The influence of Stirlingshire as a trading port is often forgotten. The region played a prominent role in developing the growth in trade of coal and tobacco in the 18th Century. Specifically, it was Alloa which became the centre port for the County.
The Custom House in Alloa was built in 1710 by John Erskine, the 6th Earl of Mar. Unfortunately, the building no longer exists. Alloa was recognised as a sub-port by the Treasury in 1838 but was given its independence on 10th November 1840. The port came to oversee the upper Forth ports from Kincardine to Stirling Bridge. This included Dunmore, Airth and Newmiln.
Our 40th Anniversary record is a shipping register from the Alloa Custom House. It exists thanks to the Merchant Shipping Act of 1786. The Act required the owners of any British ship with a deck exceeding a 15 ton burden to register it with the Crown Customs in its home port. This enabled the Government to have a regulatory control over the vessel.
The first entry in the register dates from 1797. It gives a record of every ship registered in Alloa until 1799. If anything of note happened to the vessel, for example a change of owner or when it was broken up, a note would be made on the reverse of the page. The register gives interesting details about local merchants, traders and shipbuilders in the area. Moreover, it provides unique examples of the trading connections that the County had all over the world.
With an increase in trade, shipping registers became very important to monitor the increasing number of vessels entering the port at Alloa. This growth in trade led to increasing custom duties and taxes on goods. It was therefore inevitable that smuggling became an attractive option for vessel owners.
Correspondence between the Collector at the Alloa Custom House and the Board of Trade highlights the various smuggling techniques that were used. Methods of smuggling included forgery, understating the weights of goods, using faulty weighing equipment and conspiring with internal staff at the Customs House.
An example can be seen in 1732 when the tobacco trade was booming in the area. The Collector at Alloa was Walter Grosett. After checking his books, Grosett identified that tobacco had been bought without certificates and clearance had not been granted on the goods. However, the goods were able to get through several ports in the west coast of Scotland before they reached Alloa.
Operating at night was an effective way of smuggling goods into the port. In 1741, the Clementina had docked at Alloa with various goods including a large shipment of wine. The vessel was used to ship wine and was owned by Robert Duncan. It was noted that a “great part” of the holdings in the vessel was empty. A search of the waters in the morning by the Tide Surveyor, however, found an open boat containing large quantities of pipes of claret wine, foreign spirits and vinegar destined to be smuggled aboard the Clementina.
Sprits were often the first choice of the smuggler. In 1804, whisky had begun to be smuggled in to Scotland from Ireland. The Board of Trade had written to the Collector at Alloa alerting him that whisky was being transferred to vessels at ports where there were no officers. Whisky could easily be smuggled in by being concealed under slates or other goods on board. The Board urged the Collector at Alloa to search and examine vessels with the strictest of care.
It wasn’t just food and drink that was a prize for smugglers. In 1798, the smuggling of cordage became an issue for the area. Ships involved in the Baltic trade were buying their cordage in the Baltic and attaching it to blocks and hawsers. This would wear down the cordage so that no duty was paid for it on arrival. The Collectors were ordered by the Board ‘to take care to interrogate upon, the Masters of all British Vessels arriving from foreign parts…as to what foreign cordage they have on Board’.
The opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1790 saw the tobacco trade at Alloa decline. However, the trade of coal would still play a key role in the area. It would not be until 1885 and the construction of a railway bridge across the Forth that trade would gradually begin to slow at the port.