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"Smuggling in olde England - the new skirmish wargame?" Topic

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Warspite128 Dec 2019 5:46 p.m. PST

For those readers not aware, England had an epidemic of smuggling in the 18th and 19th century due to high import taxes on alcohol and tobacco. Everyone (and their wives) appear to have been 'at it' in some way either as active smugglers, concealing the smugglers contraband or as customers of the smugglers.

Some of you may have heard of the fictional Dr Syn The Scarecrow (filmed in the 1960s by Disney with Patrick McGoohan in the title role) and his running battles between his gang and the forces of the Crown on the Romney Marshes.


Most coastal towns around the UK today have fanciful smuggler stories and houses still called 'Smuggler Cottage' or 'Smuggler Farm'. Cornwall and Kent have an especial claim to being smuggler havens at least as far as their tourist boards are concerned.

Friends of mine who are re-enactors do smuggler live role-play in Cornwall, UK, during the summer months and I have always been struck by the opportunities that smuggling (like piracy) has for a table-top skirmish wargame, especially if you already own pirate figures and some period buildings.

A very useful source fell into my hands on Christmas Day (thank you Eloise!) in the shape of The Lawless Coast, subtitled 'Smuggling, Anarchy and Murder in North Norfolk in the 1780s', written by Neil Holmes. This even includes a pullout map of the major incident on 25/26 September 1784 which had revenue men and members of the 15th Light Dragoons converging on Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, from nearby Wells Next The Sea and King's Lynn.

As well as an almost blow-by-blow of that night's events the book also covers the subsequent court cases (plural) in which the Crown found it almost impossible to convict the two leading lights captured at the scene despite a soldier and Excise man each being shot dead and the two leaders being caught with recently fired carbines and fresh musket balls in their possession.

It is also worthy to note that all this happened only about six miles from where I live NOW; my village is on the map of that night's events. The hue and cry also rode past where my mother's ancestors were actually living in 1784 and it is entertaining to speculate whether any of my family were 'at it' as well either with this gang or the next one down the coast.

As well as detailing minor stories, the second part of the book is devoted to another encounter at Old Hunstanton and Thornham two years earlier where Revenue men supported by the 11th Light Dragoons found contraband in a church tower and began passing it out to the waiting wagons in the middle of the Christmas carols service and in full sight of the local Squire attending the service. He was also a magistrate and supposed to be a pillar of the community.

There is also the almost comical account of the attempted arrest of a suspected smuggler, complete with a map of King's Lynn, so you can follow the action street-by-street. The Revenue man in charge had enlisted the aid of the King's Lynn naval press gang (big men with cudgels) but when the drunken smuggler shouted for help the pub turned out into the street and it turned into a free-for-all fight. All this ended with a volley fired by the local militia called out from the nearby King's Lynn fort which managed to hit civilians and killed one innocent man and cost a woman her arm.

As a source for scenarios, as well as a look at the 'real politik' of what went on in small towns in the 18th century, the Lawless Coast is invaluable.

Priced at £10.50 GBP from Larks Press the book is ISBN 1 904006 44 2.


Skeptic28 Dec 2019 7:46 p.m. PST

And the Foundry sell at least one pack of smugglers, I believe:


As well as one of their opponents:


Warspite128 Dec 2019 11:48 p.m. PST

Bear in mind that, for the dates I gave, any AWI figures would suit for infantry and the light dragoons.
It appears that the Excise or Customs men (then two separate services) wore civilian clothes.

And these look like a 'useful' Royal Navy press gang or a swift re-paint and you have more smugglers…


Trebian Sponsoring Member of TMP29 Dec 2019 2:27 a.m. PST

Sue Lafflin Barker has self published a set of smuggling skirmish rules through LuLu.

Warspite129 Dec 2019 2:41 a.m. PST



Thank you.

Trebian Sponsoring Member of TMP29 Dec 2019 3:11 a.m. PST

@Warspite1: Those.

I've played them. They were quite fun, except for the prevalence of PIPs, of which I am not a fan.

Old Peculiar29 Dec 2019 6:39 a.m. PST

I use Donnybrook for my smuggling adventures in my solo campaign.

Londonplod29 Dec 2019 7:34 a.m. PST

Replicants did a range of smugglers and excise men in 54mm for the larger scale skirmish.

Warspite129 Dec 2019 7:53 a.m. PST

So PIPs give you the 'pip'?
I quite understand!

I have also just found Black Scorpion figures:



bjporter29 Dec 2019 9:30 a.m. PST

Sounds like a pretty interesting topic for skirmish games.

I already have a bunch of ECW style buildings that would probably work, and some highwaymen figures that would work too.

What are PIPs that you refer to?


nnascati Supporting Member of TMP29 Dec 2019 9:52 a.m. PST

Trident has a whole range of 40mm Seamen, smugglers etc., they even have a Scarecrow. I think the range is now sold by a fellow in Australia.

