The Lawless Coast - Smuggling, Anarchy and Murder in North Norfolk in the 1780s
by Neil Holmes (Larks Press, 2008)


The entire coastline of 18th century England was ruled by major smuggling barons and their private armies recruited from coastal villages. By the 1780s, smuggling had reached such unprecedented heights that the Government was forced to take a stand, not only to protect its revenue, but also to quell the revolutionary posturing of the smuggling gangs.

North Norfolk was particularly lawless, and was in the control of ruthless operators determined to protect their illicit activities. In 1783, Army Regiments and Naval Warships, returning from the American war, were pitched headlong into a domestic war against the smuggling gangs. A decade of bloody confrontation, violence and death ensued.

The Pitt Arms (now The Hoste) in Burnham Market played a prominent role in suppressing the smuggling gangs, by providing accommodation and stabling for detachments of soldiers and horses from the Light Dragoon Regiments. These disciplined cavalrymen were drafted into the area to assist officers of both The Customs and The Excise to confront the well-armed smuggling gangs on equal terms. The landlord of the Inn was allowed a miserly 4d per day by the War Office for each soldier and horse, and included accommodation, food, small beer, stabling and hay.

The Lawless Coast recounts, in detail drawn from original documents, the battles which ensued on the beaches and in the villages of North Norfolk. It is a gripping account of late 18th century Norfolk life, and includes detailed descriptions of murders at Old Hunstanton, ruthless violence at Thornham, quayside alehouses at Wells, a street battle in Kings Lynn, Assize trials of men who thought themselves above the law, the rigours of prison life, public executions in Norwich, and a gibbeting.


The Lawless Coast is a detailed historical account of smuggling on the North Norfolk coast in the 1780s, a period which witnessed illegal running of contraband goods on Norfolk’s beaches on an unprecedented scale. With the widespread smuggling activity there came, inevitably, confrontation, violence and even murder, as Government forces tried desperately to confront the smugglers and to control their activities.

All the accounts which follow are true stories, and all the individuals portrayed are real people. Much of my information was acquired as the result of copious research at the Public Records Office, the British Library and the Norfolk Records Office, and entailed many months of painstaking sifting through extensive primary source material and original documentation. In addition, I was fortunate to gain access to original and informative manuscripts held in a private collection. All my sources are listed under ‘Bibliography’ at the end of the book.


I have begun the narrative with ‘The Old Hunstanton Murders’, which in many ways is a classic smuggling tale of the period, as it involves all the various departments involved in the war against smuggling, such as the Customs, the Excise, the Army, the Navy and the Judiciary, in addition to the smuggling barons and their retainers on the beaches and in the coastal villages. This enabled me to include explanatory boxes detailing the deployment of each of these individual groups, at appropriate places within the narrative, to assist the reader’s understanding of the events described. It is for this reason that the book begins with ‘The Old Hunstanton Murders’, covering the years 1784 to 1786, then follows with a ‘Tale of Two Enemies’ and other accounts from earlier in the decade.

I am grateful to Terry Greenacre of Clenchwarton for allowing me access to his collection of original documents, and to Dr. Andrew Macnair of Foulsham for permission to use his digitally redrawn version of Faden’s 1797 Map of Norfolk. This map, located at the end of the book, will assist the reader to follow the various routes taken by Customs Officers, Excise Officers and Light Dragoon cavalry in the detailed account of ‘The Old Hunstanton Murders’. I am also grateful to Bernard Phillips of Wells for reading my original draft, and to Geoffrey Needham of Holme and Ken Walpole of North Walsham for setting in motion my searches. Finally, I would like to thank my Publisher, Susan Yaxley, for her sensitive editing of my final draft.

Neil Holmes

About the author

Neil Holmes is a professional landscape and gardens photographer, and has illustrated countless British travel books, as well as garden books and magazines worldwide.

He was educated at Soham Grammar School in Cambridgeshire, and the University of Leicester, where he gained an Honours Degree in History in the 1960s.

He moved permanently to Norfolk in 1990.

Getting the book ISBN 978 1 904006 44 2

Published by The Larks Press, Ordnance Farmhouse, Guist Bottom, Dereham, Norfolk NR20 5PF: tel 01328 829207

10.50, available locally at the White House Bookshop, Burnham Market; Big Blue Sky, Wells; Thornham village stores; Old Hunstanton village stores; Witleys, Hunstanton.

Also available via Amazon

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last updated 28 Aug 2008