A Smuggling Affray

Poole Museum Society Blog

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In the 18th century, smuggling was big business. Fleets of fast cutters and larger ships up to 200 tons were purpose-built for running illicit cargoes. Entrepôts in France and the Channel Islands had warehouses stuffed with goods to sell to the smugglers. Violent conflict, even murder, was frequent. The revenue men had the support of the navy and could sometimes call upon army detachments on land. The smugglers could summon gangs of 30 or 40 men, armed with sticks, loaded whips and sometimes firearms from the largely sympathetic population. Even when seizures were made, the smugglers were often able to wrest back their cargoes by attacking revenue officers or breaking into the custom warehouses. One such violent confrontation in 1787 was to cost at least two men their lives and another, his career.

A smuggling cutter
A smuggling cutter

 On the evening of 5th November, the smuggling cutter Phoenix with a…

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John Meade Falkner and Moonfleet

John Meade Falkner

John Meade Falkner © DCM

John Meade Falkner was born at Manningford Bruce, Wiltshire, the son of a curate. He spent his childhood in Dorchester and Weymouth. (His father later became curate at Buckland Ripers, close to the landscape of Moonfleet.)

After taking an Oxford degree, Falkner became a tutor. He was later a business man, and then an academic. He wrote poetry, guides to the counties of Oxford and Berkshire, and three novels: The Lost Stradivarius, Moonfleet and The Nebuly Coat, He lost the manuscript of a fourth novel on a train.

The Rat’s ‘Tale‘, an extract from a typescript account of his childhood by J M Falkner. The scene is the dining room of St. Mary’s Rectory, Weymouth…

“The room was by no means ill-favoured, it was warm, had always plenty of light, and in the evening found the amenities of sunset and a view of rising ground on the far side of the Backwater. But in it was enacted the first scene of a overwhelming family tragedy. We were dining one day about 1.30 (I think that was Thursday March 2nd 1871) and there was on the table a glass water-bottle cylindrical in shape with a flat under-side.

Taken in 1876, John Meade Falkner canoeing on the Backwater at Weymouth, Dorset

Taken in 1876, John Meade Falkner canoeing on the Backwater at Weymouth, Dorset © DCM

Someone noticed that there was something, like a piece of thick black sting, coiled round the bottom inside, and it was fished out.

It was fished out with one of our good old silver forks, and proved to be the tail which had dropped of a decomposed rat.”

The rat was a typhoid rat, and the disease afflicted all the family (except the father). Falkner’s mother died of typhoid ten days later.

MOONFLEET

Moonfleet is a tale of smuggling by John Meade Falkner first published in 1898.

Fleet Old Church, Moonfleet

Fleet Old Church, wrecked by the Great Storm of 1824. In the story of Moonfleet, John Trenchard is trapped in the vault underneath this church. © DCM

One frosty, moon-bright evening in 1758, John Trenchard discovers a secret passage leading from under a churchyard tomb down into the darkness of the Mohune family vault. There he finds not only coffins, but also casks of brandy, hidden by the village smugglers. John is in search of Blackbeards’s diamond, and this is the start of a cliff-hanging adventure which takes him halfway across the world. As in all Falkner’s novels, the finding of a lost object leads to terrible consequences. Heraldry, too, is a recurrent device. The Y of the Mohune’s shield is the mark with which John is branded at the hands of the Dutch – however faraway, John still remains the property of the Mohunes.

Sky1 TV adaptation of ‘Moonfleet’ starring Ray Winstone, Aneurin Barnard and Karl McCrone