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Dorset – Smugglers Coast

The south coast of England in particular has had a long tradition of smuggling, especially where there are many coves or inlets ideal for concealing contraband. Devon and Cornwall are particularly well endowed in this regard, but Dorset has hardly been less important as a focus for the trade. The life of Isaac Gulliver, the ‘smuggler’s king’ of Dorset, has been covered in a biographic feature on the site, here I am considering the more general look at smuggling and what motivated people to become involved in its illegal operations.

Usually thought of as a male preserve, what may at first surprise many people is the extent to which women were also involved. Some of these would have been smugglers wives, though this is not invariably the case. Dorset, in the heyday of smuggling, was of course a very rural and sparsely populated county, with much agrarian poverty. The business of importing goods, usually liquor, from cross-channel boats under the cover of darkness in order to flout excise regulations was a lucrative sideline that impoverished families living within a few miles of the coast would find too great a temptation to overlook.

The register for Dorchester Gaol 1782-1853 lists the names and occupations of no fewer than 64 women convicted of various smuggling related offences. Twenty one of these (32%) were from Portland alone, while just six resided in Weymouth, five in Bridport, three in Bere Regis and two in Lyme Regis. The parishes of another nine are not recorded. Wool and Woolbridge, Preston, Pulham, Sutton Poyntz, Langton Matravers, Marnhull, Morecombelake, Beaminster, Bradpole, Broadwindsor, Buckland Ripers, Charmouth, Chetnole, Chickerell, Corfe, Dorchester and Kington Magna account for the remaining sixteen.

Three notable examples are Charlotte Drake of Bridport and Ann Maidment, a Bridport buttoner, who both assaulted and obstructed excise officers, and Mary Applin of Langton, who committed an excise offence. Martha Lumb of Weymouth was sentenced to three months hard labour in 1822 for smuggling, while Catherine Winter, a Weymouth seamstress, served an 18-day sentence in 1844 for smuggling at the age of 70!

But regardless of the sex of the offender, for the populace as a whole, smuggling was generally considered an honourable trade. The customs officers or the “King’s Men” were responsible for ensuring that contraband was impounded and fines levied. At Poole the problem of smuggling was so rampant and the customs men so understaffed and overworked that Dragoons had to be deployed to assist them as early as 1723. Typically the customs officers were brave and resourceful with a strict code of conduct; so that names were never banded about and nothing ever put in writing.

Poole was especially ideal for smuggling operations because of the exceptional size and highly indented nature of its harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world. Goods were disembarked into inlet hideaways at Hamworthy and then transported by waggoners to Bristol via Blandford. Furthermore, goods could be offloaded on the south Purbeck coast and hauled overland to be temporarily laid up in the deep inlets such as those at Arne or the Goathorn Peninsula for later distribution to Poole markets without the smugglers having to risk detection by passing through the harbour mouth. Longfleet and Parkstone farmers constructed secret tunnels down to the water’s edge for bringing goods ashore.

After 1759 the volume of smuggled goods passing through Poole significantly increased, though raised vigilance on the part of the Preventatives gradually brought this down. The Commissioners of Customs based in London frequently requested reports on the amount of smuggling going on in the Poole area.

Although landings and disembarkation operations took place from Lyme Regis to Christchurch, the coast from Portland westwards to Lyme attracted special attention. This was because most of the coast is occupied by the Chesil Bank, a shingle spit enclosing a lagoon (the Fleet) which was a convenient storage-sink to hold casks (“tubs”) for collection at a more appropriate time. One memorable incident took place in 1762 when a Cornish vessel was broken up on the Chesil in a winter storm and its cargo washed into the sea. There then followed a desperate attempt by Weymouth citizens to salvage what tubs of liquor they could before the customs house officers could reach them! In the end the citizens claimed 26 tubs to the revenue’s 10; another ten were cast out to sea but recovered the next day.

Probably the greatest hideout and smugglers haunt along this coast was Lulworth Castle, the seat of the Weld family, but which had a connection with smuggling throughout the 18th century from 1719 onwards. In 1719 revenue officers from Weymouth raided the castle and the entire Lulworth area. It has been said that maids working at the castle would routinely warn smugglers when the customs men were in the vicinity by showing a light at a window to indicate when it was safe to come in, but also act as a bearing. The gangs at Lulworth could comprise as many as 100 disguised and heavily armed men, who used Mupe Rocks as the disembarkation point, but the deep ravines and inlets along the coast west of Kimmeridge were also ideal for concealing kegs. A gap in the cliffs at Worbarrow Bay was a special favourite and tubs were raised to the top of Gad Cliff, and brought ashore at Arish Mell and for storage at Tyneham Church.

