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Smugglers in Georgian Sussex Part Three: The downfall of the Hawkhurst Gang

In the 18th and 19th centuries, smuggling was big business along Britain’s southern coast. Years of war with France made certain items scarce, and the need to pay for that war led to exorbitant taxes on imported goods such as tea, brandy, lace and rum.

This, in turn, led to a lucrative trade in smuggling these things. Men could make a fortune transporting illicit goods into the country and selling them at a far lower price than the government could. For the most part, the smugglers had the tacit support of local populations. They provided luxuries people could not otherwise afford, and jobs where a man could earn in one night as much as he would be paid in a month or more of his day job.

However, when illegal businesses grow big and large sums of money are involved, things soon get serious. Gang leaders emerge who have no aversion to violence and intimidation, and the population go from tacitly supporting the smugglers to having no choice but to comply with their wishes. People find themselves living in fear: a wrong word in the wrong ear can lead to torture and death. A “request” to give the gang help, to provide horses, or just hand over money, cannot be safely denied. People were pressganged into helping transport the goods, whether they wanted to or not, and it was safer to go to prison or be transported, than to give evidence against those who had coerced you.

Sooner or later, though, bullied people decide enough is enough. It just takes one or two people to stand up, and the rest find their courage, too. Which is exactly what happened when the Hawkhurst gang pushed the people of neighbouring Goudhurst too far.

The Battle of Goudhurst

Goudhurst is, like Hawkhurst, a village near Tunbridge Wells. By 1747, the Hawkhurst gang had started using the Goudhurst village pub, “The Star and Eagle,” (pictured right) as another of their meeting places. They brought unwelcome scrutiny and danger to the villagers, and the people had had enough. They just needed someone to lead them in their fight back.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Former army corporal, William Sturt, decided to do something about what was happening in his village. Nicknamed, “the General,” Sturt encouraged his neighbours to follow him, and they formed the Goudhurst Militia. They trained in secret and learned to use their firearms.

Inevitably, the secret came out, and the Hawkhurst gang learned of the defiance at Goudhurst. They were enraged and decided to punish the village, at the same time sending a message to others. They said they would come to burn the town and kill all the residents. So convinced were they of their superiority and invincibility, the gang leader, Thomas Kingsmill, even made an appointment to do these things: 21st April 1747.

On the appointed day, the Hawkhurst men approached Goudhurst. Heavily armed, many of them were stripped to the waist, so they could show off their tattoos and battle scars as a means of intimidation. They expected little opposition from what they thought were farmers and labourers. They got the shock of their lives.

The women and children of Goudhurst had been evacuated, and now their men gathered at the church porch, ready to fight for their village and its freedom. They were extraordinarily brave, since most of them were armed only with ancient fowling pieces, inaccurate and unreliable, and no match for the muskets and blades of the hardened gang members. It could have been a bloodbath.

In their first volley, the Goudhurst Militia shot and killed Kingsmill’s brother, George. Two more smugglers were killed in the next round of fire, and several were injured.

Like all bullies, the smugglers were cowards at heart. Faced with an effective opposition, most of them turned tail and fled, in ignominious defeat. The people of Goudhurst had reclaimed their village and broken the stranglehold the gang had on them.

It was the beginning of the end. Within months, gang members were being rounded up, tried and executed or transported. In 1748, a list of those wanted for smuggling, murders, burglaries and robberies in Sussex was published in the London Gazette, along with the names of the men wanted for the raid on the Custom House in Poole. Informants were promised a royal pardon, and there was a £50 reward for each smuggler captured. In 2024, that would be equivalent to about £9,300. It didn’t take long for people to claim the rewards, and turn in the men who had terrorised them.

Thomas Kingsmill, William Fairall, Richard Perin, Richard Glover, and Thomas Lillywhite were indicted not just for smuggling, but for breaking into the Custom House. All of them faced execution.

However, Lillywhite’s wife, Mary, was the illegitimate daughter of a baronet, Sir Cecil Bishopp. In a classic example of “it’s not what you know”, Bishopp wrote to the Lord Justice, appealing for clemency for his son-in-law. That first appeal was refused, and Sir Cecil soundly admonished.

Lillywhite did not give up. His defence was that he had only looked after the horses and had not known what was going on until after the raid was done. Also, he said, he was not armed throughout the whole thing. Sir Cecil provided a character reference for him. Lillywhite was acquitted and, presumably, was careful never to get into such trouble again.

Another gang member, Richard Glover, was found guilty, but the jury recommended he be shown mercy. He was the only member of the gang to be pardoned. Another man, Jeremiah Curtis, escaped to France. Everybody else was found guilty, and about 75 men were sentenced either to hang, or to be transported. The leaders’ bodies were then hung in chains on the road sides. This punishment was seen as a deterrent to others, but was only usually reserved for the worst of murderers. That it was used on these men is a reflection of how seriously the government took them and their crimes.

By 1750, the Hawkhurst gang was gone, but wholesale smuggling continued along the south coast for another 70 years. Eventually, with the defeat of Napoleon, peace broke out between England and France, and the taxes on the luxury goods were reduced to more reasonable levels, making the profit from smuggling so small, it was barely worthwhile.

The days of industrial scale smuggling were over.

The Smuggler’s Daughter by Caitlyn Callery is published by The Wild Rose Press.

Picture of Smugglers landing their goods by Peter Jackson.


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