Saturday, 14 February 2015

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera

I am currently re-reading a book I last read when I was maybe eight or nine, the Cuckoo Tree by Joan Aiken. It is set in an alternate 18th or 19th Century (it isn't clear which) and among the fine collection of grotesques and rascals decorating it's pages are a gang of Smugglers called the Wineberry Men. Aiken did her research well, smuggling was a big deal in England's past, and my own reading has shown that it is entirely plausible to suggest that the early 17th Century could have been it's origin as a big business.

Tonnage and Poundage

It was all about the money. It had been traditional for centuries for Parliament to vote newly crowned kings of England the right to levy 'Tonnage and Poundage', customs duties on goods entering and leaving English ports. King James I had however abused the system. He upped the rates, levied extra surcharges and put the whole operation under the control of customs farmers. These were consortia of rich merchants and aristocrats who paid the king a fixed annual rent for the right to take duties at ports; they of course hoped to make a profit, and brought a keenness and rigour to the task that the easygoing Royal officers had always lacked. However this early attempt to privatise public services went about as well in the 17th century as similar efforts have in recent decades; the system was full of corruption and the new farmers were accused of all sorts of abuses, but the king got a regular income and he had saved himself and him ministers a dreary administrative burden so he was happy.

When his son Charles came to the throne Parliament refused to vote him Tonnage and Poundage until the abuses had been stopped. He carried on levying the duty anyway through the farming companies his father had used. Parliament declared the imposts illegal and in not so many words implied the king was a thief, one of the reasons Charles refused to call a Parliament for over a decade, until his disastrous handling of the Bishop's War in Scotland forced him to.

The Owlers

The chief item being smuggled was wool. There had been efforts throughout the later middle ages and Tudor period to transplant Flemish weavers to England, but most English wool was still going to the continent to be made up into cloth and wool duties made up most of the customs income. The Owlers were smuggling gangs who spirited the stuff away in the middle of the night, and hundreds of armed men were engaged in the trade to fight off the privatised excise agents.


Packing wool for export involves compressing the rather low density fleeces into compact packs by sticking it in a wooden form with a square jute bag inside, stamping it down and sewing it shut. The packs are about two foot by tow foot by three and are damned heavy – an oversized item in the LotFP rules – and these are bound up by rope into gigantic packs weighing twenty-six stones. The importance of the wool trade to the economy is symbolised by the Lord Chancellor sitting on a woolpack in Parliament.

They are also ideal for smuggling. Once the pack is sewn shut no one is keen to cut it open as it will be the devils job to get it all back in, and all kinds of stuff can be hidden in the padded depths of a woolpack. In the early seventeenth century sugar and tobacco were starting to be brought into England from her newly founded colonies in the Americas and Caribbean. There had always been a good trade in imported wine, especially fortified wine like port and brandy – tonnage was in fact 'tunnage', a levy charged per tun (barrel) of wine.

Counting Sheep

Back when the Anglo Saxons invaded the British Isles everyone spoke Celtic. Over most of Britain the Celtic language died out and there are remarkably few Celtic loan words in modern English, but somehow it hung on in counting systems for sheep. There are many local variants of this counting system and a gang of smugglers called the Riggwelters (the local dialect for sheep on its back that can't get itself upright due to a heavy fleece) in Lincolnshire use the words as code names. From one to ten the numbers are; Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Hethera, Hovera, Covera, Dik.

Any, all or none of the following reprobates may be members of the gang;