On a knoll near the coast between West Bexington and Puncknowle there still stands an unusual monument. This is The Lookout, a square building constructed as a signal-station for the Fensibles, but which may also have been used by Isaac Gulliver, who used the Bexingtons, Swyre and Burton Bradstock as landing sites after 1776.

Lyme Regis has had an especially long smuggling history extending back at least as far as the 16th century, when certain merchants were suspected of smuggling bullion out of the country by sea. In 1576 a revenue man called Ralph Lane was sent to Lyme with a deputy bearing a warrant to search ships alleged to be involved in the operations. His arrival however, provoked a riot during which the warrant was seized and Lane’s deputy was thrown into the sea. From Lyme contraband was traditionally floated up the Buddle River, often under the noses of the Preventives, who were frequently understaffed and restrained by bureaucratic regulations. Booty offloaded onto the Cobb could not be inspected until it had been carried half a mile to the Cobb Gate. Lyme is believed to be the birthplace of Warren Lisle, a customs officer who at 17 was appointed Patent Searcher at Poole and who made his first seizure of a cargo from a small vessel in Portland Harbour in 1724.

Weymouth was central to excise operations for the sea, but the town’s revenue officials had a long and shameful history of ineptitude and corruption. Enter George Whelplay, who in the 16th century failed to make any headway in countering popular local support for smuggling. Originally a London haberdasher, Whelplay came to Dorset to try his fortune as a public informer, and as such could claim a fifty per cent commission on each fine he imposed upon those he caught, but in 1538 he incurred the wrath of smugglers and fellow customs officers alike when he exceeded his remit. Whelplay twice stumbled on a cargo of horses being illegally shipped to France, but instead of coming to his assistance in rounding up the French boats the officials joined a gang of merchants and attacked him.

Around 1830 smuggling reached a climax in the Weymouth area, where, it is said; tunnels were constructed from the harbour to merchant’s houses and even to the residence of King George III. The leading figure in smuggling to be connected with Weymouth was Pierre Latour, otherwise known as French Peter, who functioned as a prominent gang-leader in the town. In Wyke Regis churchyard there is a grave of one William Lewis, a smuggler shot dead by a revenue officer on board the schooner Pigmy.

In conclusion, anyone who has anything to do with Dorset will know of Thomas Hardy, the well-known novelist-poet. Less well known is that Hardy was an authority on smuggling – and not without good reason. His birthplace cottage at Highter Bockhampton was actually a capacious safehouse for smuggled contraband that could accommodate up to 80 casks of brandy. “But this isn’tall.” When a child, Hardy was regaled with smuggling stories from his grandfather and his own father had a manservant who was actually involved in the trade. The Bockhampton cottage lay on the smugglers route between Osmington Mills and their markets in Sherborne and Yeovil.

Helen Taylor of Tyneham

She was not born there and she did not die there but she spent the happiest days of her life there and her ashes rest there. A simple genuinely heartfelt gesture during the dark days of World War II has made the name of Helen Taylor synonymous with the Dorset village of Tyneham.

The villagers, evacuated from Tyneham on the orders of the War Department have not been allowed to return to their homes. For the full story of the events that took place there in December 1943 see our feature “Tyneham – the Village that Peacetime Betrayed.” And there are photographs in the photo section.

Helen Beatrice Taylor was born at Tincleton on the 14th of September 1901 and her sister Harriet Elizabeth on the 16th of March 1892 to William and Emily Taylor. The sisters, known as Beattie and Bess, ran the laundry for Tyneham House, home to the Bond family. Helen always considered Tyneham her home but after the forced evacuation from the village she lived at Corfe Castle until 1994 when she went to live in a nursing home at Swanage.

Neither Helen nor her sister Harriet Elizabeth (Bessie) or their half brother Charlie ever married. Helen had suitors but it is thought she did not marry because she wished to look after her older sister and half brother. Charlie Meech is credited with saying one day on his return home after a hard days hedging “saw old Thomas Hardy sitting in his garden…wasting his time…writing.”

