The Maritime History of Dundee

Dundee Customs Records

By the Late Geoff Dearnly - Member of the FDCA

"The Diel's awa with the Exciseman"

The letter-books of the Dundee Customs include copies of outgoing correspondence with the headquarters in Edinburgh and so provide only one side of the "conversation": one can only speculate on the other side The earliest book dates from 1723 and after volume 2 there are gaps, some of two or three years. The letters for 1745 are missing as are those for the ten years between 1778 and 1788. In the early years, a stationery requisition for six months was for six pencils and 800 quills but the handwriting produced with these implements is often difficult to interpret. Idiosyncrasies of spelling add to the problems: a shipmaster identified as James Killer turned out to be James Keiller.
Fortunately, half of the space in the second volume is taken up with copies of letters to the local office from the Lords Commissioners who signed themselves, somewhat quaintly, "We are your loving freinds"!

Some of the people concerned included the controller, the collector, the land surveyor, the tide surveyor in charge of the tidewaiters and the boatmen and who met the ships coming in, searched them if necessary and brought them into port. All paid superannuation but there are so many mentions of officers being old and feeble one wonders at what stage they drew their pension. The docking facilities at the harbour were not v0ery advanced at that time.

The most aggravating thing about examining the records is that you may get only one side of the picture. One letter from the Commissioners in 1737 reads:
"Having received from London a copy of a letter from the Collector at Yarmouth that the "Blessing of Dundee", John Scott, Master, bound for your port from St Luca in Spain with a cargo of salt that the officers saw on board a large packet of letters in Spanish which had been left with the master by some Spaniards, taken by two sailie rovers out of the said ship. On arrival of the said ship, demanded the said two packets from the master and sent the two packets to us by express."
Why did some North African pirates board a British ship and merely take some Spanish letters, and nothing else? What was particular about these letters that were sent by express all the way to Edinburgh? Alas we shall never know.

Many of the letters tell of the imports that were coming into Dundee at that time: timber and iron from Scandinavia and the Baltic, salt and wine from Spain and Portugal, wine and spirits from France, linseed and geneva from Holland, and, occasionally, tobacco from the American colonies. The only exports mentioned in 50 years is corn to Norway and volunteers to the Dutch army.

There were two clerks in the Custom House but there was also a cooper. His job was to re-cooper the many goods that arrived in casks, after the containers had been opened to allow the contents to be examined and weighed. He was provided with hoops and nails and was paid one shilling and one and one third pence per ton of all goods seized in large casks and two shillings and two and two thirds pence for all goods in small casks. The Customs Officers were also assisted and backed up by a fleet of Customs sloops, which provided a lifeline between Dundee and head office in Edinburgh.

The craft were always named after royal princes and princesses and their commanders were always referred to as Captain, unlike common shipmasters.

Kipling mentioned "brandy for the parson and 'baccy for the clerk", and while these items always came top of the list, he did not mention wine for the gentry and tea for the ladies which followed pretty closely, as did rura arrack, soap, geneva, and even playing cards. So far some 65 items of seizure have been identified.

As merchant ships at that time were usually 60 to 300 tons, they were unlikely to carry more than one or two small boats. It was small boats that were required, however, to run the smuggled cargoes ashore and horses and carts to get contraband away from the coast as quickly as possible. The smugglers had to synchronise their arrival with that of the helpers on shore. Timing posed problems and the smuggling vessel often had to loiter as the crew sought to make contact with friends ashore. Over the years, many were challenged and their excuses rarely varied:

"We are bound for Norway"
"What are you doing here?"
"We are putting in for stress of weather." or "We are waiting for a wind."
"We have come to refill the water casks." or "We are putting in for repairs"

When the ship was waiting off the coast the master could be made to pay a sum of money to take out a hovering bond but this had no effect on what he did when he left the area. Sometimes a couple of tidewaiters were put on board to make sure the ship reached Norway, or wherever, safely. One skipper had his revenge by charging his unwanted passengers ten shillings each for their passage. Other ships were shadowed by the Customs sloops.

From 1739:
"Captain Starks (commander of a Customs sloop) has brought here the Allison, James Birrel, master, from Holland pretending bound for Norway whose cargo consists of 54 mats of tobacco, 43 mats of tobacco stalks, 49 ankers and 16 half ankers of foreign spirit. This we conclude to be little in comparison to what has been run out of her. Starks does not propose to make proof of having broke bulk, we can only oblige the master to give a hovering bond."

