The Excise Man

‘Excise Duty’ originated as a means of raising revenue during the Civil War; but in 1699, teams of ‘Riding Officers’ were formed to patrol the coast and watch for ‘Owling’ – illegal export of wool. During the early days, tax was levied on home produced goods such as beer, malt, candles, salt and leather and later on certain imported items such as tobacco. ‘Collectors’ administered the gathering of revenue in different areas of the country known as ‘Collections’ while the ‘Riding officers’ patrolled parts of these areas, known as ‘Out Rides’, assessing and collecting tax and passing it to the Collectors.

On August the 8th, 1720, the Board of Excise ordered that ‘William Kimpton, Supernumerary in the Barnstaple Collection, being dead, as by Mr Jennings the Collectors letter of the 6th instant, Silas Hiscutt, instructed by order of the Board be Supernumerary, the Collector of Sarum to give him notice’. So Silas Hiscutt, the new recruit or ‘Supernumerary’ rode from Salisbury to Barnstaple all those years ago to begin a career that was to last for 37 years.

In February 1727, Silas married Elizabeth Whitefield of Northam whilst he was Officer of Excise, Bideford 2nd Out Ride. But in July he was posted back to Barnstaple as Officer for Barnstaple 1st Out Ride. Here, the couple’s first child, Patience, was born, followed by a son, Silas, in 1730 and another daughter, Winifred, in 1731. On August the 28th, 1732, he was ordered to take the place of Robert Johnson, Officer for Torrington 4th Out Ride, a position he maintained with only a few brief moves for the rest of his career. The family lived at Abbots Bickington where eight more children were born, the last being Catherine, born May 20th 1750. She eventually married James Paddon of Abbotsham. Their son, Midshipman Silas Hiscutt Paddon would see action on HM Cutter ‘Viper’ (see Bideford Buzz Nov 02, The Commander) receiving praise from Sir Edmund Pellew in a letter to Earl St Vincent.

In December 1756 Silas claimed ‘Charity’ from the Board of Excise, due to ill health, and this pension was granted him. We shall never know whether his state of health was due to work or to other events. One year before, his son Silas married Jane Pincombe and then went to sea, not to return to start his family until the end of the Seven Years War in 1764. His parents saw his return and the start of his family but Elizabeth, dying in Bideford in 1768, never saw her grandson Silas who was born in Bideford in 1769.

The life of an Exercise Officer was lonely and dangerous. Normally recruited outside the area where they worked, to prevent giving favour to friend or family, they were responsible for providing their own horse, for varying their routine, keeping records of nightly journeys, listening for rumours and watching for suspicious activity. Local Dragoons could be called for help but this was often given grudgingly. The pay was poor compensation for a job which could end in serious injury or death. Silas died in Bideford in 1770, fifty years after his ride from Salisbury to Barnstaple.

A.H. Barnstaple

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