In the mid-eighteenth century, following the introduction of Customs and Excise taxes as a means of boosting insufficient government revenue, the British public's extreme reluctance to pay them soon gave rise to an entirely new way of life specifically designed to avoid their collection at all costs. This industry - for that is what it became - rapidly became far larger than the forces of law and order could control and, by 1784, forty-four so-called 'Revenue Cutters' and more than 1,000 men employed at a cost of £45,000 per year were patrolling isolated coasts in a vain attempt to stem the flow of contraband. Illicit cargoes usually consisted of French brandy, tobacco, silks and lace but one notorious smuggler regularly landed four or five tons of China tea alongside his 2,000 casks of spirit. The amount of revenue lost to the Exchequer was colossal and all social classes, most of them normally upright and law-abiding, were happy to give smuggling at least their tacit support whilst the various commodities brought in, usually under cover of darkness, found a ready market in every level of society.
Such were the profits of the trade that large-scale smuggling between France and England continued throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and, in fact, the intelligence services in both countries were inclined to turn a blind eye to the smugglers themselves since they were frequently the source of much useful information about shipping movements on each side of the Channel. Eventually, Customs & Excise won through and, by the mid-nineteenth century, the service was properly funded and able to keep large-scale smuggling under control. Things were very different in the heady days of the Georgian era however, when a scene such as Dawson has depicted here would have been commonplace off the south coast of England. Both vessels - the pursuer and the pursued - seem equally matched for the chase although the Revenue Cutter is probably better armed. In this fresh breeze, it does not look as if the smuggler will be caught unless a lucky shot dismasts or disables her.