Tea was a very popular drink in England during the 18th century. However, it was expensive. The East India Company held a monopoly on the import of tea, and kept prices high; governments, for their part, saw it as a useful source of revenue and slapped taxes and import duties on it, especially when a war needed funding. These high costs were an incentive to illegal importation, and the result was an epidemic of tea smuggling. By its nature, it is difficult to determine the level of illicit imports, but estimates run as high as half the tea drunk in England at times. Newspaper reports on tea smuggling abound. Here are a couple of relatively peaceful ones from the Ipswich Journal of the 1730s.
The Practice of running Tea is grown to such a height that there is no stoping it, and the fair Trader suffers extremely by it; however the Smuglers have been met with at Seven Oaks in Kent, where last Week 2400 pounds weight, and 100 of row Coffee run from Ostend was seized by Mr. Brown the Supervisor, and Mr. Lidgater Officer there, who ’tis believed will have 100 l. each for their Share by their Seizure.
On Thursday in the Afternoon, as a Cart, seemingly loaded with Hay, was coming over London-Bridge, a Bag fell out at the Tail, which some of the Shop keepers perceiving, call’d after the Driver to come back and take it uup; but instead of stopping to look for the Bag, he ran away and left his Cart, to the great Astonishment of the People, who began thereupon to enquire into the Contents of the said Bag, and found it full of Tea, and the Cart loaded with the same Commodity, only cover’d with Hay for a Blind; so that it was immediately seiz’d and brought to the Excise Office. There were 13 Bags, containing about 6 C. wt.
Interactions between smugglers and excise officers were not always so benign, as you can read about here.