Romney Marsh

Smuggling in Kent

Smuggling was rife in many areas of Kent. Here are a few examples of the problem.

In the 17th century the centre of operations of the smugglers in the locale was The Warren, east of the town. Four secret passages led from a house here into a close by wood, and the properties were thought such a problem that in 1698 the government purchased the lease to the house. The smugglers normally brought goods ashore at East Wear Bay, and then moved them up to the Warren, and on to the Valiant Sailor Inn nearby for later distribution and local sale.
Folkestone Warren was still frequented by free-traders in the 19th century. There is one story which tells of the interrupted sleep of a couple from the Warren who were woken when a gang of smugglers charged into their home looking for a place to conceal part of a cargo of gold. They chose the four-poster bed, hid the goods and left, urging the law-abiding citizens to say nothing about the visit. Soon the customs authorities arrived and searched the house, unsuccessfully. At length the smugglers came back to collect their goods, and offered the couple a payment for the bother. This was declined.
An event that took place at West Pier in 1820 gives some idea of the popular support that local smugglers had. A Blockade man caught a smuggler red-handed, and marched him and the evidence — a tub of spirits — to a nearby watchhouse. However, before the Blockade man, John Kelty, had the opportunity to take his prisoner to more protected accommodation in Dover, a mob armed with clubs, rocks and pistols closed in. They freed the smuggler and injured the Blockade man.
The town of Deal had become a infamous haunt of smugglers as early as 1745, and well deserved to be dubbed 'a sad, smuggling town'.That smuggling was going on there was obvious not from activity in the town, but from lack of it:
'There are said to be in the town of Deal, not less than two hundred young men and sea-faring people, who are known to have no visible way of getting a living, but by the infamous trade of smuggling...This smuggling has converted those employed in it, first from honest industrious fishermen, to lazy, drunken and profligate smugglers.'
Deal men were well known for their skill both as boat builders and as seamen — some Deal smugglers served as pilots for Nelson — so it is scarcely surprising that they turned their hand to rapid cross-channel trips for a large profit. It was at Deal that the 'Guinea boats' were built to take gold across the channel to pay Napoleon's armies.
By 1781, the unsavoury reputation of the town was such that the authorities felt obliged to take action against the smugglers. A hundred mounted soldiers and nine hundred infantrymen moved in on the town, expecting to find £100,000 worth of contraband concealed there. The troops were ruthless in their implementation of orders. The boatmen of Deal bought tea and other smuggled goods from East-Indiamen that lay offshore in the early 19th century. By hiding the tea under their clothes in custom-made bags, they could slip up to 30lb past the customs men. The troops left with perhaps a tenth of what they'd expected, almost certainly because an informer had forewarned the Deal men, who had removed the goods back to their source on the continent for the period of the raid. This made the authorities all the more determined, and three years later, William Pitt sent in soldiers again. The townspeople were again forewarned (by carrier pigeon this time), and turned out in sizeable numbers to oppose the raid. However, the military prevailed by pure force of numbers, and after resting overnight, they marched down to the beach where the smugglers had pulled their boats well above the high-water mark to secure them from the storms. A prearranged signal started the coordinated demolition and burning of the boats, in front of the very eyes of their fuming but powerless owners.
Despite this setback, smuggling soon resumed in the town, and patently continued to enjoy the support of much of the community. In 1801 smugglers had no trouble in getting the aid of Deal inhabitants when the revenue men forced a smuggling lugger onto the town beach. The mob attacked the luckless law enforcers, and brought ashore the cargo of tobacco, playing cards and bolts of fine cloth. Again, 16 years later, blockademen who were trying to arrest local smugglers were attacked by a mob of local people, and had to shelter in a shop. The mayor of Deal even ordered the arrest of the midshipmen, accusing them of assault on the free-traders! Smuggling continued in the town in a small way into the last quarter of the 19th century, long after the free-trade had been successfully dealt with elsewhere.
The Hawkhurst Gang
The Hawkhurst Gang was involved in smuggling along the coast of southeast England from 1735 until 1749. One of the more notorious gangs of the early 18th century, their sway extended from Dorset to as far as the Kent coast until their leaders Arthur Gray and Thomas Kingsmill were executed, in 1748 and 1749 respectively.
Named after the village of Hawkhurst, the gang was first mentioned as the Holkhourst Genge in 1735. Based from the Oak and Ivy Inn in Hawkhurst, they often hung around in the nearby Mermaid Inn in the town of Rye. Many local legends and folklore are based on the supposed network of tunnels constructed by the gang from the Oak and Ivy leading to Tubs Lake, the Royal Oak in the village square, the Four Throws and to the site of the present day Tudor Court Hotel (in 1822, one of the caves used by the gang was exposed in Sopers Lane, Hawkhurst in which twelve empty liquor bottles were found).
