No criminal enterprise in Georgian England was more lucrative than smuggling. The customs duties imposed on luxury goods imported from abroad were so high that evading its payment had not only become a national pastime but the means to a fortune. Items such as brandy, tobacco, wine, silk and lace were greatly sought after but no commodity was more valuable than tea, the English obsession.
The cost of a pound of tea in the 1740’s was 3d but with tax added this became 5/- and with 12 pence to a shilling the potential mark up for contraband tea was considerable, and it has since been estimated that 75% of all tea drunk in England had been obtained illegally.
With the excise from imported goods essential to Government coffers the Authorities despaired at the impunity with which smugglers were able to go about their business, but whilst decent society shook its head in disapproval and expressed horror at the violence the Smuggler Gangs employed there was barely a rich man’s table that had not been set by the smugglers hand or a glass uncharged with contraband brandy.
Whether it was the smugglers themselves, those who financed their activities, or the people who merely purchased their goods everyone appeared to benefit, everyone that is except the Government who remained determined to stamp it out.
With its profits widely dispersed smuggling had become essential to the prosperity of the coastal economies where it thrived and those whose livelihoods depended upon it were willing to kill in its defence.
When Customs Officer Thomas Carswell accompanied by a troop of Dragoons stumbled across and seized a large shipment of tea hidden in a barn he hastily set about organising its transportation to a place of safety but word had quickly spread and James Stanford, a leading member of the Hawkhurst Gang, had already gathered his men and was lying in wait.
Perhaps flush with his success or merely naive as to the possible violence of the response Carswell took few precautions and as his men approached a narrow lane with little room for manouevre they were greeted by a volley of musket fire that first dispersed the troops before Carswell was singled out, shot from his horse, and killed.
Those troops that had not fled in time were taken prisoner, disarmed, stripped, beaten, and forced to march 30 miles without rest before being released on the promise of death should they ever be found in arms again.
In the meantime, the Government continued to ratchet up the penalties for smuggling.
In 1718, the Hovering Act made it illegal for vessels under 50 tons to linger off-shore and any smaller boats seen sailing to-and-fro from such ships were seized.
Similarly boats with four or more oars intercepted crossing the Channel would be intercepted and their crews detained with any vessels seized suspected of being used for the transportation of contraband goods sawn in half.
This attempt by the Government to stifle smuggling at source by destroying the tools of their trade was not as effective as might have been expected. Many of the smugglers were fishermen with easy access to other craft and they were prove their resourcefulness by simply utilising the sawn up vessels for other purposes such as storage and even as places of shelter at the location of their criminal endeavours – examples of which can still be seen today.
But then the smugglers did not consider their trade illegitimate, for though they were by no means disinclined towards theft as a means of acquisition for the most part they paid for their contraband in commercial transactions sealed with a handshake either with the crew of ships, workers in the dockyards, and even on occasions with Customs Officers themselves.
Seen as infringing upon the customary rights of local communities those Customs Officers they could not bribe were viewed as outsiders and greeted with hostility so intense that it became impossible for them to operate without the protection of detachments of dragoons. Even then, it was unsafe for them to imbibe in a local tavern or attend a county fair whether in uniform or not and a Customs Officer, much like the soldier who protected him, lived in constant fear of his life.
In 1736, transportation to the Colonies, often as an indentured slave, became the penalty for those who refused to co-operate with Customs Officials but the levels of intimidation were such that not only did this fail to break the code of silence but it became almost impossible to convict suspected smugglers in the local Assizes.
Not only was it difficult to find people willing to come forward and bear witness to the activities of gang members the Magistrates themselves were often cowed and compliant simply issuing fines that went unpaid or ordering public whippings that were never carried out.
Indeed, so prevalent was smuggling on the south-coast that it is arguably the earliest example of organised crime and the violence such that it was considered by Customs Officers the most dangerous posting in England and of all the smugglers operating none were more feared than the notorious Hawkhurst Gang.
