The Riding Officer was a common if unpopular occupation during the 18th century. The principal duties were to patrol the coast within a predefined riding range, meet and correspond with other riding officers either in person or by letter, discover and collect evidence about any smuggled goods along their coastline. Riding Officers kept a journal reporting all their activities and in later years, these had to be submitted, annually, for inspection. (See Wikipedia for more information.)
The role of an officer like Jonas King was often a lonely and dangerous one. With little protection from armed smugglers, he depended on working in partnership with other riding officers and collaborating with local militia and dragoons. The later 1700s and early 1800s appear to have been the most active period for riding officers.
For all their efforts, riding officers were criticised by everyone, not least their supervisors who had little concern for the dangers their officers faced, and usually regarded them as sluggish, lazy cowards.
The local newspapers, however, do give some credit to the work of these men reporting on their successes, failures and in some instances, their deaths:
May 1769. – “We learn from Ashford, that on Monday last, the supervisor and an officer of the excise of that place, in conjunction with the excise officer of Folkstone, and Mr. Knocker, riding officer at that place, seized, near Hythe, upwards of twenty bales, containing several thousand foreign chip hats; also near seventy casks of brandy and Geneva, and several bags of tea, and safely lodged the same in the proper warehouses.”
January 1770. – “We hear from Folkstone, that on Friday the 5th inst. was seized near Hythe, by Mr Gill, Riding Officer at Folkstone, thirty casks of foreign Geneva. And on Sunday the 7th of this inst. Was seized near Dymchurch, by Mr. Ratcliff, Surveyor at Folkstone, thirty-eight casks of Geneva and Rum; all which goods were deposited in his Majesty’s Warehouse at Folkestone.”
March 1770. – “We hear from Hythe, that on Wednesday last was seized on Hythe beach, by Mr. Gill, Riding-officer, at Folkstone, twenty-seven casks of foreign Geneva and Rum, which goods were deposited in his Majesty’s warehouse there.”
September 1771. – “Last Sunday was seized by Messrs. Reynolds, Wiseman, and Haulkes, riding-officers, at Chalkwell, near Sittingbourne, sixteen gallons of Brandy and gin and seven pounds of tea, and lodged the same in his Majesty’s Warehouse at Milton.”
November 1771. – “On Saturday last, Mr Rawley, Riding-officer in the service of the Customs, and his assistants, fell in with uncustomed goods, near Bromley, in this county, from whom a considerable seizure was made, and many of the smugglers so much wounded in defending the goods, that their lives are despaired of.”
January 1772. – “Last Friday, the 24th, one of the riding officers for Kent, with two assistants, followed some smugglers, when coming up with them near Dartford, they made a stout resistance. One of the smugglers was shot dead, and another terribly wounded. The two assistants were committed to Maidstone goal.”
May 1772. – “On Wednesday last was seized by Mr. Rook Colebran, jun. Riding-officer at Dover, and Mr W. Goodwin, Surveyor of the Customs, 120 half-anchors of Geneva, which they lodged in his Majesty’s Custom-house at Dover.”
June 1772. – “About two o-clock, sixteen smugglers, men and women, loaded, going over Westminster bridge, were attacked by Mr. Barham, riding officer for the county of Kent, and Mr. Newman, one of the custom house-officers for the port of London, when a scuffle ensued, and a very large quantity of fine china was broke to pieces, and a considerable quantity of tea and china was thrown over into the Thames; the remainder was taken, consisting of a coach load and carried to the custom-house.”
June 1772. – “On Wednesday the 10th inst. Was seized near Sangate Castle, by Mr Gill, riding officer, and a party of dragoons, fifty four half anchors of foreign Geneva, which goods were afterwards deposited in his Majesty’s warehouse in Folkstone. Yesterday morning about two o-clock the riding officers, attended by some dragoons, went in search of run goods in a wood beyond Sturry, when one of the smugglers gave one of the dragoons a severe blow on the head; whereupon the dragoon discharged his pistol, and shot the smuggler’s horse through the neck, and, with his sword, wounded the smuggler very much; after which the dragoons took some goods and went in search of more. The wounded man came immediately to Canterbury in order to get his wounds dressed.”