In an effort to detain several members of the gang, revenue officer Thomas Carswell was shot and killed while battling the smugglers at Silver Hill between Hurst Green and Robertsbridge in 1740. One of the smugglers, George Chapman, was later executed in his home in the village of Hurst Green. Despite this episode, the gang usually operated freely in the area as, in 1744, they unloaded a substantial amount of contraband and smuggled goods from three big cutters at Pevensey from which the items were transported inland by about 500 pack horses.
Also in 1744 the gang were caught red-handed at Shoreham by King's men during a landing and a brutal battle followed in which the Riding Officers were defeated and many were severely injured. They were then led away by the smugglers and taken to their headquarters for "interrogation". The smugglers were incensed when they exposed the fact that two of the King's Men were in fact members of the gang in the distant past. Although they had no misgivings about killing King's Men or informers, they decided to punish the men in a different manner, tying them to separate trees to be flogged before being shipped off to France and abandoned. This was an accepted way to get rid of customs men as the King's uniform would mean almost certain death or imprisonment by the French, with whom Britain was at war. However, these two men escaped lightly given the barbaric fate that awaited two of their victims (Galley and Chater) four years later.
In 1747, members of the gang led a triumphant raid against a government customs house in Poole, Dorset which was holding over two tons of tea, thirty-nine casks of brandy and rum, and a small bag of coffee captured from the smuggler's ship, Three-Brothers, in September. Thirty members of the gang along with thirty-one horses broke into the customs house around 2 am, October 8th. Escaping with two tons of tea (they left the brandy, rum and coffee at the customs house), the Customs Service offered a large reward for their capture.
On the 22nd September of the same year, Richard Perin, a carpenter required to abandon his trade due to rheumatism, was carrying a cargo of contraband tea valued at £500 on-board the smuggling vessel "The Three Brothers". A Revenue cutter, "Swift", spotted the vessel and pursued in a chase that was to last over six hours. The Revenue Men finally caught up, but Perin, John (or "Jack") Diamond, and five others escaped in a little boat. The seized goods were handed over to William Milner, Collector of Customs at Poole, and then locked away in the King's Warehouse in the cellars of the Custom House.
A council of war followed on the 4th October at Charlton Forest, Sussex (on the Duke of Richmond's Estate) where it was decided that the Customs House should be broken open and the goods recaptured. The following day they were joined by members of the Hawkhurst Gang at Horndean, eager to regain their dignity after their defeat at Goudhurst. The goods were successfully retaken. A few weeks later however, a gang member, Chater, decided to turn King's evidence against Diamond who had since been arrested. Either he had read of a reward for information regarding the Customs House raid, or magistrates had heard of the packet of tea he was given by Diamond and forced him to testify against his old friend. William Galley, an elderly tide waiter from Southampton was sent to escort Chater to the home of a Sussex magistrate named Major William Battine. Setting out from Fordingbridge on 14th February 1748 they stopped at the New Inn at Leigh near Havant, where George and Thomas Austin and a Mr. Jenks agreed to accompany them on the next stage of their journey. Chater was seen chatting to the customs officer at a close by pub by a spy who told members of the gang nearby. Believing that Chater was informing the police, both he and the customs officer were gotten drunk and then horsewhipped by the gang.
After burying the customs officer alive, they kept Chater chained to a shed for a number of days before deciding to kill him. Although they had intended to shoot Chater, they chose to make an example out of him to informants and, after stabbing him, tied large rocks to his feet and threw Chater down a 30 foot well.
These two murders turned the residents against the gang, resulting in the capture and execution of their leader Arthur Gray in 1748. While the gang was to a great extent weakened by the death of Gray, the Hawkhurst Gang was kept together for a while by Thomas Kingsmill. However, following their defeat at the hands of the local Goudhurst militia, the gang's activities were successfully ended. The people of nearby Goudhurst determined that enough was enough and formed an illegal militia under the leadership of an ex-sergeant, John Sturt. As the militia set up their anti-smuggling patrols, the smugglers attacked causing them to retreat back to Goudhurst, minus one member who was abducted and tortured for information. In the end the wretched man was sent back to Goudhurst with a declaration of total war. They threatened to kill each and every inhabitant of the village and burn every house to the ground. The Gang even stated the date and time when this would happen.
All of the women and children were sent away from the village and the defences were strengthened. The Gang, true to their word, surrounded the village. However, a volley of firearms greeted them that was much larger than they expected and the Gang suffered a humiliating defeat to the people of Goudhurst as they retreated from the pursuing militia.
Disclaimer: The information in this article has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015