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Spare the cutter

1 June 2009 by stepheng

Painting of a white sailed ship on a choppy sea.

The Revenue cutter, Harpy, chasing a smuggler. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

In the 1980s I spent several happy holidays in the Canary Islands where you could buy fabulous big Cuban-style cigars very cheaply. The Canaries – although part of Spain – were not in the EU so only a limited amount of duty free tobacco could be brought home. However, the Los Cubanos were so cheap I’d buy lots and declare them at UK Customs. The officer would weight them and work out the duty to be paid. A receipt was handed over as proof of the transaction.
 
Smuggling has been around ever since duties and taxes were levied on goods and commodities. From the days of sailing ships to the present day, Customs officers have relied on the latest technologies to counteract smuggling.

Both in the 18th century and now they have used some of the fastest and most manoeuvrable boats available. These cutters, as they are known, enable officers to chase and board vessels at sea and in remote ports.

In 1779 nearly four million gallons of gin and more than five million pounds weight of tea were smuggled into Britain, landed on beaches up and down the coast. At that time tea was a very expensive luxury which was kept in locked caddies usually in the homes of the rich. More than two-thirds of the tea consumed in Britain during the 18th century was smuggled.

The Commutation Act of 1784 slashed the tax on tea, smuggling it ceased to be profitable and the smuggling trade vanished virtually overnight.

Today tobacco and spirits are still smuggled and have been joined by Class A drugs such as heroine and cocaine. Between 1996 and 1998, the London-based Wright Gang smuggled in at least three tonnes of cocaine on yachts. In April 2007 they were jailed after an 11-year investigation.

Seized: Revenue & Customs Uncovered at Merseyside Maritime Museum looks at many different aspects of smuggling and related issues.

Two ships models show the development of the Customs cutter. The Sprightly was used by the Revenue service at the end of the 18th century. She was heavily armed, fast and could be moved with dexterity and skill. The other cutter model shows the Vigilant, one of a fleet of five cutters that today patrol the waters around Britain. The 42-metre long vessel was built in Holland in 2003.

An 1840 coloured engraving (pictured) shows the Revenue cutter Harpy chasing a smugglers’ ship. Casks are bobbing in the water after being jettisoned by the smugglers.

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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