IN 1986 the prolific East Coast author, Hervey Benham (1910-1987) published his seminal work The Smugglers’ Century (ERO).

In it he quite rightly states that smuggling is a subject of “universal fascination”, but goes on to admit that it has been “romanticised out of all recognition”.

That could certainly be said of Maldon and the River Blackwater, for there is a persistent (albeit highly likely apocryphal) story linked to the ominously named ‘Death’, or ‘Dead Man’s Creek’, off East Point, Osea Island.

Legend has it that the lifeless bodies of 24 Revenue Men were found there, lying in the bottom of their drifting boat.

Each had his throat cut and smugglers were blamed for that terrible crime.

The trouble is, I can find no corroborative evidence that it ever actually took place.

However, smugglers’ tales still linger here and this area was undoubtedly once a great centre for the contraband trade.

As Benham puts it, “tubs of brandy and gin, bales of tea and silks, were boldly run on to open beaches... (not to mention) the clandestine sinking of contraband in creeks and estuaries for later, surreptitious recovery”.

Attempts to land these illegal goods at Maldon would have been via the river.

The gateway to the town’s port was (and still is) via what is known to sailing types as the Narrows, the main channel that runs between Stansgate and Osea and, ironically enough, not that far from the previously mentioned Death Creek.

As this was such a critical passage, the Customs Service decided to establish a sort of floating checkpoint there to help in the detection and prevention of smuggling.

A succession of hulks – old ships stripped of their fittings and permanently moored – were deployed for the purpose.

We know that around 1865 the ex-Naval frigate Kangaroo (aka Her Majesty’s Watch Vessel 20) was beached at Stansgate.

Kangaroo was formerly the Dove, but was renamed as such in 1850.

Then on May 25, 1863, she became WV20.

Following her service on the Blackwater she was sold off to a Mr M Hayhurst on May 10, 1897, and finally broken up at Burnham just two months later.

For a short time the 240-ton brigantine Richmond (WV4) replaced Kangaroo at Stansgate, but a further change occurred in 1870.

Watch Vessel 21, formerly the Frolic, was probably the most well-known of them all.

Originally a 610-ton gun-vessel, she soon became a familiar and reassuring (at least for some) sight overlooking the Narrows.

In 1895, former Maldon mayor and local historian Edward Arthur Fitch said that “high up on the shore, just below Stansgate, is moored Watch Vessel 21.

“It is inhabited by the Chief Coastguard Officer, his four men, their wives and families.

“Here every vessel proceeding up the river is challenged or boarded”. The 1881 Census reveals that the Chief Boatman on WV21 at that time was Edward Luckhurst.

With him was his wife and their six children.

His (at that stage) three men were William Winder (with wife and two children), William Edmonds (and wife) and Richard Bennett.

So 15 people in all. What on earth must life have been like living on that isolated, damp and rotting hulk?

It was far from ideal and another maritime historian, John Leather (Salty Shore, Dalton, 1979), explains why when he says “the bulkheads were so thin that conversation had to be in a whisper”.

As a result, “the domestic peace of the station was not easy to maintain and the commanding officer had to use tact to preserve it”.

Despite his best efforts, however, “quarrelsome wives were constantly being referred to him for adjudication on some domestic matter”.

It all sounds rather tense, doesn’t it? But then the men had an important job to do and their work carried on from WV21 until it was eventually decommissioned in October 1906 and sold on April 7, 1908.

Although WV21 is now long gone, not far from its former mooring you will spot a surviving small white building up on stilts.

This was once the washhouse for the coastguard and their families and is a continuing, very tangible link with those smuggling and preventative days.

In addition, a remarkable set of contemporary photographs of WV20 and WV21 have turned up and are now part of a private collection.

With permission from the current owner, some of these are published with this article (probably for the very first time).

Dated June and July 1897, they really do bring the story alive and show the harsh conditions of the accommodation and the faces of those now long gone folk that once called these hulks their home.