Smugglers & Ghosts

Never mind Jamaica Inn – in the 18th Century, smuggling was rife in the Blyth Valley!

Remote yet with proximity to the coast and the River Blyth offering a route inland, village pubs were often implicated. The White Hart, Blythburgh was a particularly handy place from which to signal to small boats ferrying kegs of brandy and contraband was said to have been stored above the fireplace at the Queen’s Head, Blyford. Bootlegged liquor is said to have been hidden between pews and altar in Blyford church, taken there along a secret tunnel between the two. Westhall’s St Andrew’s Church held a similar secret, kegs allegedly hidden in the valley between two roof ridges. The point is that, at its peak, smuggling was a lucrative enterprise that required the tacit support of the community as The Smugglers’ Song by Rudyard Kipling suggests:

“If you wake at midnight and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street;
Them that asks no questions, isn’t told no lie,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by”.

A spot on a regular smugglers route – where the Walberswick Road meets the A12 – was (said to be) haunted by Black Toby, a Negro drummer boy hanged for rape and murder. After death, his corpse was dipped in tar and left to rot on the gibbet and his ghost is said to roam Toby’s Walks & Blythburgh Church. When ‘seen’ in the open he is more often than not driving a huge black hearse driven by four headless horses. Could it be that the folklore of rural Suffolk was deliberately exaggerated to spook people into staying at home, leaving smugglers free to go about their business?

Then there’s Black Shuck, a ghostly black dog said to roam the Suffolk countryside. According to legend, the spectre prowls the coastline, graveyards, crossroads, lonesome footpaths and dark lanes. “Although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like there is in the middle of his head like Cyclops.”

In August 1577, this legendary devil dog is said to have burst in through the doors of Blythburgh’s Holy Trinity Church to a clap of thunder, killing a man and a boy in the congregation and causing the church steeple to collapse. On leaving as balefully as he had come, he scorched the ‘devil’s fingerprints’ on the north door. They can still be seen. Black Shuck descended on the Church in nearby Bungay too, where two more people were killed. It’s thought that Arthur Conan Doyle dreamed up The Hound of the Baskervilles after hearing tales of Black Shuck.

The devil is said to live in a railed tomb in St Mary’s Churchyard Halesworth – if you run round it five times he will pop out! If this sort of thing interests you, check out