  • The Vicar of Holbeach St Marks, the Reverend Dr William Toad. Toad is a local man, son of the previous smuggler 'king' who made enough money to send his son to Cambridge to study Divinity. William's position in the Church of England used to put him above all suspicion, but the local Puritans have no respect and openly accuse him of all sorts of crimes in the street, some of which are actually true. He's dying to have a couple entombed alive in woolpacks and dumped in the salt marshes in the local version of the mafia concrete boots, but prudence has so far stayed his hand; but with a war on all kinds of vengeance may be possible.
  • Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. A society beauty and cousin of the Parliamentarian general the Earl of Essex, Lucy's husband is one of the chief investors in the Yarmouth Customs Farm. Lucy goes through his papers tipping off her smuggler cohorts as to their operations. She got into the trade in her youth; her father is the Earl of Northumberland, who made deals with his local Owlers to get the wool from his estates to market without paying the King his cut. Lucy has gone the whole hog and become an Owler herself.
  • Lionel Pepys, Norwich gadabout. Lionel learned witchcraft in his youth from his grandmother, being particularly adept at spells of charm and illusion. He lives a fine life among the provincial gentry and aspires to be published poet, while at the same time ordering his rival Owlers kneecapped with blunderbusses and gifting them mutton pies laced with scrapie infected sheep brain.
  • Toby 'the Frog' Letchworth, customs clerk. Officially a customs officer, he went over to the Owlers long ago, and cheerfully abuses his position as Land-Waiter at Yarmouth to intercept goods being brought in by rival smugglers from abroad and appropriate them for himself. He usually haunts the 'Happy Flounder' alehouse in Yarmouth, an obese oaf with a broad grin who holds court in a backroom with his bewarted cronies. Actually immensely strong and can fold a silver sixpence in two round a whispered curse with his fingers, and have it planted on a man he wants harmed by a nimble fingered potboy.
  • Diligence 'Ma' Lubbage, confectioner. Ma smuggles Caribbean sugar and spices from the far east and even chocolate, though the early 17th century version is more closely related to the bitter drink of the Aztecs than the modern sweet. Has an African slave working at her shop in Norwich who helps her cast spells and adds various dubious herbs to her sugar loaves to make them addictive and much in demand. Half hearted knife fights between podgy addicts have broken out in alleyways over her 'sweets'.
  • Harry Dangerman, 'I am not the Sethera, I am a free man!'. Harry claims he is forced into being a smuggler by witchcraft but he may have just partken in too much of the potent hashish and opium he picks up from Levantine company traders in Amsterdam. Says he is haunted by the ghosts of dead rivals who follow him around with their mouths stuffed with wool and that he was once ambushed by a demon shaped like a great white bladder filled with air when he tried to quit the business.
  • Piet Vanderboer, sea captain. Known as 'Vanderbastard' by his crew, Piet is a Calvinist who dresses in bible black and a fierce disciplinarian who will keel haul a man for picking his nose on deck. His rather unique theological view is that all tithes and taxes are inspired by Satan to prevent God-fearing merchants like himself making a living, and that the guilds of sailors and tradesmen who try and set wages and trade practices are devil worshippers. The Hidden Hand of God works his miracles of prosperity through markets, and his blessing is reflected in the gift of wealth to the Godly. More conventional types wonder if he has mistaken Mammon for Jesus, but he always has a suitable Bible quote to justify his many acts of fraud, piracy and murder.
  • Lillian 'Poxy Lil' Lasalle, gun runner. Lillian was a much in demand prostitute until smallpox ruined her looks. She learned to hate the gentry and their wicked ways while she was on the game and is now an ardent Parliamentarian who brings in firearms from the continent to supply the various pockets of resisters in Royalist dominated areas like the South West and Ireland. She has contacts in the perfume trade in France and can source poisoned Eau de Cologne.
  • Gerard 'the Giblet' Smethwick, butcher and poulterer. Runs his contraband overland on the backs of pigs with the aid of his swineherds and he and his confederates retail their smuggled goods in their butcher shops, just ask for the 'special meat'. Sometimes you will get just that, special pork-tasting pies with a good thick crust and plenty of pig-trotter jelly and maybe the odd toenail.
  • Michael Maunder, publican. Runs the 'Fighting Cock' alehouse known for its cheap beer and lively cockfighting scene. Will dope his own birds on 'Colombian snuff' and watch them rip the shreds out of his rivals and then offer the losers the chance to work off their gambling debts by carrying a woolpack for him. Woebetide someone who dies not play their part, Michael is a witch with a talent for spells of seeking and finding, and marks all his packs with rune carved magic bones for easy recovery.

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