Appledore from Instow

North Devon Maritime Museum Appledore

Odun Road, Appledore, Devon, EX39 1PT



Smuggling boats landed goods from the continent on the north and south coast of the Devon in all seasons, but the north coast was used for continental traffic principally during the summer, when the Atlantic storms had abated.


The coastline on the north is less favourable for landings: there are fewer gently-sloping sandy beaches, and many of the suitable coves are too exposed to the wind, making approach more hazardous. The heavy surf for which the area is now famous was another problem, breaking up the floating 'rafts' of roped-together tubs. The main advantage of a north coast landing to the smuggler was that it was inconspicuous: revenue vessels kept an eagle eye on the south coast, but were less vigilant on the north.


Smuggling activity on the north coast focused on traffic with the West Indies, and with various off-shore depots, such as Ireland, the Scillies and Lundy Island. Ocean-going vessels heading for Bristol found it a simple matter to keep a clandestine rendezvous with small boats off the North Devon coast.

Lundy Island was at the centre of a massive tobbacco smuggling scheme that defrauded fortunes from the exchequer in the mid 18th-century. The mastermind of the fraud was a Bideford man called Thomas Benson. He had inherited considerable wealth from his father, including a fleet of ships plying regularly to the American colonies, and returning with tobacco. Benson's fortune flourished from the trade, and in due course he became Sheriff of Devon, and later MP for Barnstaple. His business activities were not up to the standard expected of presentday public figures.

Benson conceived an elegant scheme to defraud the customs, involving both Lundy Island, which he rented from Lord Gower, and the steady flow of convicts who streamed through Bideford on route for the New World.


Benson's ships transported the offenders across the Atlantic, but some got no further than Lundy. There Benson established a perfectly legitimate tobacco processing plant and storage facility. His smuggling activities revolved around the drawback system, whereby merchants who re-exported goods that they had imported could reclaim the import duty paid. Thus Benson would land tobacco on the mainland, pay duty, re-export it to Lundy and legitimately reclaim the duty he had paid. His trick, though, was to import the processed tobacco once more this time illegally.


The defrauded customs men of Appledore, Bideford and Barnstaple were perplexed as they couldnot find that this island is within the limits of any port'. The problem persisted. The following year the board of customs feared that the island would become a haven for smuglers.

However, Benson's days were numbered. He had scuttled one of his ships to claim the insurance, and the government net was closing tighter on his customs frauds. In 1754 he fled to Portugal.