Well, Wells: what a reputation!

1161529-MThere was Malcolm, leafing idly through Daniel Defoe’s A Tour in Circuits, Through the Island of Great Britain, published 1724, but apparently a report of a peregrination in 1722 (and, with a bit of effort, available free on-line).

The work is arranged in epistolary form: “letters” about the different parts of the country. Defoe clearly warms to Norfolk:

Add to this, that there is no single county in England, except as above [i.e. the West Riding of Yorkshire], that can boast of three towns so populous, so rich, and so famous for trade and navigation, as in this county: By these three towns, I mean the city of Norwich, the towns of Yarmouth and Lynn; besides, that it has several other sea-ports of very good trade, as Wisbich, Wells, Burnham, Clye, &c.

We shall be this way again in a moment, but — for now — Malcolm noted the description of Norwich:

NORWICH is the capital of all the county, and the center of all the trade and manufactures which I have just mentioned; an antient, large, rich, and populous city: If a stranger was only to ride thro’ or view the city of Norwich for a day, he would have much more reason to think there was a town without inhabitants, than there is really to say so of Ipswich; but on the contrary, if he was to view the city, either on a Sabbath-day, or on any publick occasion, he would wonder where all the people could dwell, the multitude is so great: But the case is this; the inhabitants being all busie at their manufactures, dwell in their garrets at their looms, and in their combing-shops, so they call them, twisting-mills, and other work-houses; almost all the works they are employed in, being done within doors. There are in this city thirty-two parishes besides the cathedral, and a great many meeting-houses of Dissenters of all denominations. The publick edifices are chiefly the castle, antient and decayed, and now for many years past made use of for a jayl. The Duke of Norfolk’s house was formerly kept well, and the gardens preserved for the pleasure and diversion of the citizens, but since feeling too sensibly the sinking circumstances of that once glorious family, who were the first peers and hereditary earl-marshals of England.

The walls of this city are reckoned three miles in circumference, taking in more ground than the city of London; but much of that ground lying open in pasture-fields and gardens; nor does it seem to be, like some antient places, a decayed declining town, and that the walls mark out its antient dimensions; for we do not see room to suppose that it was ever larger or more populous than it is now: But the walls seem to be placed, as if they expected that the city would in time encrease sufficiently to fill them up with buildings.

mapsmallwFair enough; but the real joy was to get to home turf:

From Cromer, we ride on the strand or open shoar to Weyburn Hope, the shoar so flat that in some places the tide ebbs out near two miles: From Weyburn west lyes Clye, where there are large salt-works, and very good salt made, which is sold all over the county, and some times sent to Holland, and to the Baltick: From Clye, we go to Masham, and to Wells, all towns on the coast, in each whereof there is a very considerable trade cary’d on with Holland for corn, which that part of the county is very full of: I say nothing of the great trade driven here from Holland, back again to England, because I take it to be a trade carryed on with much less honesty than advantage; especially while the clandestine trade, or the art of smuggling was so much in practice; what it is now, is not to my present purpose.

Masham? Presumably Morston. We also have a contribution to the age-old debate of “Clee, Clay or Clye” — presumably now settled, as Malcolm would expect, in favour of  the last variation.

As for the art of smuggling was so much in practice; what it is now, is not to my present purpose, we may fairly cock an eyebrow of derision. Defoe himself was not averse to a bit of fiddling when he could. He had established himself as an undercover man for William of Orange, but when the French wars bankrupted Defoe (he may have incurred debts of some £17,000 from failed tradings) he turned to the illegal stuff. He recovered his finances in part through Iberian wine imports, not all  of which were wholly declared.

HolmesBusiness as usual

It’s not unusual in North Norfolk for a house refurbishment to reveal a hidden closet. That is the clue to a previous occupant’s nefarious activities..

A few years back there was a small privately-published monograph, The Lawless Coast by Neil Holmes, sub-titled Smuggling, Anarchy and Murder in North Norfolk in the 1780s. Holmes’s starting point is St Mary the Virgin at Old Hunstanton, where one finds the memorial stone to two soldiers:

hunstantonchurchgraveTIn memory of William Webb, late of the 15th D’ns, who was shot from his Horse by a party of Smugglers on the 26 of Sepr. 1784 
I am not dead but sleepeth here, 
And when the Trumpet Sound I will appear 
Four balls thro’ me Pearced there way: 
Hard it was. I’d no time to pray 
This stone that here you Do see 
My Comerades Erected for the sake of me. 
Here lie the mangled remains of poor William Green, an Honest Officer of the Government, who in the faithful discharge of his duty was inhumanely murdered by a gang of Smugglers in this Parish, September 27th, 1784.

Despite such fine sentiments, two smugglers captured by officialdom were then acquitted by the local jury, in the face of all the evidence.

At Wells there was the classic 1817 encounter — as dramatic as anything in Moonfleet — when John Dunn, the caporegime of Stiffkey, arranged an illicit landing to coincide with a race meeting on the beach.

In passing, could he be perpetuated in the Norfolk doggerel? —

There was old Dunn, young Dunn,
And young Dunn’s youngest son.
Young Dunn will be a Dunn
When old Dunn is done.

Boom! Boom!

The excisemen (there was a detachment based in Wells) were on hand to meet and greet Dunn’s tubs coming ashore, but they were heavily outnumbered. Major Charles Loftus of the yeomanry was in the crowd and recruited to cobble together reinforcements in a mounted charge. Dunn and his gang, with the support of the mass of local folk,  got away with all but half-a-dozen of the barrels.

At Snettisham, in 1822, eighty tubs were landed and seized by the excisemen. Armed with bludgeons and fowling pieces, a mob of locals liberated the contraband, which was swiftly whisked away down the old Peddars Way.

So what was the business?

Tobacco, Geneva gin and … tea. Anything taxed that was in demand, portable and packable.

You may see the old strake of an old barrel, or a bit of well-corroded metal hoop, emerging from the sand-dunes. Scorn them not: it is possible you are seeing a bit of the evidence.

Only when intelligence — the electric telegraph — beat local initiative was the trade constrained but, as recent high-value hauls, mainly of cigarettes — and by legend of human cargoes — have shown, not eliminated.

Recall, too, that once the quiet town of Wells had a reputation for wrecking, violence and cruelty unmatched along the North Norfolk coast:

Cromer crabs, Runton dabs,
Beeston babies, Sherinum’ ladies,
Weybourne witches, Salt’us ditches.
Blak’ney bulldogs, Morston dodmen,
Binham bulls, Stiffkey trolls,
— Wells bitefingers.


1 Comment

Filed under crime, Defoe, Literature, Norfolk, Norwich, Wells-next-the-Sea

One response to “Well, Wells: what a reputation!

  1. My only claim to (in)fame was that John Dunn of Stiffkey was my 4x greatgrandmother’s brother. ‘Salt of the earth’ and ‘colourful character’ don’t quite cover him (nor his brother Sam) – avoiding tax by smuggling was a way of life at the time and meant that Charles Loftus was able to still hold John in high regard and later rode with him in the yeomanry. John’s brother Sam worked for Loftus as boatman and was equally a man of two halves – known for his compassion as much as his violence. They were young family men living in hard times.

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