LOCAL MATTERS: Yo ho ho - and a bottle of liquor!

Artist's impression of the old Customs House, Wisbech.
Artist's impression of the old Customs House, Wisbech.

There was no organised police force in the UK until the mid 1850s.

And the coastguard service, set up to counter widespread smuggling, was in its infancy when in 1828, according to an account published in ‘The Compendium’ in 1883, a band of smugglers attempted to land contraband, mainly Dutch gin and tobacco onto the Terrington marshes, which lie on the border of Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

In the year of 1828, me hearties, in the depths of winter, a lugger was at anchor in The Wash. Some of its crew were navigating a smaller boat loaded with contraband towards the marshes.

The frosts had caused drift ice and the boat got stuck near to what is now Sutton Bridge (then Sutton Wash).

The River Nene at that time took a different course and was being diverted along what is now the Nene Cut.

There were hundreds of navvies working in the area and some were asked to help the smugglers get their boat free.

They declined the offer of free gin and the hapless crew abandoned the boat and its cargo – although some apparently got very drunk first!

Word got to the Customs Officers on The Wash, who donned their cutlasses and seized the cargo, transporting it in carts to the house belonging to a customs employee Mr Clack, at Sutton Wash.

As one of the carts was being pulled up the slipway, which was a steep ascent near the Bridge Hotel (at that time called the Ship and Cross Keys Inn), and generally very miry, someone pulled the tip stick out.

Up went the cart, and its contents scattered into the mire, which caused a general scramble and several of the casks of liquor were run away with and hidden, to be removed by someone who probably saw them being hidden, and again re-stolen, thus keeping up the excitement for several days and nights.

The smugglers made their way to Wisbech and caused a bit of a stir at an inn where they had a meal. While they were waiting they took off their outer coats to reveal their cutlasses beneath. Nothing came of it however and they paid their bill without bother.

The contraband was also taken to Wisbech in wagons guarded by customs officers with their cutlasses unsheathed, causing a sensation as they travelled.

The value, duty paid, was said to be £1,200 to £1,300 (over £1m today), and it is believed it was ultimately sent to London and sold.

The abandoned boat when the ice melted, was taken to Wisbech, where it remained for several years until ‘persons unknown’ seized it one bonfire night, dragged it to the market hill, and burned it on the fire!

The lugger, to which the boat belonged was searched by Kings Lynn customs officers but no contraband was found on board so she was released, and the boat’s crew having worked their way from Wisbech to Lynn, re-joined her.