My career as a smuggler was short lived. But never the less the memories of my first ‘job’ have stayed with me for decades. The feelings of suspense, high excitement, being on tenterhooks and the moral decline from angel to devil were not only new ones for my sheltered life but they started an urge to live life on the edge. Afterwards there was the rejoicing over the spoils and the celebration of success. An added excitement was parading in new clothes when most people had to do with remakes.
Now just to make it clear, I did not pursue life as a criminal, but I did use my smuggling skills occasionally later in life. I grew up in the days of rationing and clothing coupons and it could take months to get a new frock or shoes. My Mother knitted most of my clothes to overcome the problem. Decked out in knitted knickers, vests, hats, mittens, scarves, socks, jumpers, skirts and dresses I wasn’t short of clothes. There were some items she couldn’t make on her knitting needles or sewing machine and it was this that started our lives as smugglers.
My Mother was a God fearing Protestant and a regular at church services but I honestly believe that she didn’t see smuggling as a sin but merely a necessity for life. Northern Ireland like Great Britain suffered post war shortages but just a train trip across the border to Southern Ireland there was plenty to tempt the day tripper to load up with goodies.
From choices of clothes, lingerie, footwear, manchester, butter, sugar, sweeties and much more, it just became a question of how much booty one could conceal on the bodies of one woman and a six year old girl!
When the grand smuggling day arrived both my Mother and I dressed carefully for the adventure. There were old clothes we would abandon when we donned new ones. There were loose swing back coats with pockets that could conceal a couple of garments underneath without us looking like ‘forty coats’. We wore shoes that were down at heel and bags not so big as to arouse suspicions.
My Mother bought new underwear for herself, corsets and bras. She dressed in two new bras with two petticoats over the top and two pairs of nylon stockings. Fixing the seams of each pair was an art so that it wasn’t obvious that more than one stocking was on each leg. A blouse made up her personal purchases and this all fitted neatly under the swing back coat. However, she was short of towels and two of these would be wound around her waist under a specially enlarged smugglers skirt.
Then it was my turn. The knitted vest would be left behind when a liberty bodice was purchased. These were state of the art in my childhood but how anyone could think so is beyond me. I would dress in two pairs of knee socks, new shoes and my leather gaiters were then placed on top. The old knitted dress was replaced by a turquoise green and dusty pink checked suit. In those days it was mandatory to have a bag, gloves and hat that matched the outfit. I thought I was the bees knees and today I can only laugh at such a fashion statement.
We bought butter, corned beef, sweeties and a kitchen roller towel. These were to declare to the customs inspector. My Mother said it would be too suspicious to have a day out and come home empty handed. But she actually bought two pats of butter and a couple of extra tins of spam that got hidden.
I was under strict instructions to smile, say nothing unless I was spoken to and generally behave like an angelic six year old. I didn’t need to be told twice as my greatest fear was my Mother being taken away from me. I didn’t really know what the penalty was but I imagined dungeons and chains.
There was no problem leaving the South of Ireland, they welcomed visitors, it was entering Northern Ireland that took skill. As the uniformed customs men toured the train, stopping from time to time I could feel the tension mount. My Mother’s smile appeared to have frozen on her face and her hand was gripping mine rather too tightly.
Our turn came and I got a big smile from the guard and a chuck under the chin and was told what a pretty little girl I was. I smiled in return but remembered not to speak. My Mother’s voice sounded somewhat different, perhaps it was a dry throat or fear but the man didn’t realise that and he looked over the items she had declared. ‘Just made it’ he said ‘anymore and you would be up for duty.’ He then went on down the train and we both sighed with relief.
My Mother couldn’t wait for Sunday to come as she was impatient to parade me in my new finery at church. The irony of the source of the clothes and the venue in which they were to be displayed never occurred to either of us.
My Auntie Edith was envious and on our next trip she came along too. Whilst she loved the chance to get a few new clothes and towels I think the stress of customs and the wrongdoing was too much and so that was her only venture. I remember making several trips but owing to the freeing up of markets and the demise of coupons our lives as smugglers came to an end.
My husband is like my auntie and he is not comfortable breaking any kind of rule or law. But necessity can change ideals. When we were working in France, the assistant cameraman on our documentary crew took my husband’s brief case back to London for him. At the end of a few days holidaying in Dijon we discovered his passport had gone with the briefcase.
I had the solution, we would drive to the ferry, he would get out of the car, go into the terminal and I would drive through passport control. I had noticed on previous trips that people could go to the rest rooms via both sides of the quay. A definite break down in checking passports but very helpful to me.
I have to say my husband was not convinced and not sure about doing this but when I pointed out he would have to stay in France while I drove home, retrieved the briefcase, found the passport and posted it back for him, he reluctantly agreed.
It went like clockwork, I drove around to the rest rooms and he walked out and got into the car. The trip to England by the ferry was fine but the biggest hurdle was still to come.
I had my English passport and waited to be checked and then I pointed to my Australian husband and said we had mislaid his passport and what could we do? They were very kind and we were given twenty four hours to front up to Immigration with the passport.
Well unfortunately that has been the end of my days as a smuggler as apart from having to hide a dog under a rug once when we drove through a National Park there has been no demands for my skills.