Custom and Excise Officers

It can hardly comes as a surprise to read that the Gaugersor the Revenue Officers, were very unpopular in coastal communities. Legal or not, the smuggling trade benefited large sectors of these communities – if not by regular employment then by casual, and/or the enjoyment of cheap supplies of spirits, tea tobacco and snuff, to say nothing of duty free salt for the pilchard-pressing and fine quality salt for household use. The suppression of this trade was seen as the ruin of many. However, by the smuggler’s losses the revenue officers also received financial gain. For every seizure of contraband goods taken and marked with the government’s ‘broad arrow’ the seizing officers profited. Every anker, tub, cask, chest, bag or bail of contraband they could seize, were cut, branded or stamped with the arrow, and ultimately sold at auction.

If cornered the smugglers were quick to spike or smash in the heads of the containers of spirits, in part to destroy the evidence, but in the main to prevent the officers from profiting by their seizure. Dry goods were not so easily disposed of.

Relatively lowly paid, these seizure rewards were an essential part of the remuneration of the revenue officers, but this supposed element of financial encouragement also worked against the authorities. It made the officers venal and more likely to be open to receiving bribes. It also discouraged them from effectively suppressing smuggling – killing the golden goose.’ Thus it was not until 1809 that this reward system was abolished and the officers were expected to do their duty and make seizures without the sweetener of prize money. Little wonder then that the gaugers were unpopular with the seafaring communities. Michael Tresider Surveyor of Customs Penzance wrote:

there are complaints that the Penzance Customs Officers cannot make their appearance out of doors without being insulted …we are surrounded by a set of the most abandoned fellows in the nation.

TNA CUST 68/12 letter number 64 of 24 July 1782

Despite their conjoint names, the Customs & Excise Departments were not then part of an integrated service, a factor which is not well appreciated. Frequently written and talked of as the Customs & Excise, they were in fact two independent revenue departments. Each had its own Board of Commissioners; Bureaucracy; Rules and Regulations; financial targets, and ‘reward ‘ system. Thus they frequently worked in competition, rather than in cooperation, with each other. Any potential cooperation was frequently frustrated by the vexed question of these seizure rewards. Mutual cooperation was rare, and even when it occurred, the seized goods were invariably ‘held’ by the stronger party at the time of seizure. For the other party, trying to get an equitable share of any resulting seizure reward was like getting blood out of a stone. Great rivalry persisted, but the Excise department, notionally only concerned in collecting the internal duties of the country, earned by far the greater. amount of revenue at this time.

Whatever the rival factions in the revenue service, the battle to suppress smuggling and make sure that sufficient duty was being collected to keep the nation solvent, continued in its muddled, confused and conflicting style. With the occasional help of the military, the Customs could at least make some headway on land – though this was rarely adequate. But, as we have heard before, off­ shore there was always a fear that there was no vessel available with armament sufficient to oppose threats from privateers, armed smugglers, pirate marauders or enemy invaders.

The pleas of the Penzance officers were not, however, completely ignored. When John Knill withdrew his revenue cutter from duty at St Ives there was much public pressure exerted to have another cutter or sloop placed on station in the vicinity. No revenue cruiser as such was forthcoming, but one can imagine the air of relief and rejoicing amongst the shopkeepers, merchants and gentry of Penzance, when they learnt that HM Sloop Fairy was placed in commission to guard the South West approaches and Mounts Bay. On 20th October 1783, The Times carried a brief note: ‘Fairy – on station in Mount’s Bay.