Formed in the village of Hawkhurst around 1735, they came to dominate the area around Kent and Sussex with their influence stretching as far west as Dorset and north as London and the Thames Estuary.
Many people were involved with the Hawkhurst Gang in one way or another either providing safe houses, acting as lookouts and informers, or merely as men for hire and with as many as 200 active members the gang used the threat of violence to control the areas in which they operated often in deliberate acts of intimidation riding in force through villages in broad daylight, stripped to the waist, swords at their side, tattoos resplendent in the gleaming sun.
At the taverns where they would meet, the Oak and Ivy in Hawkhurst, the Star and Eagle in Gourdestoun, and the Mermaid Inn in Rye they would sit near the entrance their pistols cocked on the table before them with lookouts posted, the exits covered, and those who passed through its doors closely monitored.
They were also ruthless in the dispensation of what they considered to be justice.
When a farm labourer Richard Hawkins, stole two bags of tea from the smuggler Jeremiah Curtis he was dragged from his home in the dead of night and taken to the Dog and Partridge Inn where he was questioned before being clubbed to death and his body dumped down the well of the local landowner Sir Cecil Bishop as a warning to others.
They also set out to deliberately humiliate any Customs Officers unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.
At the Old Bailey trial of a smuggler named Poison, Customs Officer Joseph Boulton described how after his horse had gone lame and he and his colleagues had taken shelter in a local tavern they were taken prisoner by the Hawkhurst Gang:
“All of a sudden we heard a prodigious firing, it was a gang of smugglers – there were eight of them. They came up to the Alehouse and hearing of such a number coming we hid ourselves but they seeing our horses threatened that they would have us and would fire and pull the house down, and upon searching found us and robbed us of our arms and money. They stripped us naked all above the waist and then they began to cut us in the most terrible manner. Then word went up that the Boulogne Boat was coming and we were put upon horses and tied and taken to the lid-light near the sea. When we came there I believe there were two hundred horses and a hundred men, some were landing tea in oilskin bags and I saw a cart pulled by two oxen loaded with port and brandy.”
Despite being well known locally gang members would use aliases such as Diamond, Black Tooth, Yellow Dick and Nasty Jack to shield their identity from the authorities.
The smuggling itself was often carried out on a massive scale and certain beaches such as that at Hastings which low-lying and with a grit and shingle surface was ideal for hauling boats ashore and making a quick getaway became particularly popular points of delivery.
In 1744, a shipment of contraband from three ships moored off Pevensey Bay required 200 men to unload it with dozens of carts and 500 pack horses to carry it inland.
Often the transportation of such large shipments required local gangs such as the Groombridge and Mildmay to co-operate and pool their resources of manpower even though they remained bitter rivals and enemies. Indeed, on one occasion the Hawkhurst Gang fought and defeated the Wingman Gang in what was little short of a pitched battle.
The places of storage for such huge loads had to be similarly impressive and one of the most popular was the derelict and abandoned Hertsmonceaux Castle near Rye.
There at night smugglers would wander its ramparts howling, blowing whistles, and banging drums to give it the appearance of being haunted to deter the prying eyes of the inquisitive as their colleagues secreted the contraband in the tombs that lay in the grounds around it. Following its temporary storage when the tea would often be adulterated with rose petals to increase its quantity the larger shipments would be transported at night to London under armed guard where on the outskirts of the city they would be handed over to men who had paid for a delivery or taken to Dumps nearby where a market would be held the following day.
Secrecy remained paramount as palms were greased and deals struck on a nod and a wink with few words exchanged between the smugglers and the representatives of the rich London merchants who were its main beneficiaries.
Also making the journey would be the so-called ‘Dollop Men’ who carrying up to a hundredweight of tea on their person and would make deliveries to specific locations such as shops, taverns, tea and coffee houses.
