Small, almost insignificant details of a Last Will and Testament can often lead to hidden parts of a person’s life and leave you speculating about what was actually being bequeathed.
Many bequests represent significant icons; tokens charged with meaning and pointing to events that have value far beyond the bequest itself.
Amongst the household items and contents William leaves to his faithful wife Elizabeth, are the ‘fine wines and liquors’ in the cellars of their house at Petham. It must have been a very fine cellar that William kept given his position as a wealthy brewer and his special interest in the free-trade but the crucial question is, on what scale were these fine wines and liquors maintained?
Several free-traders were opportunists but William developed a powerful well-planned network. His planning was so meticulous, the Seasalter Smuggling Company avoided discovery throughout its history. (Some of the larger gangs were incapable of maintaining anonymity. They even took pride in strutting their size and strength against the militia and preventive officers.)
William was different. He built and maintained a wide range of properties in the Blean, around Canterbury, Whitstable, Petham and as far as the Isle of Sheppey. Some featured ‘high walls and a number of outbuildings’ ensuring privacy. There were also the Baldock farms and estates – convenient staging posts for contraband bound for London or Canterbury.
What the Company traded in
This depended on changing demands and the levels of taxation. An often quoted example was tea. Everyone wanted tea even when it was carrying a 119 per cent tax. The Commutation Act of 1784 immediately cut this to 12.5 per cent and the trade in Bohea, Green and Hyson tea disappeared almost overnight.
Fine wines, brandies and gin were staple imports for free-traders and would have suited William well, given his brewing enterprise based in Canterbury.
From the auctions of contraband that took place at Custom Houses we find a wide range of fabrics, lace, and millinery goods on offer as well as exotics like Indian and Chinese silks. Nankeens, muslin handkerchiefs, neckcloths and callicoe were also listed for sale in local advertising.
Without the inventories from the two hoys that William operated out of Whitstable and London we can only presume that a man with his entrepreneurial spirit would have taken advantage of what was on offer and what was popular.
William was also active in the lucrative business of repatriating prisoners-of-war, both Dutch and French. He probably worked with other networks like the one organised by James Feaste but he also had his own connections abroad. (In the Will, there is mention of a family from Flushing who had settled in England but could have provided useful connections to Continental Europe.)
Surprisingly, there is little mention of free-trade for sugar or tobacco in the South East. The trade appears to have been more active further North with boats arriving from the West Indies and America.
Scale of trading.
So, on what scale did William Baldock’s Company operate? Various accounts of seized contraband from other smuggling gangs suggest it was massive.
The Custom-house Sales that took place around the country during the 18th and 19th centuries also offer some idea of size as well as the range of goods. Some seizures reported in newspapers were enormous and Mr Baldock, with his influential connections and network would have taken full advantage of what was on offer at these events.
Custom-house Sales offered the public a chance to purchase much-sought-after goods in quantity at discounted prices. They were popular events amongst gentlemen and tradesmen who could afford to make large purchases.
In March 1801 His Grace of Queensbury and the Earl of Yarmouth were the principal purchasers of Parisian elegances at a Customs Sale. In June of the same year Thomas Flint, haberdasher, hosier and laceman declared ‘Cheap Days all Year’ for his customers at his newly-established Warehouse in Grafton Street. Flint was basing this new business on a successful formula he had established at his Grafton Street shop.
Mr T. Flint particularly ‘solicits the Nobility and Ladies to inspect his French thread laces and lace veils, having just purchased them to a very large amount at His Majesty’s last Custom-house Sale.’ Flint offers a wide range of merchandise including Valenciennes lace, curious point grounds and black lace.
A year later, Foster and Brown at No.25 Oxford Street, London were offering special discounts on fifty-five Square and Long India shawls. Their prices deep discounted items retailing at £120, selling them for £70. They sold other merchandise at a third off indicating just how much could be saved through the Custom-house Sales.
