Contraband at the London docks

Today’s blog is for my mother, Diana, whose birthday it is. In honour of that I have selected a case from 100 years before her birth – I hope she likes it


In 1840 the River Thames was crammed with shipping. Merchant vessels brought goods in and out of the London docks from all over the world. The docks continued to supply the former Empire until the late 1980s when they were largely demolished and turned into ‘yuppie’ housing. The docks moved out of London but continue to employ around 30,000 people, it is maintained by the Port of London Authority.

Given the huge amount of goods coming in and out of the docks pilfering, embezzlement and other forms of theft have been a constant problem for the warehouse owners, shipping companies and dock police. Dockers considered themselves entitled by custom to help themselves to plugs of tobacco, the sweepings of coal, or a tot or two of rum or brandy and this was very hard to police.

The state has also found it hard to stop individuals or companies from avoiding the tax levied on certain imported goods (such as alcohol or tobacco) and in May 1840 the issue of smuggling came to the Thames Police Court.

John Rutherford, a ship’s carpenter on an East India ship (the Earl of Hardwick) [pictured below] was charged with having 27lb of tobacco on which tax had not been paid.large

Rutherford pleaded ‘not guilty’, as well he might because the penalty for his offence was set at £100, a huge amount for 1840. Unfortunately for Rutherford it would seem he was on what we might call ‘a sticky wicket’. A Customs officer had boarded the ship and searched the carpenter’s room. There he had found that the store room had been adapted with false panels in the wall for concealing goods. In addition the carpenter’s berth on deck had also been customised: the life buoy was formed of two casks, the heads of which had been knocked out, and appeared to have contained cigars.

The officer found 27lbs of tobacco, along with a  quantity of cheroots and cigars. He confirmed that they were of a ‘foreign manufacture’ and ‘liable to a duty of 9 shilling in the pound’.

It didn’t stop there. The ship’s cook – William Wilson – was also accused. The Custom’s officer had searched his berth and found tobacco, cigars and cheroots in a false back to a cupboard. In fact the officer suggested that they could have charged the entire crew with smuggling offenses but chose only to make examples of the worst offenders.

Both men were ordered to pay the duty and to remain in prison until they had done so.In Rutherford’s case it was his second offence; presumably the rewards of smuggling outweighed the  risks of getting caught.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, May 20, 1840]

2 thoughts on “Contraband at the London docks

  1. Really appreciated today’s blog, thank you, and particularly the two illustrations. I’m tempted to remark that possibly little changes, in terms of smuggling, only the form of transport?


    1. quite true of course – I’m yet to find a people smuggling case in the Victorian press but I’m sure they exist.


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