Lucius29 Dec 2019 12:01 p.m. PST

For podcast fans, Lore Episode 132, this week, was about smugglers at the infamous Mermaid Tavern in Rye, and the ghosts associated with the building.

Trebian Sponsoring Member of TMP29 Dec 2019 2:20 p.m. PST

@bjporter: PIPs = Player Initiative Points as per DBA. Roll a d6 and that's how many units you can move, broadly speaking.

Warspite129 Dec 2019 2:21 p.m. PST

I have visited The Mermaid in Rye several times. The Hawkhurst gang used to carouse in there openly with loaded pistols on the table, daring the Revenue and Excise men to take them on.


Note that in their attack on the Poole customs house to recover their loot, the gang noted that while the customs house was covered by the main guns of a naval sloop at high tide, at low tide the guns did not bear. So they waited until low tide at 2am!
Now… that's what I call thinking and well worth a mention in someone's wargames scenario.

And another nice bit of detail…


Warspite129 Dec 2019 2:26 p.m. PST

As Trebian says it is a system much beloved of Wargames Research Group's DBA/DBM/DBR whereby a die is rolled each turn and the pips on the die (or dies) control how many actions a player can take in one turn. These actions can include movement and some difficult actions may require two pips.

While not a fan of the pip system at all I have found it useful in my pet WW1 fast play naval rules 'Eggshells Armed With Hammers'.


Sir Sidney Ruff Diamond30 Dec 2019 1:38 a.m. PST

Thanks just ordered the book.

I was wondering about a pirate theme for Sharp Practice but this sounds interesting.

Used to holiday around Kings Lynn and Swaffham as a child as my grandmother was from there. This may give me more of a prompt to return to follow this story and follow up some family research as I'm pretty sure I got back to the late 18th Century.

4DJones30 Dec 2019 2:27 a.m. PST

You could try 'Witchfinder General' for rules, with the magic stripped out;or left in if you fancy ghosts.

Giles the Zog30 Dec 2019 2:58 a.m. PST

Dragged up in Dorset as a kid, the Moonrakers were very well known, later I learnt my grandparents were involved in the black market and smuggling, and the wider family as fishermen with boats were almost certainly involved. Never thought to play it out though.

The saddest tale I heard was how my grandmother had to turn down the offer of 10lb of steak in WW2 (she was one of the clerks controlling the ships in and out of Poole harbour) to delay his ship sailing so he could have some nookie…the Canadian captain had to set sail that evening, and his ship was sunk just outside the harbour and he died.

The other oddity was, my grandmother turned up at her office one morning, to find 4 German airmen outside it awaiting collection as POWs – they'd been shot down that night, so she had to start work and keep an eye one them.

On the upside, a couple of Italian ex-POWs turned up after the war and gifted them with two solid brass lamp standards./..for reasons never disclosed. ;-)

colkitto30 Dec 2019 8:51 a.m. PST


Getting even further off topic now (sorry) but is "Eggshells Armed with Hammers" accessible anywhwere? I have of course tried Google but it's a not uncommon expression …

Warspite130 Dec 2019 5:00 p.m. PST

I publish Eggshells Armed With Hammers privately at the moment and I am still testing. The quote comes from a speech by Sir Winston Churchill in about 1912 in which he said that future naval battles would be fought by eggshells armed with hammers.

If you search the expression and Churchill you will find various links to what he said.


Fitzovich31 Dec 2019 2:43 p.m. PST

Thanks for sharing this information.

Warspite131 Dec 2019 7:47 p.m. PST

My girlfriend bought the local history book for me for Christmas as "she did not want to buy me anything else to do with wargaming" so she was rather nonplussed to find that she HAD! :)

I said: "Buy me a book on car maintenance next time and I will find the wargaming angle…"


Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP01 Jan 2020 11:49 a.m. PST

A very long time ago my paternal G'parents' neighbor
(who came to the US from the UK in 1920) gifted me
(age 13 in 1954) with an old book.

I don't recall the title exactly but it had 'Gentlemen
of the Coast' in the title – smugglers.

Some of the information dealt with traffic between the
Dutch and Norfolk coasts, other with France/Belgium and
the coast of Kent.

The time period covered the mid-late 17th C. to the
early 19th C.

I've incorporated the 'Gentlemen' in some of the
skirmish games I've run.

Warspite103 Jan 2020 4:07 a.m. PST

By Rudyard Kipling:

IF you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again – and they'll be gone next day !

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm – don't you ask no more !

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you " pretty maid," and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been !

Knocks and footsteps round the house – whistles after dark -
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by !

'If You do as you've been told, 'likely there's a chance,
You'll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood –
A present from the Gentlemen, along 'o being good !

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by !

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