Historical fiction author Marie-Louise Jensen introduces us to the hidden world of smuggling – the backdrop to her latest novel Smuggler’s Kiss. Isabelle is rescued from drowning by the crew of a notorious smuggling ship, and finds herself in a world of adventure, romance, and a thrilling fight for justice.
Researching smuggling is a tortuous and fascinating conundrum. The very nature of the smuggling trade required it to be cloaked in secrecy: nothing written down, no traces left behind. The loyalty of the coastal communities to the self-titled ‘Gentlemen of the Night’, or smugglers, was absolute. And this often included the vicar, the magistrate and the squire. Deliveries to local people were made quietly and discreetly under cover of darkness; payment by cash or favours only. The ponies’ hooves were muffled and they even wore special no-jingle harnesses.
So the question is; how do we know the details of the smuggling that was done in the 1700s, at this distance of time? The answer? Honestly? We don’t.
We do have information, of course. Smugglers were caught and tried and we have the records of those trials. Dedicated revenue officers tracked and watched them and wrote reports. Evidence, in the form of barrels of brandy, was discovered in the unlikeliest of places (churches, graves, ponds) and confiscated. A few brave or foolhardy smuggling veterans wrote accounts of their adventures in later life. But these are pieces of the story; fragments that do not always fit together. The gaps are filled in by folklore and local tales which abound. Whole legends have grown up around the illicit trade. What is delightful about most of this is it is notoriously, wonderfully unreliable.
It was never in the Gentlemen’s interest to spill their secrets, their contacts, their routes or their ploys. Even caught red-handed, they were relying on being acquitted by juries loyal to the smugglers not to the King. Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall juries (the areas I studied) could rarely be brought to convict, no matter how damning the evidence. And even if smugglers were put in gaol, they relied on their colleagues in free trading to support their families; by continuing in the trade, naturally. Not to mention that measures against informers and their families were often severe. Not all the gangs were violent, but there are accounts of atrocities.
I love the idea that we don’t really know all that went on. I have based my own accounts of smuggling runs and ploys in Smuggler’s Kiss on the tales that have survived to be recounted in books, with no certainty which of them are true and which are exaggerated folklore. The notion of land signals such as a sail or sheet spread on the roof of a barn, spout lanterns or fired gorse bushes seem plausible, as does walking along a cliff in a red cloak to give an all-clear signal. I have Isabelle do this in Smuggler’s Kiss. According to stories that have survived, it was a woman called Lovey Warne of the New Forest who was credited with the daring idea.
We know that the smugglers were brazen enough to call their swift, manoeuvrable ships names like The Invisible; a name so wonderfully cheeky that I had to borrow it for the story. We also know that French traders had warehouses set up in France especially to supply the smugglers with goods packaged small enough that they could be unloaded in remote and inaccessible parts of the English coast and carried. On the other hand, the rumours of extensive caves and long tunnels inland on the south coast of England which are so popular in folklore have largely been discredited. After all, how could all that earth have been moved? Why have no long tunnels ever been found?
Ultimately, a lot of the ‘history’ is guess work. The trade kept many of its secrets. Afraid of knowing too much, the communities looked the other way and were happy to buy the Gentlemen’s cheap brandy, tea, snuff or lace without asking too many questions. As Kipling said in his poem, A Smuggler’s Song: ‘Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!’
Born in Henley-on-Thames of an English father and Danish mother, Marie-Louise Jensen’s early years were plagued by teachers telling her to get her nose out of a book and learn useful things like maths. She studied Scandinavian and German with literature at the UEA and has lived in both Denmark and Germany. After teaching English at a German university for four years, Marie-Louise returned to England to care for her children full time. She completed an MA in Writing for Young People at the Bath Spa University in 2005.
Her books have been shortlisted for many awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Branford Boase Award.
Marie-Louise lives in Bath with her two sons.
Smuggler’s Kiss is out now.