The Cutters – the Smugglers’ vessel of choice.


For the first half of the 18th Century, with most of the revenue’s prevention methods being focused on land based actions against the gangs, they relied on the Navy to try and confound the smugglers’ vessels at sea and prevent them landing. Even their smallest sloops however, were no match in terms of speed and manoeuvrability for the smugglers’ ships. So, why did the smugglers have the advantage?

The answer comes in their construction and design. Unlike the Naval Sloops, which were built of stout, heavy, English oak, the cutter’s were generally built of fir, which was just as watertight, but cheaper and lighter. Lighter timber meant less weight, and more speed. The hulls of both vessels were assembled differently. The cutters were “carvel built” that is each board of the hull was fastened edge to edge, which gave it a smooth surface thus streamlining it. The Sloops, by contrast, were “Clinker built” – each plank overlapped the other, This, while easier to make watertight, increased the resistance of the ship through the waves, thus slowing it down.


Shallower keels and wider hulls made these vessels able to sail close to the coast, and up channels that would have beached the Naval vessels. (an example to the Naval Sloop’s lack of manoeuvrability is the fact that the Sloop protecting Poole in 1747, The Spence, was beached due to low tide, and could not bring it’s guns to bear on the Smugglers as they stole back their seized cargo from the Custom’s house).

These vessels varied in size, the smallest being single decked affairs, going up to the largest ones which carried guns, a crew of some fifty, and decks to store huge cargoes. (The Three Brothers , (which carried the aforementioned seized cargo, was one such ship. )

Another advantage the Cutters had was with their sails and rigging. The Naval Sloops were Typically “Bermuda Rigged” – designed in the 17th Century. These typically had triangular sails, and were fore and aft rigged, with a long bowsprit, to maximise the size and area of the sails exposed to the wind, thus increasing their speed. They could have up to three masts. The Cutters, like the Sloops, were fore and Aft rigged, but improvements in design had evolved (the Navy behind the times) and these were typically “Gaff Rigged” – that is square sails, which gave 25% more canvas to catch the wind, and the head was controlled by a spar which increased the speed at which the sails could be turned to match the wind direction, handy for quick exists from coves and bays.

All this added up to Vessels that could outrun the best the Navy had to offer at the time. The answer was obvious, that the Navy and Revenue would use Cutter’s to chase the ships. Sadly again, this was another area where they were behind the times. The Admiralty had it’s focus on warships, and the Revenue were not permitted to assemble their own fleet at this time. Individual Controllers of Customs did hire Cutter Captains in individual cases (For Example William Milner of Poole hired a Captain Johnson and his cutter The Swift to chase down the Three Brothers – which it did successfully ) often promising a cut of the cargo as a reward. However, these crews were often unreliable, occasionally taking the whole cargo for themselves, and profiting from it. It wasn’t until after 1750, and the break up of The Hawkhurst Gang, that those in authority learned from their mistakes, and began commissioning their own cutters.



“Smuggling in Kent and Sussex 1700-1840” MAry Waugh, Countryside books,1985

“Smuggling in the British Isles, A History” Richard Platt Tempus Publishing, 2007

“King’s Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855” E Keble Chatterton Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2006 .

9 thoughts on “The Cutters – the Smugglers’ vessel of choice.

    • Short answer is yes, theoretically. However you are talking about very high stakes here. The crews were very highly skilled, who knew the channels intimately. The speed advantage given by being carvel built, and being built from Fir rather than Oak, was enough to to be worth the risk. Any damage could be repaired cheaply (Fir was cheaper timber). The 1747 capture of The Three Brothers netted the Hawkhurst and Chichester Gangs a loss of 42 cwt of Tea and thirty casks of pure brandy – an outlay of nearly £500 (given an average daily farm labourer’s wage of around 12d ) and you can see just how much money was at stake. If caught by the revenue, then hanging and gibbeting was a normal punishment, as well as the cargo being confiscated. The risk of a total wreck was minimal compared to the risk of capture by slowing the cutter’s down unnecessarily.
      Having said that, some crews did stick to Clinker built vessels, carvel hulls were just faster.

  1. What always impresss me it the amount of research authors do for their books to the extent the become experts on aspects of their topics. Great port. I havelearned something new.

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