"Custom Officers"


Mr O J Cowell

The office of a Custom Officers had arisen following the serious concern of the London authorities about the large amounts of taxable tea, tobacco and other dutiable goods that were smuggled into the country. King Charles (1660-1685) was so worried about this activity at the perimeter of his country that he appointed Captain Grenvill Collins, R.N. to make a complete survey of the Welsh coast, and he duly reported that the only viable port in the area was Caernarfon. It was only after the report of a foreign ship calling at Pwllheli in 1649 selling a cargo of limes and wines and a further report of further visitation of a foreign ship selling large sales of tobacco that a resident Custom Officer was appointed to the port. The procedure of appointing these officials is interesting as shown in a document of 1705 concerning the appointment of a Richard Lewis as a Custom Officer. Lewis was " ordered and appointed to be one of ye Boatmen upon ye Queen's boat in ye port of Caernarfon and had received the Sacrament at Llanfaglan Church ". Following the Test Act of 1673, following the Civil War all officers of Crown Offices had to deliver to the Quarter Sessions a certificate of having received the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper within three months of office. This was to ensure that all servants of the Crown professed the established religion, which barred Roman Catholics and Nonconformists from holding office, an oppressive state of affairs persisted until it was repealed in 1871.

Another interesting document was the one dated 3 Aug 1735 which described the improved conditions of employment of a Morgan Hughes as "Waiter and Researcher at Porthdinllaen a post that was responsible for examining all cargoes at Porthsgaden and " Lleyn- Head ". He was to receive in addition to his salary of £ 25 p. a. a cash payment of the value of the smuggled goods that he would seize. This incentive assured his employers that he would be always attentive in his duties and aware of all the movement of ships in the area and be present at all unloading.

There were various classes of custom officials, "Searchers" office based officials who supervised officers while enjoyed substantial salaries in instructing officials in searching for hidden smuggled goods. Rewards awarded were 50 % of the value of the recovered goods were shared for recovery of goods with the Searcher receiving a larger proportion. "Tide waiters" were Custom officers that met ships arriving on the tide and made sure of the safe discharge of the goods to the satisfaction of the Authorities. "Land waiters " were land based officials who made sure that all duties were paid. " Coastal waiters were responsible for coastal traffic between ports. " Coal Masters " were in charge of collecting the tax on coal as it was moved from port to port. " Riding Officers " were also employed, men who patrolled the coast in the vain effort to catch the criminals. These officials were extremely unpopular and were treated with much contempt, because they incurred the increasing wrath of the people by their needless minute searches of their homes and farm out buildings which often extended to their surrounding fields in search of contraband. Hugh Griffith a yeoman of Ederyn had this unhappy experience and was forced to pay a heavy fine after the discovery of a cask of brandy hidden in a hedge near the home of a neighbour, Richard Jones. This complete disregard for these officials was clearly illustrated in Pwllheli in 1796 when a strange ship arrived at the port and ignoring the frantic efforts of the Custom Officer to exercise his authority, proceeded to openly sell their goods.

This frustrated officer afraid of being accused of neglecting his duties appealed to the military for help and to his relief they managed to force the smugglers back on their ship, which quietly sailed away. The custom official was not very satisfied with this outcome, and was worried of the possibility of the ship's return when the available soldiers would not be strong enough to repulse them. A further example of this contempt could be further seen when Custom officers boarded a suspicious ship anchored at Aberdaron. On arriving on board they were invited to go the captain's cabin to exercise their duties, but with a hint of being entertained. Once below, they soon found out that they had been locked in the cabin while the intrepid smugglers proceeded to sell their contraband, releasing the unfortunate and most embarrassed officials after completing their sales and all evidence had disappeared before they quietly sailed away. These Custom officials as explained were very zealous in their duties and anxious to earn their bonuses but above all, to impress their superiors with their zeal, as came to light in the following affair. The Custom official at Pwllheli was awaken one night by the sound of a cart rattling backwards and forwards over the cobblestones many times during the night outside his house. This nocturnal activity naturally aroused his curiosity and the following morning during his investigation he found a large mound of coal in a yard belonging to a Captain's house. It transpired that a ship called "Peggy " commanded by a Captain Thomas Samuel had docked late the previous night at the port and had unloaded a taxable cargo of coal. It was always difficult if not impossible to prove whether tax had been previously paid on coal at the previous port. The poor captain was subjected to a prolonged and persistent interrogation. which he finally admitted that the coal had been loaded ballast for his voyage home and was liable to tax and of course he had to pay an additional heavy fine.

Sometimes, a captain could feel seriously aggrieved against an unjust seizure of his vessel. Captain Thomas Owen, Nefyn claimed that his ship the " Royal George " after taking a cargo of lobsters and crabs to Liverpool had brought back various items for the Nefyn shop keepers on which tax had been paid. He declared that ballast was required for his return voyage and half a ton of coal had been taken on board for this purpose on which tax had been paid. He pleaded not guilty to any crime and after being proved innocent complained bitterly about the harassment that he had been subjected to.