October 1772. – “The following seizure of contraband goods was made yesterday se’nnight, on the beach, in the parish of Bexhill by Messrs, Edwards and Thatcher, Riding Officers, at Hastings, and William Wood, Boatman at that place, viz. 326 casks of brandy and Geneva, 594 pair of womens’ kid gloves, 25 pairs of mens’ silk ditto, 24 coloured silk shawls, 113 yards black and coloured silks, 10 pair of womens’ white silk stockings, 15 pair of womens’ coloured silk shoes, 144 yards black yard-wide crape, and two boxes of playing cards. Also a lugger, in which the above goods were transported, and her materials; all of which were safely delivered into the care of the Collector and Comptroller of the Customs at Hastings.”
November 1772. – “On Tuesday were seized by Messrs. Elliott and Elsted, riding officers at Romney, five bags of wool at Dymchurch, which were supposed to be intended for exportation. – And on Saturday were seized by the above officers, one hundred and six tubs of brandy, and lodged in his Majesty’s custom house at New Romney.”
October 1773. – “On Thursday night a seizure was made by Mr. John Crowter, and Mr. Henry Baker, riding officers, of nine half ankers of brandy, on Sarr Wall. The smugglers disputed the matter for some time, but by the resolute conduct of the officers they were obliged to give it up, and the goods were safely conveyed to the Custom-house in this city.”
January 1774. – “We hear from Dover that on Sunday last was seized, in a wood near Swinfield Minnis in this county, by J. Gill riding-officer and three dragoons, near a ton weight of hyson, green, and bohea tea, valued at £700. Soon after they had got the tea out of the wood into a field, and the officer (for the better securing the seizure) had dispatched one soldier to Folkstone for more of the party, they were surrounded by thirty or forty smugglers, all on horseback, who came for the tea, and seeing it in the possession of only one officer and two soldiers, the smugglers insisted on part of the goods; but the officers told them, that as he had seized them for the King and himself, he would lose his life before they should have any of the goods; then drawing a pistol, swore he would maintain the whole seizure, and shoot the first man that offered to take a bag of the goods. The soldiers being of the same resolution, after rangling about an hour, the smugglers thought proper to go off in a peaceable manner, and without loss of blood. The goods were afterwards deposited in his Majesty’s Warehouse in Dover.”
March 1775. – “On Saturday last was seized between Folkstone and Hythe, by Mr Gill, Riding Officer, fifty two half anchors of foreign brandy, and thirteen bags of hyson, green, and bohea tea, which goods were deposited on his Majesty’s warehouse in Folkstone.”
June 1775. – “On Saturday last was seized by Mr. Thomas Thunder, Riding Officer, of Birchington, 21 oil-skin bags of tea, containing 555 pounds weight, about half hyson, which was lodged in the King’s warehouse, Margate.”
August 1776. – “On Tuesday last was seized, by Messrs. Pepper, Colebran, and Sayer, riding officers, and a party of the tenth regiment of dragoons, 120 half-anchors of foreign brandy, which they lodged in his Majesty’s custom-house at Deal.”
July 1804. – Yesterday morning a cutter, laden with about 500 half-ankers Geneva, was taken and sent in here by the Riding Officers of this place, who the day before saw a strange vessel hovering about the coast, and following her along shore till they reached Hythe, they employed the Custom house boat there and rowed after her, and in the course of a few hours they overtook her. By some of the mackerel boats she was taken for a French privateer, and was the means of their cutting from their nets. – Came this morning the Fanny hired armed brig from a cruise.
January 1844. – “The Commissioners of Customs have increased the Coast Guard at Rochester for the prevention of smuggling, which is believed to have been carried on to a great extent in that neighbourhood. We believe the following arrangements have already taken place: – six Riding Officers at Halling and Wouldham; a watch vessel placed just below the Bridge with 12 men, commanded by Lieut. Higginson, R.N.; at Gillingham, a station, to consist of 18 men, commanded by Lieut. Gaham, with a tender attached thereto, to guard the river from Sheerness to Gillingham.”
These sorts of published accounts not only give us an insight into the dangerous work of the riding officers, they are useful sources for determining what sort of goods were being smuggled in and out of the country at a particular time, and in what quantities. The size of the haul often helps us to decide which cargoes were the work of professional free-traders and which were opportunistic, smuggled in for personal consumption by family and friends.
British Newspaper Archives. Various publications.