HastingsThe Hawkhurst Gang
 
 
 
 
 
 
"IF you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet, Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street, Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by." (Rudyard Kipling)
 
Ruthless Smugglers & Criminals  
The infamous Hawkhurst Gang who operated throughout Dorset, Kent and Sussex in the 18th century were certainly not ‘Gentlemen’. They were ruthless criminals who provided a distribution network for goods illegally shipped into Britain.
 
High taxes levied on luxury goods such as spirits, tobacco, lace, silk coffee and tea led to a thriving trade in illegal imports. It was the fishermen who would bring the goods across the Channel and offload them in isolated bays on the coast. The smuggling gangs would hide the goods before distributing them by packhorse to London. Naturally there was a ready market for cheap luxury goods.
 
The smugglers were very adept at hiding their contraband. Caves, lonely barns and even churchyard tombs were used as hiding places. Often secret cellars in Inns and large houses like Rectories, even churches, were used to hide the goods.
 
Bribery and fear ensured secrecy. The Hawkhurst Gang were known for their brutality, using flogging and murder to terrorise both the locals and the government excise men. Like criminal gangs today, smaller gangs were taken over by the Hawkhurst mob, either by agreement or force.
 
The Hawkhurst Gang got their name from the small village of Hawkhurst in Kent, 12 miles (19 km) north-west of the East Sussex town of Rye. The gang operated from the local inn, the Oak and Ivy, half a mile (800 metres) outside the village on what is now the A268 road to Rye.
 
They came to public notice in 1735 and within five years the company had grown into a powerful fighting force that dominated Kentish smuggling for a decade. They claimed to be able to muster a force of 500 men in a space of 2 hours.
 
As their dubious reputation grew, the more brazen they became, moving vast quantities of contraband in broad daylight. In 1740 the gang ambushed a customs officer and an escort of soldiers at Robertsbridge near Bodiam. They shot the customs officer dead, captured the soldiers and recovered a cargo of contraband tea that had been seized from a barn at Etchingham.
 
1746 the Hawkhurst Gang joined forces with another local gang to unload and transport 11½ tons (1,3361 kg) of tea! The other gang got cold feet and wanted to leave prematurely. The Hawkhurst Gang was not having that and took to their collaborators with swords. Seven of the other gang were injured so the Hawkhurst mob left them, took the contraband and 40 of the injured gang’s horses.
 
There was definitely no honour among thieves.
 
Many of the gang members owned property which was used for hiding the contraband. The financier and leader, Arthur Gray, made so much money from smuggling that he built an enormous mansion at Seacox Heath, purpose built for storing smuggled goods. Unfortunately ‘Gray’s Folly’ has been demolished but Seacox Heath is still there.
 
Initially smugglers provided much needed paid work for the community so they were tolerated by the locals and even admired but the Hawkhurst Gang’s brutal disregard for human life was their downfall. A series of particularly horrific incidents turned local opinion against them.
 
Sometime in the early 1740s Jeremiah Curtis, who had been part of a violent gang in the Hastings area, joined forces with the Hawkhurst Gang. It was Curtis who led the whipping and beating to death of Richard Hawkins, a farm labourer who was suspected of stealing two bags of the gang's tea. Hawkins was taken to the Dog and Partridge inn at Slindon, near Chichester to be interrogated. When he died of his injuries his body was sunk in the Parham Park pond where it was found in the spring of 1748.
 
Poole Customs House Raid 
One of the most audacious raids by the Hawkhurst Gang was on the Customs House at Poole in Dorset. The government revenue men had intercepted a cargo of tea, brandy, rum and coffee from Guernsey, paid for by the smugglers. The cargo was placed under guard in the Customs House.
 
In Octrober, 1747 thirty armed men, including Thomas Kingsmill and about seven other Hawkhurst men rode to Poole. They arrived around 23:00 hours and found the Customs House guarded by the guns of a naval sloop. The local men were all for abandoning the project but the Hawkhurst men would not be deterred.
 
