Book Review: Life of A Smuggler – Fact and Fiction by Helen Hollick

I am grateful to have received a complementary copy of this book from Pen and Sword Books in exchange for an honest review. As always, the opinions expressed within this review are completely my own.

Title: Life of A Smuggler – Fact and Fiction
Author: Helen Hollick
Publisher: Pen & Sword History
Publication Date: 19 April 2019
Pages: 167
Rating: ***.5/****

Grab your tea – you’ll need it!

‘Brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk…’

We have an image, mostly from movies and novels, of a tall ship riding gently at anchor in a moonlit, secluded bay with the ‘Gentleman’ cheerfully hauling kegs of brandy and tobacco ashore, then disappearing silently into the night shadows to hide their contraband from the excise men in a dark cave or a secret cellar.

But how much of the popular idea is fact and how much is fiction?

Smuggling was big business – it still is – but who were these derring-do rebels of the past who went against paying taxes on the importation of luxury goods? Who purchased the illicit contraband? How did smugglers operate? Where were the most notorious locations? Was it profitable, or just an inevitable path to arrest and the hangman’s noose?


I really enjoyed this one! Although I wouldn’t be rushing to use it in any form of academic literature (which is what I’m used to, remember), I found it really interesting and I liked the tone of the whole thing! There was a playfulness and laid-back tone that I thought fitted the book well – it was almost conversational, which made it feel less like a history lecture.

There was a fun element brought into this history, where scant facts were highlighted in contrast to the overarching fiction that has largely shaped (and is still influencing) common perceptions. Some of the ‘facts’ presented honestly sound like the basis of an epic series of tales! They were juicer than the fictitious tales!

I enjoyed the style of writing, which included a lot of rhetorical questions and was broken up with ‘little known facts’ – I found myself reading these out to David cause I was like ‘oooooh, did you know….?’
The who/what/where/when layout used to discover more about the smugglers in a logical way was a really interesting approach and I thought it was really clever.

There are helpful wee keys to explain jargon and names etc, but I occasionally ended up a little confused and tied up with the timelines and various names. Theres quite a bit of repetition though, so I was mostly following it. I’m notoriously dreadful at remembering names though, so that could just be a me thing!

The tales of the varied southern coast of England made me want to visit it even more – I’d love to soak in all the stories, adventure and intrigue! It’s a whole world away from the coastlines I’m used to up here in Scotland, and it was a refreshing change! I have to admit, a lot of my ‘knowledge’ of this general area is from Poldark – also used as a prime example in this book!
That being said, although the south seems to be the focus of the book (presumably due to the Author’s location and information available), there are wee snippets of what was happening in Wales; Ireland; Scotland; Northern England; Europe and across the Atlantic, in the Americas. This helped to contextualise the whole thing – it’s nice to see links crop up, rather than treating it as an isolated activity in Southern England.

Because of the fun facts and conversational tone, it’s not massively heavy or bogged down in any way, like many history books can be. The author did a great job of keeping a bit of spark and life in an interesting history. The fact/fiction line was kept relatively clear – or as clear as it can be given the secretive nature of the task and the way fiction has taken over it’s telling.

If you enjoyed watching Captain Poldark risk his life and reputation for a few smuggled barrels on a moonlight cove, I suspect you’d like this – you’ll be in for a whole load of interesting treats and information. I know for a fact that some of those ‘little known facts’ will stick with me, and will undoubtedly be amazing for random general knowledge/pub quizzes! Even if Aidan Turner mooching on a beach wasn’t your thing, I still think you’d enjoy this book – there are ghosts; adventure; gallons upon gallons of tea; and much more… You’ll have to read it for yourself when it comes out in April to see!

What are some of your favourite smuggler stories? I’d love to hear them!

Much love,

Alison x

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