There were two main methods of smuggling tea into England. The first method was to buy tea from other countries, and the second was to buy tea directly from East Indiamen. The East India Company allowed ship officers to leave a certain amount of space on the ship for their own “private trade.” They could make more money by selling their personal stash to smugglers, but they competed with their own employers (Mui, 45).
Smugglers could not rely on regular or consistent amounts of tea from the East Indiamen. It was usually cheaper than buying from the Dutch or the French, but the tea was only average in quality. The East Indiamen would anchor their ship outside of territorial waters before reaching the Thames to London, and smugglers would row out to them (Mui, 45). When the continental countries traded with China, they sailed back to their country on designated water routes established in the 1740s. To buy from these countries, smugglers learned these routes and would rendezvous with incoming ships to purchase tea (Mui, 50).
Some smugglers sailed directly to the continent, but tea smuggling mainly occurred along the southern coast of England, the Scottish borders, at the Isle of Man, the Isle of Wight, and around the Channel Islands (Pettigrew, 43). During the early days, smugglers’ boats were small and unarmed. To outsmart the excise officers, they had to rely on their ability to evade detection and operate in secrecy with the help of local citizens using light signals, coast watchers, and sheer trickery. Being further from the government in London, the profit on smuggled tea was higher in Scotland, but smugglers in England made more trips across channel to France and Holland. (Mui, 56).
Tea was packaged in oil-skinned pouches to keep the sea water out and then packed into cases that fit between timbers of boats and resembled flooring (Pettigrew, 43). When they got to the coast, if no immediate transport was available, smugglers would stash the tea under hedgerows, behind bushes, or in people’s barns and sheds.
Other illicit goods had long since been smuggled into the country using creative means. Gloves, lace, and jewelry filled fishermen’s boots; silk hid in ladies’ petticoats; amber and lace filled hollowed loaves of bread and tobacco in rolled sailcloth (Pettigrew, 42). Tea was much easier to smuggle than gin or brandy; it was light and easy to transport. It could be hidden inside a cape or greatcoat, held under hats, or even sewn into cotton pouches worn under clothing and hung from shoulders with suspenders.