What is an Owler?

In 1614 the export of wool was completely forbidden and the ban remained in place until 1825. As a result ‘owling’ or smuggling of wool increased considerably, particularly along the coasts of Kent and Sussex.

Owling was a common term for the smuggling of sheep or wool from England to another country, particularly France. Romney marsh was the birthplace of smuggling in southern England. English wool was highly valued abroad: it was tough, and the fibres were long, making them easier to spin. English fleeces made for good fabric. Smugglers were called “owlers”; their ships “owling boats”. The term seems to have developed toward the end of the 17th century and reflects owlers’ preference for performing their work at night.

In 1689 a bill outlawing all trade with France was introduced to protect Britain’s textile industry. At this point Owlers took advantage of a significant black market, and smuggling increased rapidly during the 1690s. and by 1689, it is estimated that 480,000 pounds of wool per year were being smuggled to France.  The owlers knew every creek of the marsh where wool could be loaded into ships, every inch of its treacherous surface and where dykes could and could not be easily crossed. Troops were sent to Romney Marsh, the chief point of departure for owlers, in 1693; conflict in the area over the practice (including both owlers and local wool manufacturers opposed to owling) came to a head with a riot in Rye, East Sussex in 1696.