A  Smuggler's Paradise

Robin Hood's Bay

The first evidence of man was 3000 years ago (Bronze age). Burial grounds were dug on the high moorlands. These are known as Robin Hood’s Butts. 1500 years later the Romans built a signal tower. Saxon peasants, then Norsemen, Norwegians and Danes settled the area for farming and fishing. Origin of the name is a mystery, as there is no evidence that it is connected to the Robin Hood of legend.


Many houses in the village were built between 1650 and 1750 and whole families were involved in the fishing industry. Many families owned or part-owned cobles (pronounced like cobbles – the local fishing boats).


By the 18th century the bay was the most successful smuggling operation in England. It was surrounded by marshlands on three sides and the ocean on the other. Smuggling was backed up by many on land who were willing to finance and transport contraband. Fisherfolk, farmers, clergy and gentry alike were all involved. Tea, gin, rum, brandy and tobacco were among the contraband smuggled into Yorkshire from the Netherlands and France to avoid the duty taxes.


Fierce battles ensued between smugglers and excise men, both at sea and on land. Bay wives were known to pour boiling water over excise men from bedroom windows in the narrow alleyways. Hiding places, bolt holes and secret passages abounded. It is said that it was possible to enter one house and travel through tunnels throughout the whole village, never going to the outside. The whole village is still filled with tiny alleyways and passages like a rabbit’s warren with turnings, a maze, dead ends, hidden doorways and narrow passage ways between buildings.


Press gangs in the 18th and early 19th Century were feared and hated. Though fishermen, sailors and other important workers were supposed to be exempt from conscription into the Navy, this was often not honored. Once launched to sea, these men rarely returned home. Village women would beat a drum to warn the men of the Press, who were attacked and beaten off.


In the late 19th century many workers came into the area to build the railway. Saturday was pay day. The men would naturally come to village ready to party and often to participate in the “Battle Royal,” a fierce battle between the workers and the locals, which took place on the beach. This soon led to a riot but there was no place in the village to put the rascals. So, it was decided to build a police station with jails. Eventually a new station was built at the top of the bluffs and the old was sold to a private party who now use it for holiday rentals.


January 18, 1881, the brig Visiter ran ashore during a violent storm. No local rescue boat could be launched due to the weather. So, the nearby town of Whitby provided its lifeboat, which was carried a distance of 6 miles through 7 foot snowdrifts. 200 men cleared the way for the horse drawn boat. Locals worked from the bottom of the hill to reach them. The village’s narrow passage ways required the men to take down garden walls and pull out bushes. In just 2 hours the crew of the Visiter were rescued. Such are the dangers of living and working at the sea.


A cannon is still fired every Sunday at noon so that everyone can synchronize their watches for the week.


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