost £20,000 a year, and never earned its keep.

Henry Baker, supervisor for Kent and Sussex, writing on April 25th, 1699, to his official chiefs, stated that there would be shorn in Romney Marsh, quite apart from the adjacent levels of Pett, Camber, Guilford, and Dunge Marsh, about 160,000 sheep, whose fleeces would amount to some three thousand packs of wool, “the greatest part whereof will immediately be sent off hot into France – it being so designed, preparations in great measure being already made for that purpose.”

In fact, the new law at first did nothing more than to give the owlers some extra trouble and expense in cartage of their packs; for, in order to legally evade the extra disabilities it imposed, it was only necessary to cart them fifteen miles inland and make fictitious sale and re-sale of them there; thence shipping them as they pleased.


By this time the exportation of wool had become not only a kingly concern-it had aroused the keen interest of the nation at large, fast becoming an industrial and cloth-weaving nation. For two centuries and more past the cloth-workers had been growing numerous, wealthy, and powerful, and they meant, as far as it was possible for them to do, to starve the continental looms out of the trade, for sheer lack of material. No one cared in the least about the actual grower of the wool, whether he made a loss or a profit on his business. It is obvious that if export of it could have been wholly stopped, the cloth-workers, in the forced absence of foreign buyers, would have held the unfortunate growers in the hollow of their hands, and would have been able to dictate the price of wool.

It is the inalienable right of every human being to fight against unjust laws; only we must be sure they are unjust. Perhaps the dividing-line, when self-interest is involved, is not easily to be fixed. But there can be no doubt that the wool-growers were laboring under injustice, and that they were entirely justified in setting those laws at naught which menaced their existence.

However, by December 1703, Mr. Baker was able to give his superiors a more favorable report. He believed the neck of the owling trade to have been broken and the spirit of the owlers themselves to have been crushed, particularly in Romney Marsh. There were not, at that time, he observed, “many visible signs” of any quantities of wool being exported: which seems to us rather to point to the perfected organization of the owling trade than to its being crushed out of existence.

“But for fine goods,” continued the supervisor, “as they call them (viz. silks, lace, etc.), I am well assured that the trade goes on through both counties, though not in such vast quantities as have been formerly brought in – I mean in those days when (as a gentleman of estate in one of the counties has within this twelve months told me) he has been at once, besides at other times, at the loading of a wagon with silks, laces, etc., till six oxen could hardly move it out of the place. I doe not think that the trade is now so carried on as ’twas then.”

Things being so promising in the purview of this simple person, it seemed well to him to suggest to the Commissioners of the Board of Customs that a reduction of the annual charge of £4,500 for the preventive service along the coasts of Kent and Sussex might be effected. At that time there were fifty preventive officers patrolling over two hundred miles of seaboard, each in receipt of £60 per annum, and each provided with a servant and a horse, to help in night duty, at an estimated annual cost of £30 for each officer.

We may here legitimately pause in surprise at the small pay for which these men were ready to endure the dangers and discomforts of such a service; very real perils and most unmistakable disagreeables, in midst of an almost openly hostile country-side.


Mr. Baker, sanguine man that he was, proposed to abolish the annual £30 allowance to each of these hard-worked men for servant and horse, thus saving £1,500 a year, and to substitute for them patrols of the Dragoon regiments at that time stationed in Kent. These regiments had been originally placed there in I698 to overawe the owlers and other smugglers, the soldiers being paid twopence extra a day (which certainly did not err upon the side of extravagance) and the officers in proportion: the annual cost on that head amounting to £200 per annum. This military stiffening of the civil force employed to prevent clandestine export and import appears to have been discontinued in 1701, after about two years’ experiment.

These revived patrols, at a cost of £200, the supervisor calculated, would more efficiently and economically undertake the work .hitherto performed by the preventive officers’ horses and men, still leaving a saving of £1,300 a year. With this force, and a guard of cruisers offshore, he was quite convinced that the smuggling of these parts would still be kept under.

But alas for these calculations! The economy thus effected on this scheme, approved of and put into being, was altogether illusory. The owling trade, of which the supervisor had supposed the neck to be broken, flourished more impudently than before. The Dragoons formed a most inefficient patrol, and worked ill with the revenue officers, and, in short, the Revenue lost annually many more thousands of pounds sterling than it saved hundreds. When sheriffs and under-sheriffs could be, and were, continually bribed, it is not to be supposed that Dragoons, thoroughly disliking such an inglorious service as that of chasing smugglers along muddy lanes and across country intricately criss-crossed with broad dykes rarely to be jumped, would be superior to secret advances that gave them much more than their miserable twopence a day.

Transportation for wool-smugglers who did not pay the fines awarded against them was enacted in 1717; ineffectually, for in 1720 it was found necessary to issue a proclamation, enforcing the law; and in five successive years from 1731 the cloth-workers are found petitioning for greater vigilance against the continued clandestine exportation, alleging a great decay in the woolen manufactures owing to this illegal export; 150,000 packs being shipped yearly. “It is feared,” said these petitioners, fighting for their own hand, regardless, of course, of other interests, “that some gentlemen of no mean rank, whose estates border on the sea-coast, are too much influenced by a near, but false, prospect of gain”: to which the gentlemen in question, being generally brought up on the dead classic languages, might most fairly have replied, had they cared to do so, with the easy Latinity of Tu quoque!

This renewed daring and enterprise of the Sussex smugglers led to many encounters with the customs officers. Among these was the desperate engagement between sixty armed smugglers and customs men at Ferring, on June 21st, 1720, when William Goldsmith, of the Customs, had his horse shot under him.


A humorous touch, so far at least as the modern reader of these things is concerned, is found in the Treasury warrant issued about this time, for the sum of £200, for supplying a regiment with new boots and stockings; their usual allowance of these indispensable articles having been “worn out in the pursuit of smugglers.”

In spite of all attempts to suppress these illegal activities, it had to be acknowledged, in the preamble of an Act passed in 1739, that the export of wool was “notoriously continued.”

The old-established owling trade of Romney Marsh at length, after many centuries, gave place to the clandestine import of silks, tea, spirits, and tobacco; but it was only by slow and insensible degrees that the owlers’ occupation dwindled away, in the lessening foreign demand for English wool. The last was not heard of this more than five-centuries-old question of the export of wool, that had so severely exercised the minds of some twenty generations, and had baffled the lawgivers in all that space of time, until the concluding year of the final wars with France at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Many other articles were at the same time forbidden to be exported; among them Fuller’s-earth *), used in the manufacture of cloth, and so, of course, subject to the same interdict as wool. A comparatively late Exchequer trial for the offense of exporting Fuller’s-earth was that of one Edmund Warren, in I693. Fortunately for the defendant, he was able to show that what he had exported was not Fuller’s-earth at all, but potter’s clay.

*) Fuller’s earth is the collective term for a mixture of different swellable layer silicates from the smectite group, which belong to the clay minerals. The main component is montmorillonite. Fields of application were in the cloth production. The earth was added to the fabric during fulling (fuller = walker) of felt to promote the matting of the fabric fibres.

Source: The smugglers; picturesque chapters in the story of an ancient craft by Charles George Harper. London, Chapman & Hall, ltd. 1909.

devils, riding, illustration


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