Smuggling in the Portsmouth area in the 18th century

A Hayling Island Tale of Tragic Consequences by Eric Palmer - Local History Group 3

Ralph Rogers and Peter Crasler were two young Hayling Islanders who had been pressed into the Navy. They returned from abroad and the hardships of serving at sea, to pick up the thread of life ashore. Unfortunately, they had been away so long that they found their parents and relatives dead, and they were treated mostly as strangers, except by Jane Pitt, previously a close friend of Ralph Rogers.At this time smuggling was carried out on a large scale. Hayling Island was heavily involved, acting as a depot for the distribution of contraband to East Hampshire and West Sussex. The Government’s Revenue and Coastguard services had difficulty dealing with the illegal activity and tried to employ secret informers prepared to betray the smuggling operations. They also offered an amnesty for past aggression if a smuggler entered as a common seaman into the naval service.

Rogers and Crasler were unable to find suitable honest work and eventually joined a notorious smuggling gang led by Will Watch (real name Gill Brown) in his ship the “Susan”. They made several voyages, and being familiar with life at sea, quickly learned the secrets and mysteries of the smuggling trade. After a time, however, they both became restless and sought the freedom of life ashore. They left the “Susan” to return to Hayling Island, having accumulated good financial rewards from their work with the smugglers.

This time they were well received, having acquired something of a reputation in a community, which tended to sympathise with the smugglers. Soon Ralph Rogers and Jane Pitt were married. Peter Crasler also was wed and they started to enjoy their family life ashore. It wasn’t long, however before the money, proceeds of their earlier smuggling, was gone and they needed to seek work. But their background and experience did not suit shore side employment, and, almost inevitably, they resumed illicit trading, soon becoming known as confirmed smugglers. At first they did well, but their runs were not always profitable and Peter Crasler suffered repeated losses. After a few months he was financially ruined and heavily in debt.

At about this time the Government found that its amnesty programme was not succeeding, and a new plan was adopted. This offered a large reward and permanent civil employment to smugglers prepared to betray their associates and give details of operations and smuggling methods.

Peter Crasler was desperately in debt, with a wife and child to support and no hope for the future. After much consideration he decided to offer his services to the Government. The offer was accepted, he was appropriately rewarded, told to make all the observations he could and attend at the Customhouse in London.

Crasler’s absence was soon noted, and his wife was put under some pressure by Rogers and other smugglers to explain where he was. When she acknowledged her husband’s action, consternation reigned – for the information he possessed could ruin their illegal operations and threaten them all. Ralph Rogers was particularly incensed, denounced his previously close friend and swore revenge. Ralph’s wife Jane, who could normally influence her husband, found that his rage only increased, and resolved to keep a strict eye on his behaviour.

Realising the likely danger to the smugglers due to Peter Crasler’s defection, measures were taken to counteract the expected action by the Revenue Officers. All the caverns on the south beach of the Island were emptied, and the contents dispersed as far away as was safe. Smuggling operations were suspended, with a hope to resume when the storm had passed.

It was two months after Peter Crasler left the Island that the smugglers realised that the best time for their operations was passing without any of the usual benefits. Peter Crasler knew this too, and returned to the Island in the dusk of the evening, accompanied by six dragoons, heading toward the beach. He briefly visited his wife and child before rejoining the patrol, his wife having told him of Ralph Rogers’ violent resentment. The arrival of Peter and the dragoons was soon known throughout the Island, and their movement south suggested an intention to examine the beach caverns. Jane Rogers was desperate that her husband and Peter would not meet, and made her way to the beach hoping to see Peter and persuade him to avoid meeting his former friend. In the meantime Ralph, on his way back home, saw the dragoons and realised what was happening. He borrowed a wild-fowler’s gun and kept the party in sight on their way to the beach. On hearing from their conversation that Peter Crasser was with them, he made his way toward his own cavern. With flaming torches the dragoons advanced along the beach in the dark. Ralph Rogers saw the lights, and burning with vengeance moved toward them. He saw a single figure against the lights, apparently pointing out the cavern to his followers. Full of bloodthirsty emotions he raised his weapon and pulled the trigger.

A loud and terrific shriek followed the explosion of the gun. To his horror and bewilderment Ralph Rogers realised the dreadful truth. The lifeblood of Jane, his own wife, was pouring out. In his rage and passion for revenge he had taken the life of the person he loved the most.

(Source: Topographical & Historical Account of HAYLING ISLAND. Published 1826 by L. Skelton)