At Corfe Castle they lived a happy self-sufficient lifestyle – with large garden sheds immaculately kept including one that stored extensive well water worn wooden laundry equipment and others with garden produce.

The sisters had an elder brother, Arthur Henry Taylor, born on the 8th of March 1890. Arthur started his schooling at Tincleton, where he was one of twenty pupils. The Headmistress lived on the premises. Arthur showed early promise and was taken under the wing of a clergyman who furthered his education. Accepted by Cambridge University, from there he entered the army and rose to the rank of Captain, receiving the MC and MBE. His death in Jerusalem on the 30th of November 1929 was the result of a tragic accident. It seems he had worked with Lawrence of Arabia and introduced Helen to him at Tyneham.

The girls had already lost another brother Bertie and a half brother Bill Meech in the First World War. The CWGC Debt of Honour Register records that “Bertie Taylor, Private; Dorset Yeomanry (Queen’s Own) died on Saturday 21August 1915 Age 21. He was the son of William Taylor, of Tyneham, Corfe Castle, Dorset; Buried at Helles, Turkey. The Helles Memorial stands at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsular. It takes the form of an oblelisk over 30 metres high that can be seen by ships passing through the Dardanelles.” William Meech was in the same regiment as Bertie and died on Saturday 26th February 1916 aged 28. He was buried at Alexandria, in Egypt.

Helen died at the age of 97 in May 1999 and was given a half page obituary in the Daily Telegraph of 13th of May 1999, with the headline “Village That Died for D-Day welcomes last exile” and “Woman returns to Tyneham after 56 years for burial in church she loved.”

Helen was the last person to leave the village in 1943 and she pinned a note to the door of St. Mary’s church that read: “Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes where many of us have lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”


Helen Taylor's brother, Bertie.

Helen Taylor's brother, Bertie.


William Taylor, Helen's father.

William Taylor, Helen's father.

Tyneham – Helen Taylor comes home

Friends and relatives at Helen Taylor's grave at St. Mary's Church, Tyneham, where in 1943, she left troops a note. Photo copyright and used with permission of Phil Yeomans BNPS Agency.

Friends and relatives at Helen Taylor's grave at St. Mary's Church, Tyneham, where in 1943, she left troops a note. Photo copyright and used with permission of Phil Yeomans BNPS Agency.


Helen and Harriet Taylor with their mother 1907-8

Helen and Harriet Taylor with their mother 1907-8

Tyneham – Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor with a photo of her old home at Tyneham. Photo: Copyright and used with permission of Phil Yeomans BNPS Agency.

Helen Taylor with a photo of her old home at Tyneham. Photo: Copyright and used with permission of Phil Yeomans BNPS Agency.

Tyneham – Helen Taylor aged 17

Helen Taylor aged 17

Helen Taylor aged 17

Tyneham – The Village that Peacetime Betrayed

“Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our houses where many of us have lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”

These heart-felt words, pinned to the door of a church at a time of great desperation during the dark days of World War II could hardly have been more ignominiously dishonoured through the insensitivity of officialdom. The church was that of Tyneham near Worbarrow Bay in east Dorset and the tragedy behind those words written in good faith was for them never to be respected by faceless ministers, never to be honoured when the victory was won. Seldom has the expectation of happier days been more brutally betrayed by the eventual reality, by what the passage of time would tell.

The catastrophe, which brought the Tyneham villagers’ world crashing down, and left their community to rot amidst bats and owls, struck on December 19th 1943 with an official notice from Southern Command. With the most appalling sense of timing imaginable the entire population was to be evacuated, virtually with immediate effect. A close-knit community which had peopled and shaped a village for generations was to be ousted by the military without even the decency of being permitted to spend one last Christmas in their own homes.

Inevitably the question would arise: could not the military have waited but one more week? The military chose not to. Tyneham – and a huge area of pristine Purbeck downland, were commandeered for use as a tank gunnery school. The Army, it seemed, needed all those undefiled acres as ranges for tank training – with live shells.

Notwithstanding the cold, wet December of 1943, the young, the old, the halt and sick were callously pitched from their ancestral dwellings, many to be re-located by the compassionate Town Council of Wareham. Others had relatives to go to, or took “temporary” accommodation. Pupil, postman, parson, gardener, teacher, builder, baker – all were forced out with their chattels under the premise of a noble sacrifice for the duration of an emergency. Those offered subsidised council housing in Wareham could regain some semblance of a normal life, and the town’s Tyneham Close bears witness to where the displaced were re-housed. For the young, some re-adjustment to the new circumstances was possible; though gnawing pangs of homesickness would never fore-sake them.

