This blog is about research into one of the most secretive organisations ever created. It was concerned with smuggling but unlike many ‘gangs’ this one was different. It succeeded because of its ability to remain undetected for over 110 years.
Whilst other groups like the Hawkhurst Gang became powerful, brutal and notorious, the Seasalter Smuggling Company was a fraternity of silence. During its whole history only one member risked visibility and exposure of the Company. The architects and many members of their families built parallel lives in society, avoiding suspicion and exposure, winning respect and commanding positions of influence that ensured the future success of the enterprise.
The times were perfect for such an enterprise
The 18th and 19th centuries were periods of high taxation to fund war against France.
Customs duties had been long-established but in 1688 these were streamlined and restructured into a form that would generate more revenue for the Exchequer. Well, that at least was the plan.
The other type of duty originated from the Civil War. It was a tax on land and took the place of two older taxes — wardship and the parliamentary subsidy.
A new tax, excise, was levied to pay for the war.
Excise was a tax on domestic consumption. During civil war it covered many items, but its scope was reduced 10 years later to cover just chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, cider and spirits. However, after 1688 it was progressively widened to include other essentials such as salt, leather, and soap.
As the 18th century progressed, the slice taken by the exchequer increased as the conflicts with France ebbed and flowed. By the middle of the century, the tax on tea was nearly 70% of its initial cost, and the double burden of customs and excise duties was widely resented by a rural population often close to starvation.
The situation touched practically every level of society and ‘free traders’ were usually seen as an essential part of the local economy. Without them, many families would have starved.
The central argument for smuggling claimed that it was a trade without theft. Many argued it was the Revenue committing the crime.
Free enterprise was a way of providing goods more cheaply and everyone involved usually benefited.
Against this background, an organisation like the ‘Seasalter Company’ could go about its business with local support and a sense of cooperation from not only the local community but also those who were appointed to high positions and enterprising gentleman who could recognise a business opportunity when it presented itself.
The success of the Seasalter Company relied on discretion, secrecy, and an organisational flair and ability that would be admired even today.
For over 110 years this enterprise of gentlemen, provided wealth and income to a part of North Kent that had largely been forgotten.
Over the years, the organisation would adapt to changes in transportation, the introduction of the turnpikes, increased activity from the customs and revenue, and the changing demands in contraband and taxation.
Decline in the smuggling fortunes of the Seasalter Company was brought about by the reduction in taxes.
Tea tax dropped from 70% to 13% and many items of contraband that had previously provided such large profit-streams no longer held any appeal for gentlemen like Dr Isaac Rutton and William Baldock.
This blog is about discovering and piecing together the characters, intricate structure, and fortunes of the Seasalter Company. One of the best pieces of detective work on this was done by Wallace Harvey who pieced together a structure for the organisation, the main players, and their modus operandi. The Seasalter Company – a Smuggling Fraternity (1740 – 1854) provides an outline and some building blocks, but as Harvey says, ‘there is still much more work to be done in discovering the true character of Dr Isaac Rutton and William Baldock, architects of this fraternity of gentlemen’.