Two ‘Dollop Men’ George Watson and Jack Hemming on trial for the murder of an informant described just such a delivery:
“About seven in the evening we set out from Redhill, we had three hundred and a quarter of tea. We were in the company of 15 or 16 men and 20 horses. We came through Islington where we separated. Tom Brick and Blue Dick went to a grocer there. We came down Old Street to the Dog House Tavern and waited with the hundredweight of tea for people who were to fetch from thence. A Watchman came by, he asked, who’s there? A friend says I, and I gave him a shilling for drink.”
In December 1745, the Jacobite forces of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ advanced from Scotland as far south as Derby just 130 miles from London and a French invasion in support of his claim to the throne appeared imminent.
He had since withdrawn and by April 1746 had been decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden but even so the political situation in England remained tense and the close connections between the smugglers of the south-coast, where any invasion force could be expected to land and their French counterparts added a dangerous political element to what had previously been a merely criminal enterprise.
The suspicion of Catholic/Jacobite sympathy was something the Hawkhurst Gang among others were willing to exploit if a radical posture disturbed and distracted the Authorities and they were also aware that the fear of a French invasion especially during the War of the Spanish Succession stretched the Royal’s Navy’s resources to its limits.
So to meet at a place such as the Oak and Ivy Tavern (Oak and the Ivy were symbols of Jacobite resistance) was intended to be a deliberate provocation but it was never more than smoke and mirrors. The Government however, thought otherwise.
In 1746, the Act of Indemnity made smuggling a capital offence and henceforward since it was so difficult to secure convictions in the area where the offence occurred those suspected of it would be tried at the Old Bailey in London.
Only one witness was required to denounce someone as a smuggler at which point the accused’s name would be published in the London Gazette and they would be given forty days in which to hand themselves in. If they did so then a pardon was possible, if not then a £50 reward would be offered for their capture and once under lock and key a death sentence would assuredly follow.
The Governments attitude was clarified by the then Solicitor-General Sir William Murray, Lord Mansfield at the trial of a smuggler for murder:
“You need not be told because it is very notorious, the different steps the Government has been forced to take in order if possible to get the better of the offence of smuggling. There is no Magistrate or Officer where they reign, if I may say, can put only law in execution against them – it is now a struggle between the Government and this Banditi.”
It was an effective declaration of war but the Government clamp down did little to curtail smuggler activity.
On 22 September 1747, the Three Brothers sailing from Guernsey with 30 hundredweight of contraband tea, numerous sacks of coffee and 70 casks of brandy and rum was intercepted by the Customs Vessel Swift under the command of Captain William Johnson. It was a haul worth close to a £1,000 and a great boost to Captain Johnson’s reputation but the word of his success quickly spread as he took the contraband to the Customs House at Poole Harbour where it was placed under the protective guns of a warship moored offshore.
The crew of the Three Brothers which had escaped the seizure of their ship rushed to inform Richard Perrin, a member of the Hawkhurst Gang and the man who had financed and organised the shipment. He wasn’t prepared to allow such a valuable cargo to slip from his grasp and agreed with local smugglers to share the cargo with them should they recover it.
On 7 October, some 40 smugglers including 12 of the Hawkhurst men arrived in Poole but they soon realised that any attempt to storm the Customs House would see them blown to pieces by the guns of the warship but local people informed them that when the tide ebbed, for a few hours at least, the Customs House was out of sight of those moored offshore.
Early in the morning carrying flaming torches and making a fearful noise the smugglers attacked the Customs House meeting little resistance as the guards threw open the doors and fled. Having not expected to recover all the goods the smugglers had insufficient transport to move it and so were forced to leave the caskets of brandy and rum behind but were nonetheless delighted with their haul of tea.
The raid on the Poole Customs House was a direct affront to the Government but worse was to follow.
Following the raid one of the gang members involved, Diamond, visited a cobbler named Daniel Chater paying for his services with a small packet of the contraband tea. Not long after Diamond was arrested and the rumour soon spread that Chater had informed on him for the reward on offer.