Smugglers, as stated were severely punished, the ship involved together with its crew would be immediately arrested and the ship confiscated, together with any horses and carts that had been caught in the operation, together with a fine not exceeding £500. These goods would then be offered for sale by public auction. There is a record of a ship called "Lively " on Dec 1821 at Caernarfon, which will be mentioned later in this narrative. These ships were invariably bought back by their previous owners, the Chief Custom Officer at Beaumaris said that to his knowledge one ship had been sold and bought back no less than three times by its former owner. Should a captured ship modified with a carry a " smuggler's rig " which ensured a faster speed the authorities would have no hesitation in immediately burning it, eliminating at one stroke the possibility of any further trouble. The whole situation was however not without its humour and irritation. Smugglers fully aware that the Customs were keeping a close watch on their movements would sometimes enjoy causing the maximum irritation to the authorities by playing a game of cat and mouse with them. They would sail up and down the coast in broad day light in full sight of their oppressors, but carefully keeping in international waters, where they were safe from prosecution much to the fury, frustration and annoyance of the Customs. A Custom cutter sailing past Porthcolmon on one occasion, noticed a large crowd of people on the beach with a strange ship anchored nearby; this immediately aroused their suspicion of some dubious activity. On their approach the crowd immediately scattered which added to their suspicion. On boarding the ship to their dismay they discovered an empty hold with an exception for a few small bags of salt. No doubt dreaming of a possible generous bonus the officials started making a search of the local cottages in Llangwnadl and Bryncroes only after an endless search to find a few bags of the dutiable salt. The suspects were arrested and were fined £ 198, £385 and £192. These enormous fines were well beyond the means of the culprits, and they were incarcerated at Caernarfon Jail where they had to remain until their debt was paid. This jail formerly the garrison chapel was a damp, cold and unsanitary place where the inmates suffered a most severe regime. The gaolers took but little interest in the welfare of their charges, being much interested in the fees they received for admitting and discharging prisoners.

The reformer John Howard in 1700's was utterly shocked with the conditions of the prisoners and presented very strongly his view to the authorities. The Prison Service like the wheels of God move very slowly, these enlightened authorities as late as 1823 installed a tread mill in the prison at Caernarfon considering such an appliance kept the inmates fit but in their opinion a most progressive measure in the rehabilitation of the poor cold and starving inmates. After many months in these horrific conditions the prisoners appealed against their sentences, pleading that such penalties were beyond their means. They declared that they only bought the salt because it cost them only two pence per pound as against four pence in  Pwllheli, which in their impoverished state was a serious financial consideration. They also pointed out the great suffering their families were enduring. The harshness of the attitude of society to prisoners was seen in their final statement of appeal when they declared that they had no money to buy food. It appears that the establishment must have been a self-catering place, making the prisoners completely dependable on the charity of the Caernarfon people, who fed them through the prison bars to avoid starvation. In response to this appeal the authorities saw on their visit many dirty emaciated prisoners dressed in rags, living in the most inhuman and pitiful conditions. The declaration of the local people who testified to their good behaviour helped to gain their release. Incidentally, there is a local tradition that one of the prisoners who came from Rhiw having become so emaciated managed after parting the prison bars to escape and made his way home, He was hidden for some time by his mother and dressed in female clothes went to Liverpool and emigrated to America.

Sir Llewelyn Turner in his excellent book of reminiscences recounts a story about a highly skilled professional smuggler from Caernarfon called Boaz Pritchard. He was well known because he was a regular "visitor " to Lleyn supplying the populous with varied dutiable goods but was better known, as provider of " Boaz brandy ". Twice the authorities had captured him in 1834 and 1838 smuggling no less than six hundred casks of brandy into Bardsey Island. On one occasion he sailed into Caernarfon harbour with a large number of brandy casks well hidden under a cargo of apples from Jersey, but he was faced with a most difficult problem of safely transferring his precious cargo to his warehouse without attracting the attention of the Customs. He overcame his problem in an ingenious and highly original way by sending his crew around the streets and public houses to spread a tale that they had seen a ghost stalking innocent people around the town at night. This tale so terrified the poor simple inhabitants that once the sun went down they stayed in an apprehensive mood behind their locked doors. The empty streets allowed Boaz to take his goods from his ship "Lively", (which has been previously mentioned) without any trouble but, the wily one to make doubly sure of the safe conduct of his goods transported them in a hearse!! Despite all his clever efforts at deception he was caught, and the authorities had no alternative but to imprison him after they found ninety-nine casks of brandy and other taxable goods hidden in his warehouse.

