There were surprising revelations when a family history researcher discovered what her innkeeper ancestors had been up to for 300 years… Newly discovered ancestors were shown as respectable innkeepers, cocklers, waterman, farmer in early investigations. Then the diligent family history researcher 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 “innkeeper” 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 I found, as one of his 21st century descendants, that the pub was owned by Samuel’s son, John Osborne in 1695. This was the same year in which his father’s death was recorded.

John Osborne died in 1739, while further records showed 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. But it can be confusing. The Osbornes continued this for four more generations. So many Johns, grandpa John (VI) nearly got the job of Pope A total of six John Osbornes could have been serving pints of cockles and pints of beer at the Peterboat inn.

Inn and homes destroyed

All socially “respectable” enough, no cause for concern, even when one of the Johns showed his occupation as waterman and farmer. A departure from beer pulling, but a logical expansion given that fields overlooked the pub and the River Thames flowed right by it.

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

Villagers were shocked at the fire and the damage caused to the waterfront properties and there was a lot of sympathy for the Osborne family. But then came gossip-worthy disclosures following closer inspection of the inn’s fire debris.

Evidence found in secret cellar

When the fire debris was cleared away the pub’s beer cellar could be inspected. Workers and officials discovered a hidden cellar and secret passages that extended beneath the quayside. There was a door providing direct access for boats tied up to the quay. In the cellar, the authorities found “contraband and evidence of smuggling.” The Osbornes were suddenly in big trouble.

The town was long known to be a haunt of the smuggling fraternity along the Kent and Essex coastline. Therefore, when, in 1892, the Peterboat pub burned down, few locals were surprised at the smuggling allegation. The cellar and secret passages gave 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 nearly 300 years, the Osborne family had been seen as respectable innkeepers at the heart of the local community. Now it looked 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.

Their customers might not have been surprised at the smuggling revelations. But should I, as our family history researcher, re-categorise my ancestor’s social standing. It seems harsh, but maybe ”dishonest” and “dishonourable” might seem to be a more accurate status for the Osbornes on the Leigh on Sea waterfront.

More research after discoveries

Researcher, Heather Gentry says: “I wasn’t surprised at the revelations, why should I judge them? After all, many family trees include black sheep ancestors who have strayed from the straight and narrow path. I was taught on my mother’s knee, Essex folk have been ‘Free traders for centuries.’ To discover I was a descendant of ‘Free Traders’ adds a new dimension to my life.”

It may require many more hours of 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.

How we catch cockles in the River Thames

Our cockle boat Mary Amelia goes out into the Thames Estuary when the tide is coming in to reach its destination to begin cockling. The wheelhouse of the boat is well equipped with radios and plotters. These are used to plot a course for the boat to reach the permitted cockling areas.

Cockles are fished using a dredge which is placed into the water when the boat is floating in between 5ft and 15ft of water. During this time, the boat will be moving at a speed of around five knots. A blade is submerged into the ground whilst high-pressure water pushes water into the ground to dislodge the cockles. They are then sucked up through a pipe onto the boat.

These cockles then pass through a screen that rotates around. The bars are spaced at a specific measurement apart so that any small, young cockles, mud, sand and water fall back into the sea.

The cockles then move along onto a conveyor belt and finally fall into the hold of the boat. It can take as little as three hours to fish 10 tonnes of cockles. This is the amount permitted by the Kent & Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority.

Once the boat has reached its permitted quota, it will head back into Leigh-on-Sea. Depending on how quickly it has managed to fish them, it may be able to return back into Leigh on the outgoing tide. If it misses this, the boat will sit on the mud until the next tide starts to come in.

: : Written by Graham Osborne of the Peterboat pub and Thames cockler.


Leigh on Sea has been the first port of call for smugglers for centuries. There were plenty of customers in surrounding towns like Rayleigh and Southend. London is a mere 30 miles upstream for local cockleboats, Contraband can be easily concealed among cargoes of cockles, oysters and other seafood. The Peterboat pub is still owned and run by a branch of the Osborne family. They also own the best-known cockling business in Essex County.

The Peter boats used by fishermen back in the mid-20th century were much smaller than those to which we are accustomed. The earliest type seems to have been the ‘peter boat’, originally a double-ended boat, without gunwale or rim, but as strong and safe as a fisherman’s boat should be.

Economics finally signalled the end of the great smuggling era. In the 1840s Britain adopted a free-trade policy that slashed import duties to realistic levels. Within ten years large-scale smuggling was just a memory… or just a family concern in some cases?

ancestry stories ancestry true story family history heritage stories leigh on sea new authors Osborne family publish free thames smugglers

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.