The Revenue cutter 'Greyhound' patrolling in two positions off Walmer Castle signed 'T. Luny' and dated 1779 (twice) (lower left) oil on canvas 91.4 x 139.7cm. (36 x 55in.)
The Revenue cutter Greyhound patrolling in two positions off Walmer Castle - T. Luny, 1779
The enterprising smugglers of England, particularly during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France, have been forever immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his justly famous poem A Smugglers Song. Endlessly quoted or misquoted by those who only clearly recall the chorus, the well-known rhyme that became such a popular jingle runs thus:- ..Five and twenty ponies, Trotting through the dark - Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk; Laces for a lady, letters for a spy, And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Elsewhere in the poem, Kipling offers advice on what to do if the revenue men appear: ..If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red, You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
and these words seem to encapsulate this entire era, when large numbers of an otherwise law-abiding population regularly defied their own government and avoided lawful taxation by the purchase of smuggled luxuries.
With smuggling already rife by the end of the seventeenth century, an Act of 1719 made gangs of eight or more smugglers liable to transportation but had little or no effect. By the mid-eighteenth century, smugglers were openly running goods ashore along the entire seaboard of the United Kingdom including, most particularly, the Channel coast opposite France. In 1743, it was estimated that more than half the tea drunk in England had paid no duty yet, in 1751, a scheme for a properly organized and funded anti-smuggling force received no support due to the cost involved. At the same time however, the Customs Department was at least given more and better equipment, most notably the fast and well-armed cutters which soon became the trademark of the service. Sadly, the calibre of the men employed was generally poor, with corruption a major obstacle to any real improvement in the situation, to the extent that smuggling actually increased as the century wore on. In 1779, with England once again at war with most of continental Europe, it was estimated that the greater part of the 3,867,000 gallons of gin distilled annually at Schiedam, in Holland, was earmarked for the English black market. Likewise, six million pounds of tea were being imported into France, all of it destined for clandestine landing on the south coast of England.
Despite the dashing elegance of the well-armed Revenue cutters such as Lunys Greyhound depicted here, smuggling continued to thrive and only after the peace of 1815 was the government finally able to tackle the problem with any chance of success. Although surviving records of customs and revenue vessels are extremely sparse, it seems probable that this particular Greyhound was the large and heavily armed cutter of 148 tons subsequently sold to the Royal Navy in June 1780 and then renamed Viper the following year.