West Lulworth

a Registered One-Place Study and part of the Dorset OPC network


Smugglers’ customers

Some of the contraband landed in southern England was consumed locally: tilling the rich soil a little way inland made many a farming fortune, and just as the squire demanded the best brandy, so too his daughters expected the best French lace. However, there is evidence that the smuggled imports often found their way to London: a trail of stories of smugglers' hidden depots points to a cross-country highway that channelled goods from the coast to the markets in the capital.

Amazingly, some contraband made its way to London from as far afield as West Dorset: in 1719 a merchant at Lulworth was importing cocoa beans at a time when there was a taste for drinking chocolate only among the smarter London set. Some contraband travelled long distances inland for different reasons. Cargoes of brandy landed in Dorset in the early 19th century were of such poor quality that they were virtually unfit to drink, and the kegs were carted a safe distance from the coast to undergo a further distilling process, before being sold in the town taverns.

Lulworth Cove

SY8279 10m SE of Dorchester close to the village of West Lulworth. Mupe Bay is a mile to the E.

This picturesque spot makes a neat full stop at the western end of the isle of Purbeck. The cove has been described as the most beautiful in Britain, and makes an almost perfect circle, surrounded on all sides by cliffs. This extremely sheltered bay could therefore be used in virtually all weathers, and was of course the ideal spot to sink tubs. One, a hogshead of French red, bobbed up in 1717, and was promptly seized, though it proved to be 'poor thin stuff that will not keep'.

A couple of years later nearly a dozen smugglers were stopped near the cove as they tried to run wine and brandy in the early hours of a summer's morning. They fought like demons with flails, swords and clubs, and when it looked like they'd lose the cargo, the smugglers staved in some of the barrels, and made off with the remainder. The battle between smugglers and revenue men went on for some twelve hours, and attracted people from four parishes, who ran off with the abandoned barrels.

In the early years of the 18th century the local venturer at Lulworth was one Charles Weeks, who lived at Winfrith, and who had developed a particularly shrewd way of defrauding the revenue. He would buy seized goods at legitimate auctions, and mix in the smuggled article for onward shipment, often to London. When an officer challenged Weeks to produce receipts showing that duty had been paid, Weeks could often do so. When he couldn't, he would threaten the officer with litigation; on the pittance paid by the government, no customs officer could afford a legal action, so the smuggler escaped.

Smugglers are said to have stored contraband in a cave at the most easterly point of Mupe Bay. In 1906 it could be reached ...by following the coast from Lulworth, and by descending the cliff the moment the bay is reached. The cave is at the foot of the precipice, at a spot where a little channel has been cleared between the boulders for a boat to land.  

The Lulworth men evidently took no chances of being identified by the local customs authorities: on a tombstone in Weymouth's Bury Street cemetery there is the following inscription:

Sacred to the memory of Lieut Thos Edward Knight, RN, of Folkestone, Kent, Aged 42, who in the execution of his duty as Chief Officer of the Coastguard was wantonly attacked by a body of smugglers near Lulworth on the night of 28th of June 1832, by whom after being unmercifully beaten he was thrown over the cliff near Durdle Door from the effects of which he died the following day.

See full account of 1832 murder

The route that contraband followed inland from Lulworth went directly through the village of Wool, where in the 1820s the landlord of the Ship Inn, Tom Lucas, supervised onward shipment and storage. He was a formidable man, and his associates were notorious for their violence.

Arish Mell

SY855803 2 miles E of West Lulworth

To the west of the marble workings of Purbeck, every point where there was direct access to the sea was pressed into service at one time or another. Worbarrow Bay was a popular landing spot, with Arish Mell beach in the middle especially convenient: one run there in 1719 was of spectacular proportions, with five luggers unloading together, and...

A perfect fair on the waterside, some buying of goods, and others loading of horses... there was an army of people, armed and in disguise, as many in number as... at Dorchester fair.

Nearly sixty years later, a local newspaper reported that...

A Dunkirk schooner landed... upwards of twenty tons of tea, in sight of and in defiance of the Custom House officers as they were mounted twenty four-pounders, which they brought to bear on the beach. The smugglers on shore carried it off in three waggons and on horses, except twelve hundredweight, which the officers seized, and carried to a public house at West Lulworth... but thirty or forty of the schooner's people, well armed, followed after, and broke into the house, beating and cutting the people they found there in a cruel manner, and carried off the tea.



The following extracts are taken from the Smugglers’ Britain website by kind permission of Richard Platt, author of ‘Smuggling in the British Isles - A History’.