"Captain Tucker's sloop is come here to attend the Blessing. The mate told me he spoke to James Birrell on 1st instant in St Andrews Bay in ballast pretending to have come from Berwick. Notwithstanding he gave hovering bond for £800 and sailed on the 24th with a large parcel of tobacco for Norway."

The second letter is dated 5th September 1739 and so the evidence suggests some jet propelled journeys.
Eighteenth Century smugglers were not alone in their disregard for the law. Merchants, magistrates and others were willing to enjoy the fruits of smuggling. A letter of 23rd July 1735 suggests that the baillie, who had come to the Customs House and confiscated all the weights, had not been entirely honest in claiming that they were, inaccurate - before he spirited them away:

'The Dean of Guild who was out of town when the weights were stopped, came to me and expressed his resentment at the indignity which had been offered the Revenue in the matter. He brought the bailie in who had done it and after making ample acknowledgement, publicly delivered back the weights at their expense, from the place where they were taken. Yesterday when I ordered them to be adjusted, I found that 11 half hundreds (the ones most commonly in use) each had a considerable amount of lead run into their hollow bottoms which in a cargo of 200 hogsheads might have defaulted the Revenue of twixt £40 and £50. I must own this is the last fault I would have expected any people to be guilty of but shall take particular care that the like shall not happen again."

A letter of 11th January 1740 gives an indication of the scale of smuggling:

"Having received information that considerable quantities of tobacco, some in hogsheads and some in mats, were lodged in different cellars here, and observing by our books that the credit for that commodity is small, I proceeded to search the cellars and have brought into the warehouse 12 hogsheads and 67 mats. As the day is short and the work of this kind is dilatory considering the interruptions we meet with on such occasions, I was forced to put it in without weighing, but I compute there may be 2000 Ib of it."
People standing in the way during the search of the cellars was commonplace and officers could face worse problems. A tidesman, sent to investigate the smuggling of salt, was immediately clapped into prison by the authorities at Arbroath and was detained for some time until the Lords Commissioners served a writ on the Provost.

When everyone might seem to be against them, Customs men must have been glad to have the support of the military: to help with searches, to guard the King's warehouse - which was frequently burgled, and to assist in burning tobacco. In being burned, tobacco, tobacco stalks and snuff were the only exceptions to the rule that seized contraband should be sold on the open market or sent to Edinburgh. The support of the military could lead to additional costs, in 1754 for instance:
"Enclosed is an account for 18 shillings for mending the flintlocks of the military that were employed in the burning of tobacco, burned here on 15th inst., which we crave your honour's directions."
One wonders how the firelocks were damaged! The difficulties continued as is instanced by another letter, two years later:

"It is next to impossible to get any tobacco, tobacco stalks or snuff burned here without embezzlement, the mob appearing in such multitudes carrying off the tobacco that it is not within the power of the military to get them kept off without express orders to fire sharpshot, the consequences of which would prove fatal."

The only people who seemed to be against the trade were the fisher lairds who employed fishing boats off the coast. If their boats were taken with smuggled goods they were burned along with the tobacco.

"I delivered your letter and after having perused it he told me no man suffered more by the trade and was more willing to discourage it than he, and that he had publicly advertised in the newspaper by which he got a great deal of ill-will in his neighbourhood but he had some opportunity since to take his fishers to task but on being credibly informed by people of distinction that your honours were so tenacious of spending money upon prosecutions, that little could be expected that way except that he would be on a charge himself. It made him the more indifferent, further, that an examination of his fishermen who were above 120, would end in the unanimous denial either by word or oath and would tend to no purpose, but if your honours would, upon apprehending any of these boats, immediately imprison the men instead of protesting or applying for them back as people frequently do, you let them lie in prison until they confess, which he was sure they would. He was ready to do this on any occasion when his boats were taken and his inclination explained to your honours, you would allow them to be given back and not burned as you did three last year."

Being a Customs Officer was not a happy job. Nearly everyone was against you and it could be very rough at times. A Boatman by the name of Duncan was sent to Leven by the Tide Surveyor when Customs had heard that a cargo was to be run. A crowd of people met him and beat him up: "he knows not who they were". The fate of a Land Surveyor was even more serious:

'This morning a very unlucky accident has happened. The land surveyor, around midnight, was called out to the assistance of a tidesman and two excise officers, being informed of some casks of brandy, coming from Arbroath to this town. They took a small party of soldiers and divided upon the moor of Craigie within a mile of the town where there are several separate roads. Lowden being feeble and apprehending that the seizure might be lost by that means, ordered them to march forward and that he would follow thinking no danger.

