top of page

Pitchforks and Petticoats

Dabeoc Stanley | University of Lancaster

‘Endeavouring to get them [packs of seized tobacco] carried away to the Queen’s warehouse I was attacked by a multitude of women, who carried away the pack … they laid violent hands upon me, and carried me prisoner … till they got all the tobacco carried away whereupon I came to Dumfries and got assistance of 10 men … but [they] were attacked on the moor by 20 women with clubs and pitchforks’

This unfortunate account from 1711 of Mr McDowell, the Customs Collector of Dumfries, illuminates many characteristics of women’s involvement in smuggling-related violence during the long eighteenth century (1688-1815). As with the ‘multitude’ of Dumfries locals, when women assaulted customs and excise officers, it almost always took place in a group, and pre-meditation is proven by bringing pitchforks as improvised (albeit highly effective) weapons. Participants were determined, managing to ‘rescue’ the illicit tobacco twice and not flinching from confrontations with soldiers. Nor was this an isolated or particularly nasty incident; in 1781, an officer named Hugh Hannah had an eye gouged out whilst being beaten and stripped by five women in Galloway.

Women perpetrated violence of this nature across the British Isles throughout the long eighteenth century. In September 1764, when a crowd stoned the crew of a Preventative Cutter at the port of Deal, a local wrote to the St. James Chronicle to allege that the Commander’s report of three men being badly wounded was not very credible as ‘only women and children pelted them’, a gloriously blasé admission that rather understates the seriousness of the situation.

In reality, this formed part of a grim picture of bloodshed. A government report published in 1736 lamented that no less than 250 officers had been assaulted from 1723 to 1733 alone, and at least six were murdered. Contemporary newspapers and Customs letterbooks contain plentiful stories of women provoking or committing these attacks, yet mainstream historical scholarship fails to fully acknowledge (let alone explain) their involvement. Whilst important work has recently been undertaken to develop our understanding of female criminality in this period, this has yet to be applied with the same rigour to participation in smuggling. Instead, there is often a tacit acceptance of the theory that the observable declining female prosecution rates across the long eighteenth century reflected a genuine drop in women’s involvement in criminality and therefore a masculinisation of crime. Although women did come to comprise a much lower proportion of convicted felons by the end of the period, the evidence from looking at the smuggling archive tells us this is not the full story.

Gleanings from contemporary sources have the potential to remedy this short-sightedness. We need to consider what motivated women to take part in smuggling-related violence if we are to develop a proper understanding of the relationships between popular conceptions of the ‘moral economy’, contraband, and administration of taxation in the long eighteenth century.

So how were women involved in smuggling? We know that they often concealed contraband beneath their petticoats; in Hamburg, during the French occupation of 1809, merchants employed local women to carry packets of coffee past Napoleon’s officers. They were also frequently customers, merrily turning a blind eye to the providence of cut-price goods. Illicit tea, alcohol, and tobacco graced the table of households across all sections of society (including, it is rumoured, the table of at least one prime minister). By the middle of the eighteenth century, estimates suggested the quantity of smuggler tea at three times legal imports and that fifty per cent of tobacco and spirits were contraband. Given that women were commonly involved in the management of the household budget, it is no surprise to find them implicated in the illegal economy.

Looking at the letters kept by merchants on the Isle of Man who supplied smuggling gangs around the Irish Sea, we find women sending very detailed orders for contraband. For example, in 1765, Mrs Elizabeth Manson of Culzean, South Ayrshire, wrote to George Moore (who managed a widespread Scottish smuggling network) requesting he be ‘so good as [to] send me … 8 pounds of souchong tea and 2 Barcelona handkerchiefs one white, the other black’. Luxury goods such as these represented a significant investment even without shouldering the burden of tax. It seems credible that riotous assaults, as in Dumfries in 1711, were at least in part an indigent response to the threatened loss if the goods were successfully confiscated.

Deforcement of the Poole Customs Warehouse in 1747
Deforcement of the Poole Customs Warehouse in 1747

When women did partake in violence against officers or warehouses, the inciting incident often did centre on attempts to seize landed contraband. The crime of trying to ‘recover’ these goods was known as deforcement, and it comprises an underappreciated source of evidence for socio-economic tensions and popular unrest. Christopher Whatley argues that in Scotland, where it was especially common, it sometimes verged on communal disorder. In Lowland Scotland, deforcement featured in over eighty per cent of prosecutions against women for assaults against authority during the eighteenth century.

