While the nearby fishing port of Beer was the undisputed smuggling capital of east Devon, Branscombe played a part in the nightly cat-and-mouse game with the Exciseman which reached its hight during the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). And it wasn't only booze that was smuggled - French burrs were the finest millstones and highly prized, but subject to a heavy duty.
According to Henry Northcote, born in 1819, two Branscombe farmers, Bray and Fry, were the mainstays of the smuggling business in the village. It seems that, for the most part, it was a good-humoured battle of wits, although there were strict penalties; fines, imprisonment, or even Transportation, for those caught. And, as with all things involving quick profits and alcohol, things could turn ugly very quickly, as in the suspected murder of Branscombe customs officer John Hurley in 1755.
The customs inspector was called the Riding Officer, a position that must have carried with it some attractive perks, as he was easily the least popular person in the community. There is still a Customs Cottage in the village. In the nineteenth century, the Lookout was built at Branscombe Mouth, to house up to half a dozen Excisemen.
The smuggling tales of Beer and Branscombe have been so embellished over the years, it's hard to separate fact from fantasy. Chiefly responsible for the confusion was Jack Rattenbury, a Beer sailor who made no secret of his smuggling exploits, real or imaginary. He even published a best-selling book about them in 1837, "Memoirs of a Smuggler", in which he refers to himself as the "Rob Roy of the West".What is true is that, from medieval times on, when taxes and excise on goods first became widespread, the cliffs, caves and fishing boats of Branscombe have seen a steady trade in illegal imports and exports. For the most part, it can be assumed, this all took place at night and in great secrecy, involving the hollow hedges, sunken barrels and diversionary tricks romanticised in popular fiction. But a contemporary account of smuggling in Branscombe by George Pulman, published in 1857, paints a very different picture:
`... smugglers could [not] have been much in dread of the exciseman for, when a child, I have often met strings of their horses by daylight, in charge of only a single person, travelling along the secluded roads and heavily laden with the contraband. The smugglers' horses were all remarkably sagacious. They travelled in single file, eight or ten together, and one of them - the oldest and most experienced - was called the Captain. He led the rest, and they all knew the "enemy" and how to treat him. It was dangerous to attempt to stop them and, truth to tell, the experiment was seldom tried.'
Jack Rattenbury eventually retired from the smuggling trade with gout, but in a curious twist to his larger-than-life career, he was invited up to London, at government expense, to advise them on a proposal by the respected engineer Thomas Telford, to drive a ship canal from Beer to the Bristol Channel, a project it was estimated would cost one and three-quarter million pounds. Jack was invited to comment on the likely effects it would have on cross-channel trade, but whether legal or illegal is not recorded!
Jack died in Seaton and is buried in the churchyard there. His passing marked the end of the heyday of contraband along the coast; a combination of agricultural depression and the Industrial Revolution had depopulated many of the coastal communities, and the ending of the Napoleonic Wars meant normal trade with France was resumed. The only remnants of these times surviving to the present day are the Lookout at Branscombe Mouth, and the traditional cry that used to echo along the cliffs to signal the start of another night's smuggling, `The coast is clear!'