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Smugglers’ frontiers

15 June 2009 by stepheng

Painting of a small boat being unloaded onto a beach

‘Smugglers unloading barrels in a rocky cove entrance’ by Thomas Luny

Two of my ancestors, John Guy (1731 – 1792) and his younger brother Peter (1736 – 1791), were Customs officers in Liverpool during a period of great growth in the port.

They were both tide waiters who would meet incoming vessels arriving on the high tide and make sure they tied up at the right place on the quayside. Tide waiters needed to ensure that the cargo was not unloaded out of sight of three other officials – the Customs controller, collector and surveyor. 

The brothers also spent periods as mariners. Peter was Liverpool’s only letter carrier (postman) about 1775 when the people of Liverpool applied to the Post Office for more postmen to be appointed. However, the application was rejected because only one was allowed in any town in England.

Only two years earlier Liverpool street names were marked and the houses numbered, making Peter’s life a lot easier.

Since the days when tobacco and brandy were landed on remote beaches from sailing ships, beating smugglers at their own game has taken ingenuity and daring. Watching what is going on at our ports, airports and other access points is where much of the day-to-day work lies.

Front line officers check containers, vehicles, ships and aircraft – sometimes examining their contents. They are on constant lookout for suspicious-looking passengers and goods, often acting on information received from law-enforcement agencies abroad. Until the 1960s this was a male-dominated world. It’s only recently that female officers have joined the front line.

These days some tasks once undertaken by Revenue & Customs are carried out by the Border and Immigration Agency.

There are fascinating displays in Seized: Revenue & Customs Uncovered, the gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

There is a tuck stick disguised as a walking stick. Manufactured by the Dring and Fage instrument company of London in the late 19th century, it was used by Customs officers to detect contraband. It would be used to probe bundled products such as tea and cotton.

An oil painting, Smugglers Unloading Barrels in a Rocky Cove Entrance by Thomas Luny (pictured), captures the atmosphere of covert contraband operations.

There are examples of seals used by officials. A waterguard’s button seal was used to stamp red wax seals on taxed goods after inspection after 50 years ago. There is an official reference manual from the same period.

A 1960s Customs officer’s cap shows a portcullis topped by a crown, the symbol of Customs until 2005 when the new Revenue & Customs service was created.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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