The old of course were not so fortunate. Jack Miller, an ageing fisherman who owned a cottage overlooking Worbarrow Bay, was offered a condemned cottage at Langton Matravers for himself and his wife, but was dead from bronchitis not long after the end of the war. Langton’s windy and foggy atmosphere gave Mrs Miller arthritis, despite the Women’s Voluntary Service labouring on the Miller’s behalf to make their home from home habitable.

Boatbuilder Will Strickland was another fellow villager who also did not long survive his displacement. People like Strickland, who made their living from the sea felt they had nothing more to live for once they became estranged from it. The once sturdy health of these old salts was broken. They ailed, and like a dog, which loses a beloved master they pined, suffering that great death of the spirit so often the precursor to the death of the body.

On VE Day (only 17 months after the evacuation) none of the evacuees in Wareham and elsewhere dared to raise their hopes too highly that the Purbeck ranges would now contract or be closed. By 1946 nothing had changed, prompting the Tyneham villagers and their supporters to begin a long campaign for the return of their valley to civilian occupation. Following the lapse of wartime censorship for security reasons the villagers could expect press publicity about their plight to begin to circulate nationwide. ‘The New Statesman’ and ‘The Star’ were notably in the vanguard in bringing the Tyneham case to national attention.

In March 1948 a two-day public enquiry was convened after news broke that the derelict homes in Tyneham were to be compulsorily purchased. Acting on behalf of the Tyneham people J. Scott Henderson KC made a watertight case for the return of the ranges to peaceful uses. The clay-pit workers and miners of the area, natural history societies, the YHA and NFU, and several other organisations and churchmen with vested interests also pressed for the War Department’s pledge of withdrawal to be honoured.

What emerged from this enquiry was that the Government did acknowledge that the withdrawal pledge had been made; yet the area was still required by the Army. The reason, as Brigadier Duncan for the War Department explained, was that by 1942 American tanks required a range of over 2,400 yards, so that there could be no contraction of the target area. It was this simple most important fact that underpinned why such an extensive area was needed; why a century’s old community found itself in the line of fire.

For the displaced villagers, who became more expectant that re-occupation could be nigh, the compulsory purchase was a devastating blow. At a hastily convened meeting in Wareham the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, broke the bad news. The only comfort he could offer was that: “every effort would be made to make sure that when firing does not take place the public should have access to the road to Worbarrow Bay.” Those who contested the CPO were informed their properties would be requisitioned anyway.

At the time of this enquiry the Tyneham, Lulworth and Holme Ranges – together with Bovington – occupied about 11,500 acres! Tyneham House, for generations the village’s cosy manor, was boarded up by a mason. Then an uneasy peace descended upon the ranges. The exiles, as best they might, never gave up hope of one day being able to return to re-purchase their properties and repair the effects of target damage and the elements.

Then in 1960 the War Department gave the screw another turn. Territorial demands were extended still further, with the closure of more roads and rights-of-way to the public within the range area. Angry letters flew to the local MP, the Transport Minister and the War Department. In January 1961 an extension to the closure to certain roads on the East Holme and Lulworth Ranges prompted further enquiries in Dorchester.

However, hopes of liberation from the Purbeck Ranges briefly arose in 1963. Then Col. Forbes Hendry, the Aberdeen MP, suggested in the Commons that the Army exercises in the south could be re-located to Scotland, where there were better facilities and more extensive, suitable terrain for tanks than the environmentally sensitive Dorset coast. Hendry’s very valid point fell on deaf ears, mainly from the peculiar excuse that the tanks would get stuck in the mud. As it was pointed out that in Purbeck the ground was persistently muddy even in dry weather, the objection was very strange indeed. Although the Army did open Tyneham car park on Bank Holidays, it seemed always on the lookout for any excuse to exclude the public indefinitely.

The first and only human deaths to occur on the ranges probably provided the best excuse the Army could have wished for. One March morning in 1967 two 14-year-old boys from Stoborough near Wareham were killed by tank fire when they strayed onto the East Holme Range. This led to a flurry of new warning notices referring to the tragedy in particular and the need for the public to heed regulations in general. But the deaths had a very positive deterrent effect on mothers, who may otherwise have had no qualms about taking their sons down to Worbarrow Bay when the Tyneham road was open.

