Smuggling tales from around Whitby

Whitby and the surrounding villages were a hotbed for smuggling for generations, with tales of hidden tunnels and secret societies a plenty. Here are a few Whitby smuggling tales for you to enjoy.

Our first tale inevitably, for Whitby, involves a dead sailor, a headless horse and buried treasure. The tale goes that the drowned sailor would be visited at his grave on the third night after the funeral by a ghostly coach pulled by headless horses – the carriage thundering towards St Marys Church.

This coach, carrying a crew of skeletal sailors, would circle the grave three times in frantic ghoulish loops, causing the ghost of the deceased to rise up and join them in their haunted horse-drawn carriage as it sped away disappearing into the night.

It is quite likely in the case of the headless horse-drawn coach of sailor ghosts that there is more than a grain of truth to the tale. Smugglers were apt to create fantastic stories about frightening events up in the graveyard to keep simple god-fearing folks away from the place.

Why? Because smugglers would often hide bounty in the graves of the newly deceased and needed a clever and cunning way to collect it and move it around the town unnoticed by the ever-present forces of the tax collectors office. A sailors coffin with its haunted legend would be the perfect cover for such illicit activity.

In other parts of the country, it is now thought that similar bands of smugglers went to even greater lengths to validate the fabricated story. In Dorset, it is said that horses were painted white and lanterns were hung from coaches to create a phantom carriage of a convincing nature. The gang would then adorn themselves in fearsome and dreadful costume to accompany the terrible ghost carriage.

This terrifying tale would frighten the poor, simple-minded and no doubt superstitious townsfolk – anyone who caught sight of this roguish gang of smugglers would not question that what they saw was a ghost carriage drawn by headless horses with sailor ghosts digging up their dead friend.

The legend would spread like wildfire among the towns and villages along the coast and make certain that even the most curious-minded would steer well clear of the spectres in the night – leaving the way for the smugglers to collect their stash in peace.

The Old Smuggler’s Cafe in Whitby
The Old Smuggler’s Cafe in Whitby

Many visitors to Whitby will know of the Baxtergate pub, The Old Smuggler. Once known as the Old Ship Launch Inn, this well known Whitby landmark dates back as far as 1401 and, as the name suggests, has a long history of smuggling.

It was extremely well known for the fact that smugglers would use the pub to deliver their untaxed goods, there was even an article written in the Whitby Times, in 1790, about a certain smuggle that went down;

“Yesterday se’nnight the Fawn, smuggling luggar, with a thousand ankers of rum, brandy and geneva, to the amount of 6000 gallons, was taken and sent into Whitby, by the Eagle cutter, Captain George Whitegead, in the service of the revenue of that port; with assistance of the Mermaid, Captain Carr. The Fawn is a fine clinch built vessel of 90 tonnes built at Flushing four months since, mounting six four pounders and six swivels. Her crew consisted of 22 men”

As in the previous story, tax collectors and customs officials were based in busy sailing ports such Whitby to collect coin of behalf of the King. The smugglers needed to find ways to avoid theses officials at all costs. One of the ways that the ingenious locals came up with was to create a network of tunnels beneath the town to connect certain inns and taverns.

It is said that there is one such tunnel between the Old Smuggler and the Station Inn. In this way, the contraband could move through the town without interference from the customs officers. Robin Hoods' Bay is riddled with these tunnels and is well worth a visit to see them. The local Ghost Walk with Rose Rylands is sure to illuminate the imagination in the curious cobbled streets and alleyways that crisscross the ancient fishing village.

Outside the Old Smuggler is a piece of ship taken from what was believed to be a French smuggling vessel. The carved wooden figure certainly has an air of the mysterious – though more details than that are unknown. Perhaps, this French souvenir is connected to the ghost of the Old Smuggler. Not your usual visual apparition but a physical occurrence – on entering the Old Smuggler it’s likely to get a ‘shove’ in the back – not unlike being pushed along to walk the plank!

John Andrew ‘The King of Smugglers’

John Andrew was a prolific smuggler who was the landlord of the Ship Inn, in Saltburn. John Andrew was so prolific, in fact, he was known as ‘the King of Smugglers’, and his pub became known as the free trade hotspot of the area. John had strong connections in the area, and all the landlords of the local taverns stuck together in their trade and connected tunnels underground so that their dealings would go on unnoticed.

Whitby’s Women Smugglers

Smuggling wasn’t just a man’s job, in fact, in Whitby, women were encouraged into the trade as they could often get away with their crimes unnoticed – the taxman was unwise and thought that women wouldn’t possibly get into such unlawful dealings. Regular housewives would go to market wearing loose fitting clothes and return home with their clothes bursting at the seams, underneath was a treasure of contraband goods. Mrs Gaskell, who lived in Whitby at the time, commented “There was a clever way in which certain Whitby women managed to bring in prohibited goods. In fact, when a woman did give her mind to smuggling, she was full of resources, and tricks, and impudence, and energy more so than any man”

The fire of the Saltersgate Inn

Saltersgate Inn

Located on the North York Moors, close to a bend in the road known as the Devil’s Elbow, you will find the Saltersgate Inn. It is now derelict but the original building still stands. The Saltersgate Inn was originally known as the Wagon and Horses when this tale took place. During the 1800s the Salt Tax was the highest it had ever been in British history, and fishermen, as well as smugglers, saw the great opportunity that lay in wait at the Saltersgate Inn as it was practically isolated from mainstream society. Fishermen would need salt to salt their fish to keep fresh as they transported them to buyers, but with the salt tax being so high there was no money to be made, and so salt began being smuggled.

A candle would be placed in the window of the Saltersgate Inn that would warn others of taxmen being in the pub. One night when the light wasn’t lit smugglers and fishermen made their way to their old haunt. Unknowingly an Excise Officer had managed to go undetected, and he was ready to make arrests after hearing rumours of the illegal business.

When the Excise Officer made his way down to the basement to catch the culprits red-handed, he did not foresee what happened next. A rock came crashing down on his head, killing him instantly, it was the Landlord who had dealt the lethal blow.

In a panic, the men buried the corpse underneath the fire pit, and it is said that if the fire were to be put out the ghost of the Excise Officer would come back and seek revenge. Which is said to be the reason for the fire burning for nearly 200 years.

Learn more about the legends of the Saltersgate Inn here; Part 1, Part 2

Captain Harold Hutchinson

Most of the time it was difficult to avoid Excise Officers, eventually, they would catch up with you and arrest you for smuggling but one person managed to play the system so well that he was never caught until after his death.

Captain Harold Hutchinson, of the Dragoons Guards, became the Customs Officer after the Dragoons Guards were based in Whitby for three years to clamp down on smuggling in the area. But he wasn’t the cleanest of folks, in fact, Captain Hutchinson would often take contraband, that had been taken from smugglers, and then sell it on himself. Captain Hutchinson became the Excise Officer that was also a smuggler, he made so much money in his time that he made himself a beautiful home in Skinner Street known as ‘Harold Mansion’

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