William Baldock had the means to purchase Sales goods on a large scale.
In another small detail of his Last Will and Testament of 1812 he mentions a victualler and late servant, William Bax, who would have been a useful man for items that could only be purchased by the dealers.
Another common practice for distributing contraband was to mix it with legal imports, confiscated and rescued goods from shipwrecks and sold through the Custom Houses.
Given the size of William’s estates and properties across Kent he had plenty of hiding places for his illegal imports. Away from prying eyes and behind high walls, they were ideal places for repacking and distributing goods.
Any attempts to investigate and track down merchandise at the different properties, amongst remote woodlands, copses, and marshland was almost impossible. There is only one account of the Baldock family coming under scrutiny from the local magistrates. One of the family was taken to court for erecting a property and out-buildings without permission. The outcome was no more than a disapproving reprimand that made a short paragraph in the local newspaper.
Fighting the black economy
The goods on sale at Custom-houses represent a snapshot of imports (and exports) being traded over the years – legal and illegal.
We can also gauge the efforts that the government went to in combating smuggling by the volumes of goods that came up for sale. These varied over the years depending on the zeal of the preventive officers and the number of customs vessels patrolling the coast.
In January 1760, the Dover Customs-house offered for sale 33 half hogshead and 950 small casks compromising:
3,542 gallons of foreign brandy
3,859 gallons of foreign Geneva (gin)
130 gallons of rum
7 ½ gallons of arrack
And 4,056 lbs of Bohea, Green and Hyson teas.
Ten years’ later the same House was offering: 2,531 gallons of Geneva and 3,939 lbs of Hyson, Green and Bohea teas.
Another factor was the embargoes on trade imposed by both the French and the British. Napoleon actually encouraged English smugglers to make runs between England and France offering them two safe ports on the French coast where a thriving trade built up during the French Wars. (See: Napoleon’s affairs with the bankers and smugglers.)
Dover appears to have been a major centre for impounding contraband and other cargoes from shipwrecks to bankrupt stock. The town had a strong military presence and it was also one of the busiest ports on the South coast.
The two Custom-houses that would probably indicate the cargoes William Baldock was trading in were Faversham and Canterbury.
Faversham operated on a smaller scale than Dover even though it had authority over much of the North Kent coastal towns such as Whitstable which was for a time, a port.
In August 1770 Faversham offered Brandy (48 gallons), Geneva (145 gallons), Tea (18lbs), claret (48 bottles) 279 pieces of Nankeens, 38 book muslin, muslin handkerchiefs, neckcloths, and white callicoe.
At a Sale in April 1772, fabrics and related materials seem to be the order of the day:
8,550 ells Blois lace and edgings, 844 ells thread lace and edging, 14 pairs lace lappets, 10 pieces India silk handkerchiefs, 21 yards Soosey (Sousae), and 13 yards India silk peeling. All items were marked for export.
As the amounts and range of goods grew it appears some Customs Houses decided to have specific Sales days for different customers.
In the same April 1772 Faversham held a second Sale offering 140 lbs of tea, 50 gallons Geneva, 30 gallons brandy, 5 gallons rum, 36 gallons white wine, 580 lbs of raisins, 689 china cups and saucers, 70 pieces of nankeens.
By the 1800s, dealer-only consignments were a standard feature of the sales. Foreign brandy featured strongly. Geneva was a strong second selling line. With a Custom House certificate and sales slip, the merchant could remix and sell on to the public, usually at discounted prices.
By the time of William Baldock’ death in December 1812, the Seasalter Smuggling Company was beginning to fade into the background of the North Kent landscape. William Baldock Junior, who inherited many of the estates was a manager of valuable land rather than land hiding secret cargoes. The railways were coming. Major new roadways were opening up. And an industrial revolution was bringing about a new way of life that made this isolated part of Kent more conspicuous, popular and connected.
Footnotes and references about:
The elusive James Feaste
William Baldock’s two hoys