The Swan Public House, Stockwell in the 1780s. A probable haunt of the Tea Smugglers

Tea used to be highly taxed, running at 119 per cent of the price of the goods. But who would think of attacking our national drink? None other than the merry monarch, King Charles II. Fearful of the political intrigues that took place when people met in the beverage houses of London to drink tea and coffee, the government of the day decided a tax would prevent this. So in 1676, the humble cup of tea felt the heavy hand of the taxman. However, the people loved the drink. No tax would stop the sipping of a cup of tea. A black market in the leaf soon developed and bootlegging became a part of everyday trading.

Tea was so popular that big money could be made illegally, while pretending it was free trading. By the early 18th century the smuggling of tea into the country had become big business.

Much of it came from Holland and was distributed from the south coast of England along a network of secret routes to the main market in the capital. The smuggling involved hundreds of people, usually organised in gangs. Ruthless in their pursuit of profit, all opposition to their smuggling was normally met with violence.

Naturally London was the biggest market. With its fashionable and wealthy society, it was the centre of the official tea trade. But many of these dealers were not above working with the smugglers, meeting with them secretly in Lambeth at the small village of Stockwell to strike deals. Here among the cottages lay a number of warehouses, owned or leased by the smuggling gangs, where tea was stored awaiting the dealers. The smugglers' route to Stockwell ran across Clapham Common, then a wild and unfriendly place and, on a Thursday in 1743, Custom and Excise officers were tipped off about a gang that would be crossing the common with horses loaded with tea.

The armed revenue men lay in wait to ambush the gang. The smugglers - said to number more than 20 - arrived and stood their ground when confronted by the revenue men. Outnumbered, the officers retreated as the smugglers fired their guns and moved on with their contraband, cheering as they went.

The smuggling of tea into London continued until the mid-18th century when the tax was dropped to popular acclaim. It established the cuppa as our national drink.



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