After fierce argument it was decided to wait until the tide fell and the Customs House was no longer in sight of the ship’s guns. The gang broke into the Customs House around 02:00 the next morning and escaped on horseback with two tons of tea. They left the brandy, rum and coffee behind, presumably because of lack of sufficient transport. The smugglers were not opposed at any stage of the journey and were treated as heroes by the local community. The Customs Service offered a large reward of £500 for their capture.
 
During the gang’s triumphal progress after the raid, a member of the Hawkhurst Gang, John ‘Dinner’ Diamond gave a small bag of tea to a local cobbler he recognised in the crowd, Daniel Chater. Chater, carried away with the excitement of the occasion, boasted to his neighbours that he knew Diamond. This was a fatal mistake.
 
Brutal Killing 
Several months after the raid, Diamond was captured held in jail at Chichester on suspicion of being involved in the raid. To prove the case against him, the Collector of Customs at Chichester had to get the cobbler to positively identify the smuggler. On 14 February 1748 William Galley, an ageing minor customs official, set out with Daniel Chater for the home near Chichester of a Justice of the Peace. They carried a letter with instructions that Chater should go to Chichester jail to identify Diamond.
 
Unwittingly, they stopped at the White Hart Inn at Rowlands Castle, a smugglers pub. The landlady fetched smugglers William Jackson and William Carter who lived nearby to find out why Chater and Galley were there. Chater knew they were in trouble and tried to bluff his way out of danger by telling Jackson that he was being forced to give evidence against his friend John Diamond. Galley admitted that he was ‘a King’s officer’.
 
The smugglers plied Chater and Galley with drink until they fell asleep. Their pockets were searched and the letter found exposing the real reason for their journey. The smugglers woke the poor unfortunate men, whipped them and tied them on to a horse, continuing to beat them until they slid under the horse’s belly, their heads hanging down. With each movement their heads were kicked by the horse’s hooves.
 
The smugglers had determined to kill both men but the torture continued until Galley begged to be killed. The flogging continued until Galley became unconscious and was buried alive in a foxes’ earth. Three days later Chater was also murdered by being thrown down a well and stoned until he was silent.
 
National Outrage 
The cruel deaths of Galley and Chater, among others, caused national outrage and the names of known smugglers were published in the London Gazette. They were given forty days to surrender or face an automatic death sentence, and a £500 reward was offered for their capture.
 
As can be seen, other gangs were just as murderous and brutal as the Hawkhurst Gang but the Hawkhurst smugglers were also robbers and extortionists. By 1747 local residents had turned against them. At Goudhurst the people formed the Goudhurst Band of Militia, led by a former army corporal.
 
Enraged by this defiance Hawkhurst deputy gang leader, Thomas Kingsmill, a native of the town, threatened to burn the town and kill the residents on 20 April 1747. When the gang attacked on the appointed day the militia were well enough trained to shoot dead Kingsmill's brother George in the first volley of a battle fought around the church. Two more smugglers died before the gang withdrew.
 
In 1748 Arthur Gray was arrested and executed for highway robbery and the Hawkhurst leadership passed to Thomas Kingsmill.
 
In August 1748, thirteen smugglers including Kingsmill and Jeremiah Curtis robbed the home of the landlord of the George Inn at Petersfield. The owner was too frightened to report his losses until after the men had been arrested.
 
Executed at Tyburn Gallows 
Kingsmill and Perrin were convicted and executed at Tyburn in London on 26 April 1749, along with William Fairall, another member of the gang. As a lesson to the locals, Kingsmill’s body was then hung in chains in his home town of Goudhurst. Jeremiah Curtis escaped to France before he could be brought to justice.
 
Nowadays 18th century smuggling has been romanticized and tourists like to visit smugglers’ haunts. It is all good fun but the reality is that smuggling was not a blow by the ‘little man’ against authority but a brutal and murderous business.
 
The writer is indebted to Richard Platt whose book The Ordnance Survey Guide to Smugglers' Britain provided some of the information used in this article.