So, does this suggest a gendered distinction in the type and motivation of smuggling-related violence? The violence was not mindless, although often quite sadistic. Instead, it was rational. Smugglers sought to create a climate of intimidation that would deter revenue officers from attempting to perform their duties, frighten any uncooperative local inhabitants, prevent the seizure of goods, and resist arrest. Men can be seen engaged in the terrorisation of the local populace and utilising shocking brutality, such as the infamous murders of William Galley and informer Daniel Chater in 1748 by the ‘Hawkhurst Gang’. Conversely, women’s use of violence frequently centred on rejecting what was perceived as illegitimate interference in local socio-economic life.

‘The unfortunate William Galley put by the Smugglers into the Ground’
‘The unfortunate William Galley put by the Smugglers into the Ground’

What motivated women to risk the death penalty for wounding a revenue officer? Whatley has argued that violence was a response to intolerable pressures on living standards during hardship, and women’s participation is evidence of the depth of desperation. Whilst seemingly plausible, this is an insufficient and anodyne answer which doesn’t credit women with enough agency. Instead, I would argue that women took part in violence against Revenue officers as a calculated risk.

Pragmatism and experience told women that they were much less likely to be arrested and charged for violent crimes, as evidenced by the recorded difference between prosecution rates. Gregory Durston estimates that women averaged eight to twenty-five per cent of prosecutions for serious crime in the long eighteenth century. From the smuggling sources, it is clear that there was a noted reluctance to apply the letter of the law when it came to women. In November 1811, the Manks Advertiser carried a story that when brandy was stuffed inside the bodies of butchered geese and then snuck onto a Royal Navy ship off the coast of Cornwall, ‘the smugglers being women were not detained’. By the 1750s, we can find women selling illicit tea relatively openly in informal shops, and in the case of Ms Janine Stewart of Ayrshire acting as debt-collector for an Isle of Man centred network. Women’s involvement in violent smuggling-related crime, therefore, presented much less risk to the household livelihood than would be hazarded by their male counterparts.

Tragedy attended both sides of these confrontations. A case in 1817 reported in the Caledonian Mercury was that of Isobel Nichol, who was fatally shot by officers on the Scottish island of Arran. Isobel was at the head of a crowd of ‘at least 200’, with ‘not one-third of the number being men’. A witness at the High Court of Justiciary, which investigated the charge of murder against the Revenue officers, described Isobel as a ‘rash clever woman’ who ‘had no idea of the danger she ran’. The language tellingly adopted the contemporary prejudices which regarded violent criminality amongst women as irrational or aberrant.

Despite this cautionary tale, however, it is clear that women participated in smuggling-related crime because, more often than not, the gamble paid off. Although there has not been enough archival work completed to estimate the overall quantities of goods involved, the frequency of deforcement reports suggest that local men and women ‘recovered’ a not insignificant proportion of the contraband that Revenue officers managed to intercept. Women were not bystanders or mere accomplices; they organised, motivated, and led a sustained pattern of social upheaval and rejection of authority. An Argyll case from 1750 demonstrates this perfectly; whilst trying to seize brandy and rum, a group of Customs officers was beaten and bound by a gang of eight women. Mary Black, their leader, was ‘disguised in a man’s coat and bonnet’. It does not take much imagination to comprehend this as a performative rejection of the gendered norms of expected behaviour.

What I have endeavoured to prove is that more work is desperately needed to comb through the archive and illuminate the true extent of female-perpetrated violence and smuggling in the long eighteenth century. The evidence we have informs us that women were active in vice, violence, and resisting authority as much as men. Perhaps by looking properly at the stories and accounts buried in these sources, we might truly begin to address the importance of this neglected aspect of eighteenth-century women’s history.


Further Reading:

  • Kilday, Anne-Marie. Women and Violent Crime in Enlightenment Scotland (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2007)

  • McCooey, Chris. Smuggling (Stroud, Amberley Publishing, 2012)

  • Whatley, Christopher. ‘How tame were the Scottish Lowlanders during the Eighteenth Century’, in Conflict and Stability in Scottish Society 1700-1850, T. M. Devine (ed.) (Edinburgh, John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1990), pp. 1-30

  • Wilkins, Frances. George Moore and Friends: Letters from a Manx Merchant (1750-1760) (Kidderminster, Wyre Forest Press, 1994)

Dabeoc Stanley is a current History PhD student at Lancaster University. His research is on the eighteenth-century illicit economy, smuggling networks of the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, and the application of GIS in maritime history.

Twitter: @DabeocS


bottom of page