Roger Guttridge recalls North Dorset’s most notorious smuggling gang
As many readers will know, I only need half an excuse to talk about my smuggling ancestors, and an email from Mike Coker has provided just that.
‘I’ve enjoyed reading your articles in the new Blackmore Vale and have been the owner of your Dorset Smugglers book for many years,’ he writes.
‘I have a recollection of a story that I read many years ago, the gist of which was that a gang of smugglers led by a Ridout (Roger?) were apprehended by a Customs and Excise officer named Coker (Lieutenant John?).
‘Apparently a mutually satisfactory arrangement (a bribe?) was arrived at and Ridout was allowed to go free without any blood being shed.
‘The story had some significance to me and my family as I am a Coker and my wife’s maiden name was Ridout.’
I’ve told Mike that the story doesn’t ring any bells, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have some basis in fact.
If Coker really was a lieutenant, that probably means he was a member of the Coastguard, which used naval ranks but was not launched until 1822, 11 years after Roger Ridout’s death.
Neither the Customs nor the Excise, which were separate services until the early 1900s, used naval ranks.
Like most smugglers, however, Roger Ridout would not have been averse to a little bribery and corruption if it kept him out of jail.
Among the family legends handed down by my maternal grandfather, Jim Ridout, of Fiddleford, is the claim that Roger used bribed a magistrate called Dashwood by leaving tubs of brandy on his doorstep in Penny Street, Sturminster Newton.
Corroborative evidence comes from an article by HC Dashwood, published in 1895.
He described how his father and grandfather, riding late at night in or about 1794, witnessed the Ridout gang at work.
They looked on as the ‘string of horses’ loaded with ‘kegs and other contraband goods’ passed along the narrow lane between Okeford Fitzpaine and Fiddleford.
This alone could explain why Roger Ridout felt the need to part with a tub or two from his precious cargo.
And the Dashwoods were certainly well-informed.
HC’s article not only names Roger Ridout as the gang leader but also his horse, Ridout’s Stumpted Tail.
‘One or two men, armed, generally were in front and then 10 or 12 horses connected by ropes or halters followed at a hard trot, and two or three men brought up the rear,’ says Dashwood.
‘This cavalcade did not stop for any person, and it was very difficult to get out of their way, as the roads, until the turnpikes were made in 1824, would only allow for one carriage, except in certain parts.
‘The contraband goods were principally brought from Lulworth and the coast through Whiteparish [Winterborne Whitechurch] and Okeford Fitzpaine, through the paths in the woods to Fiddleford, and thus distributed.’
Dashwood describes Fiddleford Mill and Farm as a ‘great depot’ for smuggled goods, which would be hidden under hay and straw provided by the farmer.
The contraband would be moved further inland at a later date and eventually sold duty-free.
Roger Ridout was my five-times-great grandfather, and since hearing the family legends in the 1960s, I have been able to piece together his life.
Here are some of the facts I’ve uncovered:
• Roger was born at Farrington, Shroton, in 1736.
• His mother was a Fiddleford girl, Susannah Appowell.
• At the age of 10, Roger inherited his grandfather Thomas Appowell’s leasehold house and grounds at Fiddleford.
• In 1756 he married Mary Hancock of Sturminster Newton and they settled at Okeford Fitzpaine Mill.
• In 1770 Poole’s Collector of Customs reported that ‘Isaac Gulliver, William Beale and Roger Ridout run great quantities of goods on our North Shore’.
• In 1781 Roger, Mary, their eldest son William and a fourth man were tried for murder at the Dorset Assizes but acquitted.
• In 1787 Roger was jailed at Dorchester for ‘smuggling’ but released two weeks later after paying his £40 fine. This was very unusual and suggests his smuggling was doing very nicely!
• Mary and Roger died in 1809 and 1811 respectively and are buried in Okeford Fitzpaine churchyard.