The night was dark and he, armed with nothing but a sword, was knocked down by one fellow and the blows repeated so severely that he was left for dead. He got into a house at considerable distance, belonging to Mr Guthrie where the utmost civility was shown him, his case being shown to be one to create pity. I am just now come from seeing his wounds dressed, as he was brought into town in a coach and I think I never saw such a spectacle, the deepness and number of cuts in his head being astonishing. The physician and surgeon can say little of any certainty for a day or two..........

'The excise officers and tidesmen in their progress met the empty carts, the alarm from this town having made them lodge their loads. They were attended by a famous bully of Arbroath called Key, a sailor by trade. They however went out anew and at one Johnstone's, a farmer, have seized 18 ankers of brandy and two firkins of soap supposed to be the same that was upon the carts. This unlucky accident gives little room for examination in regard that nobody but Lowden and the person who attacked him were on the spot. As there is justice in heaven I hope that such a barbarous dog will be found out. I will say no more until my next post."

The next post followed on 10th May:

"Since my last letter, Mr Lowden the surveyor has continued without any fever in so much that his physician and surgeon seem to think that he will recover better than at first expected, much of which is attributed to the charitable reception he met with from Mr Guthrie and his lady. As I said in my last, no examination can be made upon this accident by reason that it was committed without witnesses and in the cloak of dark. It only shows the villainous disposition of these smugglers."

The Commissioners responded:

"In consideration of the ill usage of Mr Lowden, land surveyor, we direct you to pay him ten pounds and place the same to incidents, referring to this debt."

A letter on the following day granted Mr Lowden six weeks' leave without loss of salary and he appears again in the correspondence in the following February:

"Having again had consideration of the case of Mr Lowden relating to the treatment he met on 3rd May when endeavouring to seize a parcel of prohibited customed goods, his life being in the utmost danger by the bruises and wounds he then received, we direct you to pay him £2 6s being the remainder of the bill of expenses for his cure and a further £5 in consideration of his sufferings."

Violence was not one way, in 1788 for instance:

"Leslie Douglas and three boatmen stopped three smugglers with a cartload of foreign spirits. Although the officers were armed they had no plans to draw their weapons. While William Imrie boatmen was struggling with a person who had overpowered him and bought him to the ground, the blunderbuss which William carried loaded with small shot, went off accidentally and mortally injured Andrew Duncan, the driver of the cart. To this accident alone, Mr Douglas and Mr Imrie declare they owe their lives."

Customs Officers remained vigilant in their examination of imports even in time of war so, in 1756:
"James Maxwell, master of the Phoenix of Dundee, sailed from this port without cargo of goods for Newcastle and from thence to Lisbon where he took on a cargo of wines and salt. On his return home he was taken by a French privateer, who kept possession for some days which privateer was taken by a king's ship of war and brought to England with Mr Maxwelll on board where he continued for about four months. The Phoenix was likewise taken by a Jersey privateer who carried it into that place where she continued for about twelve months having nobody belonging to her on board but two boys. The owners having been advised that Mr Maxwell was in Portsmouth employed in the dockyard, wrote to him to proceed to Jersey where she was lying and bring her home. This being at a distance of four months all of which time the ship's cargo was in possession of strangers, so it is not in the master's power to make distinct report."

Customs Officers' principal job was collecting revenue but they were also an arm of government and had additional duties on the outbreak of war: for instance, to seize enemy ships and seamen who happened to be in port, to place an embargo on outward bound shipping until the Fleet was manned, and to liase with the press gang when they were in town. Letters mention money paid for discovering "concealed seamen" while others record three monthly payments of £1 15s to Greenwich pensioners.
The first mention of whaling appears in 1756 when the ships Dundee and Grantly were certificated as being adequately manned and equipped for the Greenland seas. The masters, mates and owners were each required to swear an oath that the vessels would be used fro no other purpose.
In the same year the Controller paid out the not inconsiderable sum of five shillings for an advertisement. What makes this entry interesting is that the advertisement was placed in the Dundee Weekly Intelligencer, a previously unknown newspaper of which there is no record.

Geoff Dearnley