The rumours were reinforced when he was called to be a a witness at Diamond’s forthcoming trial.
Accompanied by the Customs Officer William Galley, an elderly gentleman nearing retirement, Chater set off for the village of East Marden where he was to formally identify Diamond before the local Justice of the Peace.
With neither of the two men familiar with the area around East Marden they soon found themselves lost and exhausted from hours of aimless wandering they stopped off at the White Hart Inn near Rowland’s Castle. It was a smugglers pub and as they slaked their thirst the landlady slipped away to inform two Hawkhurst Gang members, William Carter and William Jackson, of their presence. They hastily gathered their men.
Weary from the day’s travails, Chater and Galley decided to stay the night – as they slept their clothes were searched and ripped, their purses stolen.
Woken from their slumbers they were then bound and tortured over many hours.
The following morning stripped almost naked they were tied to horses and taken to the Red Lion Inn at Rake where their fate would be decided. Having fallen beneath their horses during the ride, their heads bumping and dragging along the ground, the two men were bloodied and barely conscious by the time they arrived.
Galley, who already near death the smugglers simply decided to be rid of and so he was taken to a nearby field and buried, possibly still alive.
Chater was chained up in a shed and left without food or water for a number of days whilst they deliberated whether he should simply be punished by mutilation or killed? Eventually, it was decided that he should die also and taken to Lady Holte Park he was thrown down a well and had rocks dropped on him until he was dead.
The brutal murder of an elderly Customs Officer and a simple cobbler shocked many people and wealthier members of the community now began to fear for both their property and their lives in an area where the remit of law did not appear to run.
In the village of Gouldhurst a militia was formed under the command of George Sturt, a retired soldier, determined to wrest control back from the smugglers. This was a direct challenge to the Hawkhurst Gang in whose territory the village lay and in particular Thomas Kingsmill, one of its leaders and a native of Gouldhurst.
The outraged Kingsmill, who had long ruled the roost locally threatened to loot and burn the village to the ground unless the militia was disbanded and Sturt handed over to the gang. They had until eleven o’clock in the morning of 21 April to comply.
When the militia did not disband Kingsmill proved as good as his word turning up at the appointed time with the Hawkhurst Gang their numbers bolstered by any number of common thieves and malcontents hoping to share in the booty.
But the Gouldhurst militia did not flee as Kingsmill as expected but instead took up position in and around the local church and as the gang approached many stripped to the waist and making a great deal of noise they let loose a volley of musket fire. As the smoke cleared Kingsmill’s brother lay dead along with several others.
A further brief exchange of gunfire and some hand-to-hand fighting followed before those who had turned up for easy pickings began to flee causing panic, especially when the shout went up that troops were on the way.
The defeat at Gouldhurst broke the power of the Hawkhurst Gang and ended their reign of terror and over the next few months many of its leading members including Thomas Kingsmill, Richard Perrin, William Fairall and Thomas Lillywhite were arrested, tried at the Old Bailey, and hanged.
They were just 4 of the 35 smugglers who were to be hanged over the next two years some of whom were to be strung up from the 14 gibbets that dotted the Sussex skyline for the next 30 years.
Resistance to smuggler violence was not the same as opposition to smuggling and the Governments partial success in hunting down and executing some of its leading exponents did little to curtail smuggling and local support for it remained strong.
As the Chaplain of Newgate Prison in London where many of the smugglers were interned before trial wrote:
“The common people in general fancy there’s nothing in the crime of smuggling. There is no harm done to the community or to public property, they believe it is there right.”
Even in 1784, when Prime Minister William Pitt slashed the duty on tea from 129% to just 12.5% making it unprofitable as contraband the smugglers merely turned their attentions elsewhere and it wasn’t until after 1846 and the Repeal of the Corn Laws when Free Trade became the economic shibboleth of a rapidly industrialising Britain that large scale smuggling ceased to be a lucrative pursuit and began to subside.
Photographic images by E Seabrook copyright prisonersofeternity.