Following the discovery by Custom officials of many unusual foreign articles at Bardsey Island that they could not have been possibly bought locally in the possession of the inhabitants the authorities began to take a more serious interest in the island. Sometimes these smugglers got carried away with their success as happened on 5th May 1767 when a group of well armed men came ashore at Aberdaron from a strange ship that had recently arrived and anchored in the bay, announcing that they had come from France. They quickly sold their casks of brandy and adjourned to the local hostelry to celebrate. As the night went on and the wine and beer flowed it soon became a riotous and very rowdy evening. Their captain became quite apprehensive and ordered his men back to the ship, which despite his warnings, they refused to obey. The captain went back to his ship and within half an hour the village was rudely awakens and shaken by the sound of the ship's cannon, whereby the crew staggered back to the ship which immediately sailed away.

Many thanks to Mr Cowell for this article.


Excerpts from the log of Thomas John Thomas, Coast Officer.

Porthdinllaen 1880

January 9

Calling to Nefyn to get information from claimant of the effects of G Williams of the vessel ‘Quarryman’ (viz what way he wishes them brought from Dublin).

January 31.

Proclamation of sale of wreck old beam oak at Penrhynbodelias and a vessel’s spare spar at Nevin beach and selling the above by auction.

May 29

Examining papers re foreign bound vessel ‘George Carry’, Parry master, bound for Algiers 144 tons, cargo coal. Crew 7 all told.

June 12.

Rummaging vessel called ‘Mary’ of Caernarfon, Griffiths master. From Hamburg for Liverpool, cargo 91 tons copper ore. Vessel had casualty on the Kentish coast, crew having also left at Ramsgate. No stores only sufficient for use.

June 16.

Visiting Porthcolmon.

June 17

Issuing Certificate of Competency as a master to Robert Pritchard, Morfa Nevin.

June 22

Visiting outstation Uwchmynydd, visiting Aberdaron and on return proceeded to the shore – Porthdinllaen (Henborth). Rummaged schooner ‘Planet’ Owen master from Hamburg for Glassondock, cargo waste salt 127 ton reg (7 crew all told)

June 26

Visiting out station Porth Oer and on look out.

July 16

Going with Mr Owen auctioneer, Caernarfon along the coast to sell wreck dyewood &co.

July 20

Visiting Bardsey Island in the ‘Fairy’ steamer.

July 22

Writing for information re dyewood, reply was that Mr Smith had bought all the dyewood off the auctioneer right to be ascertained. Accompanied Wm Smith to enquire re vessel at Porthysgaden to load all along the coast but failed to turn.

July 24

‘Jane and Eliza’ issued CC certificate. Rummaged schooner ‘Quarryman’ of Caernarfon from Antwerp, cargo of sand for Garston, Thomas master, 99 tons reg, 14 crew. Stores sufficient for use none under seal correct and c&c.

July 29

Rummaged ‘Polly Preston’, Williams master Hamburg for Garston issued quarantine certificate and ordered account of stores there on.

August 4

Visited Porthysgaden out station.

August 8

Writing information of wreck casualties the ‘Harriotte’ (Mary) and ‘Thetis’ to Coll. Caernarfon.

August 9

Rummaging coasters. Giving instructions for the witnesses re wreck casualties as stated on other side hereof to be presented at this office by 3pm to meet Coll. Caernarfon to take reports and &co.

August 12

Visiting outstation Porthfelen calling with salvors for number of dyewood.

August 13

Sending notices of sale of wreck timber, balk of yellow pine.

August 20

Selling wreck balk of yellow pine at Porthcolmon. Visited Porth Orion.

August 25

Rummaging foreign inward bound vessel ‘Zebra’ master Williams from Hamburg for Runcorn, 88 tons reg, 5 crew all told. Cargo waste salt. Stores sufficient for use 4lbs of tobacco.

Sept 15

Blowing a gale from SE to NW.

Sept 16

Writing information of casualty to vessel ‘Breeze’ at Porthcolmon then proceeding along the coast to make further enquiries and wiring (info).

Sept 18

Sending reply to Coll’s telegram re sunk ‘Breeze’, casualty and master for report cannot attend Crown Hotel, Pwllheli.

Oct 6

Attending upon Coll re casualty returns ‘Eaglet’ and ‘Elizabeth’.

Nov 23.

Rummaging vessel from foreign ‘Eleanor and Jane’ from Boulogne in ballast, master Williams, 98 tons reg, for Caernarfon, 4 crew all told. Stores half pound of tobacco, one and a half pounds of tea and half a gallon of spirits.

Nov 25

Speaking to Col Wynne Finch of Cefnamwlch Hall re LSA exercise post ground at Porthdinllaen re when he allowed the post to remain where it is, but we were to write and ask his agents consent for it, or otherwise it would likely be pulled down shortly. The letter so written for consent his agent would file as security for the land.

Dec 4

Taking report of wreck at Borthwen.

Dec 16

Visiting Uwchmynydd and Aberdaron and co and taking report of William Roberts medical chest.

December 30

Rummaged the brigantine ‘Edward Windus’ master Edwards from Alvaliz (?)

Olive oil 156, stores and called for stores at Falmouth.


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