Fire reveals the family secret of Peterboat inn

There were surprising revelations when one family history researcher found herself back to the late 17th century…

Newly discovered ancestors were shown as respectable innkeepers, cocklers, waterman in early investigation. Then came a big shock for the family history researcher as she discovered the dark side.

Ancestors can be honest and upright or dishonest and dishonourable, but they remain, forever, an ancestor hanging on the family history tree. Being a “publican” is probably an upright occupation. But, what does it take to shift that newly discovered forebear into the dishonest and dishonourable category.

The Peterboat pub has been recorded at the heart of the waterfront at Leigh on Sea, Essex, since the early 1600s. Records indicate the most likely early owner was Samuel Osborne who died around 1695. “Most likely”, because his 21st century descendant researcher found evidence that the pub was owned by Samuel’s son, John Osborne in 1695. This was the same year as his father’s death was recorded.

John Osborne died in 1739, while further records show the Peterboat had passed not to his son John Osborne (II) but to his grandson John Osborne (III). Local documents confirmed he was the licensee in 1769. Giving a son the same name from generation to generation was a standard practise in the olden days. The Osbornes continued this for four more generations. A total of six John Osbornes could have been serving pints of cockles and pints of beer at the Peterboat.

All socially “respectable” enough, no cause for concern, even when one of the Johns shows his occupation as waterman and farmer…

However, in 1892 the inn and nearby houses were totally destroyed by a fire that started during some after-hours drinking. The landlord and his nephew knocked over an oil lamp and then had to knock down the wall of the house next door to rescue his wife and children.

There was a further shock following closer inspection of the inn’s fire debris. This caused our family researcher to re-categorise her ancestor’s social standing. It seems harsh, but” dishonest” and “dishonourable” now seems a more accurate status.

Evidence found in secret cellar

Under the pub’s beer cellar was a hidden cellar that extended beneath the quayside. It had a door providing direct access for boats tied up to the quay. In the cellar, the authorities found “evidence of smuggling” and the Osbornes were, suddenly, in trouble.

The town was known to be a haunt of the smuggling fraternity along the Kent and Essex coastline. Therefore, when, in 1892, the Peterboat pub in Leigh High Street burned down, few locals were surprised at the smuggling allegation. The authorities had discovered secret passages and a cellar with direct access to the waterside adjoining the Alley Dock. A path from the dock ran up to Daws Heath — a notorious area for lawless highwaymen, transients and drifters.

For 200 years, the Osborne family had been seen as respectable innkeepers at the heart of the local community. Now it was looking like their big secret was out and they were lawbreaking smugglers at the heart of a network of “Free Traders”. There were two Osborne brothers, Joseph and Joshua, alive at the time of the discovery.

More research to resolve dilemma

Our family researcher now faces that dilemma and many hours more research to establish if there had been enough evidence to convict them as smugglers.  And, if so, were they punished by banishment to Australia? The transportation lists contain many Osbornes. A lot of research is needed to add to the smuggling story of this interesting family

Leigh on sea has been a first port of call for smugglers for 200 years, with ready customers in surrounding towns like Rayleigh and Southend. London is a mere 30 miles upstream for local cockleboats, where contraband can be easily concealed among cargoes of cockles, oysters and other seafood.

Name check

Here are a few well-known south coast smugglers – check if any are your ancestors – who were successful at what they did.

Roger Ridout. North Dorset smuggler became a legend for his escapes from capture.
Capt Yawkins. Larger-than-life model for Scott’s Dirk Hatteraick in Guy Mannering.
Edward and Richard Roots, Brothers from Chatham, top dogs in Seasalters gang.
Dr Isaac Rutton from Ashford founded and ran The Seasalter smuggling gang.
William Baldock, Another Seasalter leader died with a fortune of £1 million-plus.
William Hyder. An “accommodation” with coastguards in 1831 expanded Seasalters.
Thomas Hancock was a clever smuggler and man of property in Hampton.
Joss Snelling. Born in 1741, he escaped ambushes and still smuggled at age 90.
Lieutenant Colonel Shadwell, The leader of a Wrotham smuggling gang.

Useful search links for smugglers:

Old Bailey online Lists of convicts transported to American, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania in the years 1720-1840. For suspected smugglers, browse “Tax offences”.

Australian Convicts Lists  Information about the charged individual, their trial, and sentence (if convicted) or other outcome. Transportation details, name of ships, colony and outcome.

UK National Archives Criminal reports, images, births, deaths and marriages.      


Now, you might like to read another seafarer’s story

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