It was not only fishermen who used the haven. It had been an important site for export and import of goods and for cross-channel travel until it started to silt up. This undoubtedly affected the wealth of the town, as it did in all the Cinque Ports. In 1618, they joined together to write to the Lord warden, pleading poverty and claiming that between them only one small ship now belonged to a Cinque Ports owner and
‘all the residue of the ships of the Ports are of small burthen and only trade to Newcastle and the west of England with malt; some few are “passage boates,” and employed for France, Holland, and Flanders’
All the owners of larger ships had gone off to London, where the merchants had an unfair advantage, the Cinque Ports said, because they were incorporated into the Company of Merchant Adventurers. As the Company held a monopoly at the time on the exportation of cloth, the Cinque Ports men had a good point, but no chance of winning the argument.
Exactly what and how much was imported and exported through the haven in the seventeenth century is unknown. The Customs papers for the period, which recorded all this information are held at the National Archive, but are now too fragile to be viewed. Some information, however, can be pieced together from other sources.
We know that horses were exported through the haven. In the seventeenth century, the reputation of the British horse was so good that dealers could make three times more by selling abroad rather than in the domestic market. Cromwell had banned the export of horses during the civil war (they were needed for the cavalry) but the ban was lifted in 1656, and the corporation of Hythe evidently saw an opportunity to replenish the town chest, and slapped a fee on horse traders using the haven.
At the same time they voted to charge for other goods transported from the port -wheat, beans, barley, malt, rye, and pease. Coal from Newcastle was a regular import. It was still being brought into the haven in 1618, but by 1640 Elias Bassett, a local merchant, was bringing the stuff to the town in carts from the stade, suggesting his boats were drawn up there rather than anchoring in the haven.
Dealing in coal was not without its pitfalls. In 1644, Robert Curtis took his barque ‘Porpoise’ up to Sunderland to fetch coal, but on his way back home he and the vessel were seized by the navy, acting under the authority of Parliament, who believed he was going to supply the enemy. The enemy in this case was the King, Charles I. Curtis was held for a month before persuading the Admiralty of his ‘affection for Parliament’.
The Hythe Customs books do reveal one thing, even though they cannot be viewed. Their catalogue descriptions show that from 1685 onwards they are blank. No entries were made, and it must be assumed that from then on, Hythe haven was closed for business.
Alongside legitimate trade existed the murkier world of smuggling. On the Kent coast in the seventeenth century, the focus of the smugglers was getting wool out of the country, rather than importing goods, although that could be an attractive sideline. For centuries England’s chief raw material was wool. It was exported, after payment of duty, particularly to Flanders where it fetched a good price, and was prized for its texture and length of staple. It was used in the manufacture of the very best quality cloth. Then, in 1614, James I issued a proclamation restraining the export of wool. This was repeated in 1617, and again by the Commonwealth and was finally enshrined in law in 1660. The measures were intended to halt the growth of the Flemish textile industries and promote the growth of domestic, especially Irish, enterprises.
During the first half of the seventeenth century, sheep farming on the Romney Marsh had developed until huge tracts of the area were converted to grazing land. Everyone kept sheep, from husbandmen and yeomen, to small and great landowners who employed ‘lookers’ to keep an eye on the beasts and never visited their holdings. The ban on export was a disaster. The loss of revenue could not be made up by sales to the domestic market. In 1703, it was reckoned that wool in its raw state was worth fourpence a pound in Ireland, and combed wool, tenpence. In France a seller could get two shillings and sixpence for raw wool and up to six shillings a pound for combed wool. Apart from the inconvenient fact that it was against the law, the argument for smuggling was very persuasive.
Even before the ban, wool smuggling, known as ‘owling’ had taken place to avoid paying the export duty. The word owling is variously explained as coming from the hooting noise the smugglers used to warn of danger (which sounds, frankly, unlikely) or as being a corruption of ‘wooling’. Or perhaps it was because the smugglers worked at night.
The owlers’ enemies were the customs men. Until 1671, the normal method of customs duty collecting was ‘farming’. An individual, the farmer, would pay a fixed sum to the Crown, and then collect customs duties in a given area and keep them. Farmers appointed their own officials at ports. Alas, neither the farmers nor the officials were always honest men.
Arranging a ship, and men, to smuggle wool overseas involved a large financial outlay, with the possibility of great returns, and the men who bankrolled this were not averse to using violence if their plans were threatened. Punishment for smuggling was death if the culprit resisted; if not, he could expect to be transported or sent for navy service, none of which was a desirable outcome. Threats were an effective way of ensuring silence. Smugglers were not dashing rogues with Robin Hood tendencies, whatever the romantic novelists might have you believe.