A story from the Kentish Gazette of the early 1800s serves to remind us that we need to be very sure of our partners if we’re going to be this brazen.
‘A few weeks ago, a Boltonian with his good lady, paid a visit to the Isle of Man, on a pleasure excursion. Whilst there, his attention being drawn to the dexterity employed by custom-house officials in preventing outward-bound passengers taking from the Isle brandy, etc., at too cheap a rate, he determined to see whether, on trying his hand, he or they were more expert.
Accordingly, on the day of his departure from the island, he proceeded to the pier with a trunk containing a quantity of clothing but something more, to wit, a stone bottle filled to the brim.
Just as the steamer was expected to start, the Bolton gentleman was at a short distance carrying the trunk, his spouse being a little further in the advance. When about to step on the packet he was accosted by one of the closely-watching individuals, who desired him to step back with his trunk into the searching-house!
He hesitated, excused, pleaded that the boat was starting, but all was of no avail, and he was told that he must comply. Away they accordingly went to the place, where upon arriving, the outward-bound passenger was desired to unpack his box. “Oh! said he, “If you want to look in moi box, you must take t’ rope off yursen, for oi’l not.” (sic)
The officer removed the rope, and commenced a search for smuggled goods. After feeling in the trunk for some time, during which the appearance of many a ‘dickey’ was spoiled, a cold substance was found, which proved to be the very bottle.
The taster was called upon to perform his part in the business, but how great his disappointment when, instead of real Cognac presenting itself to his tongue, the saline flavour of the bottle’s contents assured him that nothing more or less was in the vessel than a quantity of liquid, such as abounded in the Irish sea!
Placing the cork in the bottle, he handed the same to the passenger (whose risible muscles by the by, had been called into exercise), and told him to ‘make the best of his way to the packet.’
Off the cunning boy set to the boat full of glee, at having, after all, outdone the officer. This he had managed by causing the quantity of the “real stuff” to be placed in the pockets of his wife, and which, in consequence of the officer’s attention being distracted by the trunk, escaped detection.’
The story does raise some questions about the authenticity of the venture and the questionable ‘dexterity’ of the custom-house officials. You would have thought the officers might have suspected he was a decoy and searched for the Bostonian’s partner in crime. Or was it that, once aboard the steamer, the officers had no jurisdiction?
This is the first newspaper report I’ve come across that mentions a ‘taster’. Nice work if you can get it but only with the right tipple.