St Helens Duver smugglers: a rags to riches story

The beach at Nodes Point

In days gone by, smuggling was rife along the coast of the Isle of Wight and St Helens was no exception.

Dickie Dawes, smuggler

 
One of its most famous smugglers was Dickie Dawes, a fisherman by day, who ran the gauntlet of the customs men through a narrow channel known as 'Dickie Dawes Gut' to land his contraband of brandy, silk and tobacco. 
 
The booty would often be hidden beneath tombstones in the churchyard of St Helens Old Church before being brought inland along secret passages believed to lead to the Priory and village. Another common practice was to lash and weight down barrels of brandy before 'rafting' them in when the coast was clear.
 

Sophie Dawes, baroness

 
Dickie had a daughter named Sophie, born in St Helens around 1792. Our Discover the Duver trail passes her birthplace in a cottage in Upper Green, marked by a blue plaque. After a period of winkle-picking on the beach and an enforced stay in the workhouse after her father’s death, Sophie used her guile and cunning to climb the social ladder to a position of eminence, but later notoriety, at the French court.
 
In London she came to the attention of the exiled Duc de Bourbon, later Prince of Condé, who educated her as a lady. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the duke was able to return to his native France. Sophie followed him there, later marrying the Baron de Fouchères, a military aide to the duke, while remaining the duke’s mistress. She was known as the 'Queen of Chantilly', Chantilly being one of the duke's estates.
 
She had no scruples about using her position for her own ends and cajoled the ageing duke into rewriting his will in her favour. Soon afterwards he was found hanged in mysterious circumstances. Not surprisingly, her reputation suffered and she returned to England where she died in London in 1840.