In 1965 Monica Hutchings, who had written the script for a documentary film featuring Tyneham in 1948, moved into the area. Soon afterwards a local resident approached her concerned about the welfare of the ponies who grazed the Tyneham valley. A farmer’s wife, Mrs Hutchings took up the plight of the ranges stock and wildlife with the local RSPCA and NFU. She took photographs of the animals, intended for use as evidence at enquiries but also evidence of damage to Tyneham and its adjacent hamlets.

Then came the ministerial announcement that Tyneham House was to be demolished. Fighting her way through the undergrowth Mrs Hutchings took a picture of the house to prove that it was in no ruinous condition. Neither was the valley-head position of the 520-year-old manor in any direct line of fire. Even Tyneham House’s hereditary owner, Brigadier Mark Bond, was not consulted about the demolition plan. Remarkably, his later response was one of philosophical resignation, saying that he could neither prevent nor condone the house being bulldozed into oblivion.

A rumour began circulating in 1967 that the Army was going to pull out of Tyneham after all, and briefly there was more freedom of access while demolition lorries were coming and going. In reality, instead of a withdrawal the “overshot area” of the valley was being promoted – to a third full-scale range. New emplacements, lookouts, firing points, fences and targets were added, and new red warning flags fluttered above the cliffs.

On May 18th 1968 in an upper room of the Moule Institute at Fordington a steering meeting took place to set up what would become the Tyneham Action Group (TAG.) The intensification of targeting in the valley had been the last straw in two decades of an ever-tightening grip by the Army on East Dorset’s beautiful priceless coast. The twenty-or-so people attending had been invited by Rodney Legg, the first editor of ‘Dorset County Magazine,’ to challenge the military to “surrender Purbeck” as he put it in an editorial for the magazine.

The formation of the group then triggered a wave of press, TV and radio coverage. On the August Bank Holiday of 1968 TAG set up an information table at Tyneham car park. It was estimated that on the day almost 6,000 membership forms were issued. Also that summer the Wareham-Kimmeridge road was closed when a new firing point was installed on Creech Hill.

Using slides, Monica Hutchings gave an illustrated talk at a special meeting held in Wareham Parish Hall in November. The audience were shown the extent of damage to Worbarrow Tout, Gad Cliff (with its fulmar nests,) a pony injured by missile-wire, and houses in Tyneham itself.

On the Easter Bank Holiday of 1969, TAG held another post at the car park, this time distributing leaflets asking members and supporters to lobby their MP’s in advance of a deputation the group would be sending to the MOD the following month. On the 22nd of May the chairman and committee members presented their case to the ministry. Members spoke in turn on various aspects and photographic evidence was produced, together with a comprehensive dossier.

While TAG had every hope of success in their mission, by the late 1960’s social change was the effect, which would have an important bearing on their objective. The rise of easier travel, tourism and leisure meant that access to the coast became more sought after than ever. But the Army’s case for continuing occupation was further undermined by advances in laser technology. A new device for the Chieftain tank was developed called Direct Fire Weapons Effect Simulator, which removed the need for the firing of live shells and the sapping of unexploded ordnance afterwards.

Was the seemingly permanent occupation down to ministerial indifference pure and simple? Did the powers that be have an ulterior motive, that in leaving the Army in occupation immunity from the populating and despoliation of the coast from commercial and holiday development would be guaranteed? Or were the post-war prospects for the release of the land the first and only casualties of the Cold War on English soil?

Whatever the reason the Tyneham villagers never returned, or could return. Ultimately, in 1975 safe access to Tyneham was restored. On the 5th September that year Col. Sir Joseph Weld cut a tape to mark an official re-opening of the Lulworth Range. This marked the effective end of the long campaign to free Tyneham, and the Army would thereafter make a point of being seen to be environmentally aware. But ironically, it would be believed in some quarters that the presence of the Army had been more beneficial for the environment than originally thought.

What befell this scene of dereliction in Purbeck, and the feelings of those never able to take up the thread of their halcyon existence again, could best be summed up by the Worbarrow Bay fisherman who, returning as a “lucky” veteran from the Great War quipped: “I fought for this bit o’land, and when I come ‘ome they try to starve me out of it!”

Footnote: Please go to Editor’s Updates in the forum area for more on this story.