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In 1794 Jonas King was appointed riding Officer and coastwaiter at Whitstable in the port of Faversham. His annual salary was £25 plus £15 expenses towards the keep of a horse. The appointment came from the Board of Customs1 which meant that Jonas focussed on preventing the movement of smuggled goods which had eluded the Revenue cruisers at sea and the customs officials in the ports.

For a man like Jonas the position was probably an unexpected career choice. Jonas came from a well-established Kent family with a father who is described as a ‘gentleman of Dover’. With such a background many other more lucrative opportunities would have been open to Jonas but the role of riding officer comes as a surprise.

Jonas King patrolled a large stretch of the coastline around Seasalter.

Jonas King patrolled a large stretch of the coastline around Seasalter.

Few men were more loathed than the riding officer. The appointment involved patrolling a predetermined area of coastline, liaising with other riding officers (in person or by letter) and gathering local intelligence concerning cargo movements and contraband that might be landing or being held at secret locations. The riding officer always kept a journal which reported his activities and was inspected by the Deputy Receiver General at least once a year.

The position hardly provided an income commensurate with the risks involved. There are a number of newspaper accounts about these officers being attacked by armed batmen who escorted contraband along isolated lanes and tracks. Neither was it a lifestyle anyone would choose if they wanted to be part of the local community. Most would have regarded Jonas with suspicion and even amongst the Customs profession, riding officers were viewed as untrustworthy.

But in the case of Jonas King there were other rewards and the future promise of a comfortable life, later. Local deeds and reports show that Jonas moved into one of the most imposing properties in Whitstable, complete with stables, coach house and outbuildings. It was hardly the residence of a riding officer and coastwaiter on a salary of £40 per annum.

Isolated marshes and small copses were purchased by Jonas King

Isolated marshes and copses were purchased by Jonas King

As his career develops Jonas King starts to acquire parcels of land and property using his own money and funds supplied through the Seasalter Company of free-traders. Here, we see the typical pattern of how the secretive Company used family members and trusted go-betweens to make purchases of marshland and woodland in the area. Later, Jonas will sell his land to other people connected to the fraternity and it is almost certain that in many cases he was acting as broker and agent rather than land owner. After serving his apprenticeship with the company as a detested government official, Jonas moves to Dover and starts a new career which, of course, flourishes because of his influential connections.

Jonas King kept one eye out to sea, the other on the land and always, an ear to the ground.

The combined roles of riding officer and coastwaiter gave him a unique view of what was happening along the coastline and in the ports.

The terms ‘Coast waiter’ and ‘Land waiter’ are sometimes confused but the coast waiter was generally charged with supervising the loading and unloading of cargoes from home ports whilst the land waiter watched over the loading and unloading of boats from foreign ports. (There may have been some regional variations to these roles.)

The dual role of riding officer and coastwaiter meant that Jonas King could get information and intelligence about contraband that had been landed and cargoes due for export. It was a position where he could easily influence what was going on.

If Jonas also had access to information on cargo arriving from foreign ports his information would have been complete. He would know everything concerning the movement of ships and goods along his part of the North Kent coast from Faversham to Whitstable.

Such a source of intelligence was vital to the Seasalter Company. They would have full knowledge of any smuggling activity in the area (inbound and outbound); they would be forewarned about intelligence and information the authorities might be acting on; they would know about the movement and placement of militia, dragoons and customs men around North Kent, the Medway, and Thames.

Despised by his own profession. Rejected by the community.

Riding Officers were appointed by a constitution of the Treasury and had a deputation from the Commissioner of Customs and Excise. The Officer took the oaths of office, and gave bond and security. He received printed instructions for his conduct with his deputation. He endeavoured to get information regarding any illicit practices, and was expected to make seizures whenever he could.

Customs Commissioners usually viewed Riding Officers as ineffectual, lacking courage when confronted by smugglers, and unreliable. It was a harsh judgement given their circumstances.

The one incentive granted to the riding officer was a considerable reward for any seizure made but in the case of Jonas King, these were rare. Indeed, one report stated that there had never been any sign of smuggling in his area for more than ten years.

As a coastwaiter, we might conclude that Jonas would have been even more isolated from the community who depended on the free-trade to purchase basic products and avoid poverty.

Yet paradoxically, the opposite may well have been true. Jonas King was operating to a different set of rules to those of other riding officers and coastwaiters. Within the community, they probably helped him to maintain his positions knowing that any information he had would be used for free-trade enterprise with, perhaps, a financial reward from the Company.

Appointed by the government. Employed by the smugglers. Rewarded by both. Nice work with the right connections.

Riding Officers were first established in 1671 by Charles II. They were part of the Board of Customs, but it wasn’t until 1690 that mounted customs officers were actually employed and became known as ‘Riding Officers’. They operated on the south coast but with only eight men patrolling the whole of Kent the force was totally inadequate for the job.

Riders on a Beach circa 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Riders on a Beach circa 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

By 1698 the scope of the force (now called the Landguard) was widened and in Kent their numbers were initially increased to 50 and later on, to 300 men. They were originally appointed to combat the export of wool from the country (‘owling’) but the major issue for riding officers was that they were land-based which limited their effectiveness.

A few smuggling organisations would have known about Jonas King’s connection to the Seasalter Company but it was a silent acknowledgement – one that could never get back to the authorities. Indeed, these people probably encountered him when they worked in partnership with the Company on a specific enterprise.

The argument for this is the appointment of another riding officer and coastwaiter, Richard Hobday Baldock in 1785. Richard was the nephew of William Baldock a key partner and principal architect of the Seasalter Company. Richard was also married to Mary Hobday, another influential family with London connections. (citation needed.)

Between them, Richard Hobday Baldock and Jonas King had control over a substantial part of the North Kent coastline. They were tolerated by other smugglers who suspected or knew that there was far more to the two men than anyone ever talked about. Evidence for this includes a scant report from the Kentish Gazette of August 4th, 1795:

‘On Tuesday last was seized between Faversham and Herne by Mr Richard Baldock and another Officer of the Customs (Jonas King?) 13 casks of brandy.’

The report itself is suspicious in its lack of detail. It has no specific locations, people or names attached to it. The seizure is small compared to 120 – 150 casks that the Seasalter Company would usually organise. But such a small seizure once in a while maintained the credibility of the two men who could tell the Seasalter Company about every movement of inbound and outbound cargo between Sheerness and Herne Bay.

It was just one strand of a quite extraordinary intelligence system.


Notes & References:

1(The Board of Excise also employed riding officers but these men covered the entire country and were concerned with the collection of excise duty and tax evasion.)

Wikipedia: Riding Officer

Roles and responsibilities of Customs Officers

Life of a Riding Officer in the golden age of smuggling

Wallace Harvey, ‘The Seasalter Company – a Smuggling Fraternity’. Emprint.


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