A “turble rough man” with wily ways

Date: Saturday 23rd November 2002

LANTY Slee! Who was he? “A turble rough man,” declared Graham Wilde, Caldbeck and District Local History Society member and speaker, at the opening of his talk at the society’s November meeting.

Lanty was a 19th Century smuggler and illicit distiller of whisky who was born in Borrowdale and whose “operations” were centred on Little Langdale, where he lived most of his life until his death there in 1878.

Mr. Wilde, with many amusing anecdotes, described Lanty’s wily ways and cleverly concealed hideaways where he distilled and stored his goods. His locations included caves, quarries, woodlands, fells and under the floors of farm buildings and of vaults in lonely Lakeland churchyards.

Lanty’s secret sites were hardly ever penetrated by the Excise men, although he was tried and imprisoned more than once. However, on release, he would go back to his “trade” again, operating simultaneously at a number of places.

At 10 shillings per gallon, Lanty’s whisky was not cheap, but it avoided the high excise duties of the time. It was sold to “discerning local gentry and professional classes”, although more was smuggled across the Wrynose and Hardknott passes to Ravenglass. On the return journeys, tobacco smuggling added further to the high profits made from his illicit trading.

Moving on from Lanty Slee’s colourful life story, Mr. Wilde turned to the topic of smuggling in general its origins, the commodities involved, the main locations, methods of concealment and distribution, the resulting profits to the smugglers, who robbed the Exchequer of huge amounts of money, and the conflicts between smugglers and Excise men.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, smuggling had become a major feature of commercial and social life in most parts of Britain; and there was a tacitly agreed boundary within which it operated. (Mr. Wilde pointed out the resemblance to today’s illegal trade in cigarettes and alcohol.)

There was also physical support by members of the public in achieving distribution, and covert acquiescence of the activity at all levels of society. As the poet Kipling wrote:

Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark

Brandy for the Parson, baccy for the Clerk

Laces for a lady, letters for a spy

Watch the wall my darling: let the gentlemen go by.

Mr. Wilde entertained his audience with many amusing smugglers’ tales and for his fascinating talk he was thanked by the society’s president, John Wooler, who also chaired the meeting. The evening ended with refreshments organised by Evelyn Tickle.

The society’s next event will be a members’ night at Caldbeck parish hall on 15th January.