The various “Hovering Acts” introduced by the British had at their heart, a very simple premise:
They attempted to halt the imports of smuggled goods and ensure a flow of revenue into the Exchequer to support what would become a massive National Debt. But as the free trade grew and ships became faster and more manoeuvrable, the Hovering Acts needed amending to keep pace. (During the French Wars and other conflicts the Acts were also adapted to place economic and trading sanctions on enemies.)
The first Hovering Act for customs and fiscal purposes was passed in 1709 followed by two other Acts in 1718 and 1719. Both of these Acts conferred jurisdiction on customs officers over vessels of 50 tons burden or hovering within the limits of any British port or within two leagues of the British coasts respectively.
The effect of these three Acts was limited and a new Act was passed in 1736. This extended the jurisdiction of the customs authorities to four leagues over vessels not exceeding 100 tons. A further Act of 1784 described as ‘for the more effective prevention of smuggling’ expanded the jurisdiction of the customs authorities within the four leagues to a wider range of vessels (size and type) which belonged wholly or in part to British subjects. Any suspected vessel which did not heave to when required or while pursued could be fired at or into.
But as with most challenges to human nature, where there’s a will, there’s a way and invention became a key attribute and talent of successful smuggling organisations. False bottoms to boats, modesty panels between cabins with contraband hidden behind them, sewing pearls of contraband underwater – especially rum and Hollands (gin) for later collection by smaller boats – were some of the common techniques employed.
The reason for a succession of ‘Hovering Acts’
By 1784 it was estimated that smuggling exceeded 20% of imports and accounted for half of all tea in Britain. High duties made smuggling profitable, so Pitt decided to reduce duties to make the temptation no longer commensurate with the risks.
Tea duties, averaging 119%, were reduced to 25%. Duties on wines, spirits and tobacco were also reduced. By 1789, the quantity of tea passing through Customs doubled and in one year (1784-5) the Exchequer got an extra £200,000. By 1792, government revenue had increased by £3m as a result of legally increased consumption.
(The 1787 Hovering Act also contributed to this turnaround. The Act attacked smuggling by extending the duties of Customs officials to 12 miles off-shore.)
Apart from keeping smugglers at a distance, the various Acts also put restrictions on vessels. The 1718 Hovering Act made it illegal for vessels smaller than 50 tons to wait within six miles of the shore, and brandy imported in smaller boats (under 15 tons) were also liable to seizure.
From such a simple intention came a complexity of arguments concerning the use of ‘Hovering Acts’ and their legitimacy (or interpretation) at international law.
At the heart of the legitimacy and validity of the ‘Hovering Acts’ was the presumption over territorial waters and sovereign rights. To the 20th century eye, the concept that a ‘hovering act’ could lay claim to 100 leagues (345 miles) around the UK may seem outrageous. It certainly did to some foreign powers who contested such a claim.
The penalties of hovering
Any vessel found hovering in English waters was liable to confiscation, destruction, and the captain and crew fined, imprisoned or even condemned to transportation.
The owners could also be charged and heavy fines imposed. But they were resourceful and influential men. Bankers like Nathan Rothschild wielded immense power. (See ‘Naughty Mr Rothschild: was he caught in the act?’.) Organisations like the Seasalter Company treated fines and destruction of property as a matter of expenses incurred. Indeed, the life expectancy of a smuggling vessel was reckoned good if it lasted 10 or more missions.
In the case of the Seasalter Company, an employee caught smuggling could expect support and help. Within the organisation there were attorneys at law, sheriffs, clergymen, tide surveyors, coast-waiters and riding officers. These officers not only helped to keep the free enterprise of the Company secret and discreet, they could be called upon to influence any charges brought against farmers, sailors, fishermen and others who supported the Company’s endeavours.
So effective was the organisation that there is as far as can be seen, no record of an organisation called ‘The Seasalter Company’. It was a title first used by Wallace Harvey, a local historian. And even more surprising, charges and convictions against people involved in the organisation seem to be very rare.
And yet, we know that the oystermen of Whitstable and surrounding areas, were brilliant sailors who could outrun or evade the Customs with relative ease. They knew the mud flats intimately and how to navigate them. As for landing and bringing a consignment inland and onwards to Canterbury or London, the network of farms and buildings with a highly effective signalling system, warned smugglers in Seasalter about militia movements before a detachment had even reached the outskirts of Canterbury after leaving barracks. The farmers and laborers knew the marshes and ancient woodlands, intimately. A consigment of several hundred ankers of rum could easily disappear for a few days or weeks in Blean Woods or Graveney marshes.
Nevertheless, the Hovering Acts did make life difficult and the penalties could be severe for many free traders. So the moral was simple: don’t hover at sea unless you have an escape plan.
Alan M. Frommer. The British Hovering Acts: A contribution to the study of the contiguous zone. Université Libre de Bruxelles.
Alan Armstrong, The Economy of Kent. 1640 – 1914.
Wallace Harvey, ‘The Seasalter Company – a Smuggling Fraternity. (1740 – 1854)
Nicholas M Poulantzas. The Right of Hot Pursuit in International Law