Outside pure Naval history it would be difficult to find any period so full of incident and contest as that which is covered by the exploits of the English Preventive Service in their efforts to deal with the notorious and dangerous bands of smugglers which at one time were a terrible menace to the trade and welfare of our nation.
As we shall see from the following pages, their activities covered many decades, and indeed smuggling is not even to-day dead nor ever will be so long as there are regulations which human ingenuity can occasionally outwit. But the grand, adventurous epoch of the smugglers covers little more than a century and a half, beginning about the year 1700 and ending about 1855 or 1860. Nevertheless, within that space of time there are crowded in so much adventure, so many exciting escapes, so many fierce encounters, such clever moves and counter-moves: there are so many thousands of people concerned in the events, so many craft employed, and so much money expended that the story of the smugglers possesses a right to be ranked second only to those larger battles between two or more nations.
Everyone has, even nowadays, a sneaking regard for the smugglers of that bygone age, an instinct that is based partly on a curious human failing and partly on a keen admiration for men of dash and daring. There is a sympathy, somehow, with a class of men who succeeded not once but hundreds of times in setting the law at defiance; who, in spite of all the resources of the Government, were not easily beaten. In the novels of James, Marryat, and a host of lesser writers the smuggler and the Preventive man have become familiar and standard types, and there are very few, surely, who in the days of their youth have not enjoyed the breathless excitement of some story depicting the chasing of a contraband lugger or watched vicariously the landing of the tubs of spirits along the pebbly beach on a night when the moon never showed herself. But most of these were fiction and little else. Even Marryat, though he was for some time actually engaged in Revenue duty, is now known to have been inaccurate and loose in some of his stories. Those who have followed afterwards have been scarcely better.
However, there is nothing in the following pages which belongs to fiction. Every effort has been made to set forth only actual historical facts, which are capable of verification, so that what is herein contained represents not what might have happened but actually did take place. To write a complete history of smuggling would be well-nigh impossible, owing to the fact that, unhappily through fire and destruction, many of the records, which to-day would be invaluable, have long since perished. The burning down of the Customs House by the side of the Thames in 1814 and the inappreciation of the right value of certain documents by former officials have caused so desirable a history to be impossible to be written. Still, happily, there is even now a vast amount of material in existence, and the present Commissioners of the Board of Customs are using every effort to preserve for posterity a mass of data connected with this service.