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Photograph of the frozen lake at Parham Park
When Hawkhurst smugglers murdered a man they suspected of stealing two bags of tea, they chose the lake at Parham Park to hide the grisly evidence of their crime. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England


A glance at an atlas is all that's needed to see the advantages that the south-east of England offered to the enterprising smuggler. To the east, within sight on a clear day, lies northern France, the source of much of the contraband; and to the north and west lie rich farm land, and the wealthy, wicked capital city — ready markets for the fine laces, wines and brandy that the smuggler obligingly shipped across the channel.

However, smuggling began not as the import activity that we know today, but as exports. And in a sense, the south-east might be regarded as the cradle of big-business smuggling for the whole of the British Isles.

Drive across misty Romney Marsh, and you'll need little further explanation. Contented sheep still chomp the salty grass of the marshes, just as they have done for centuries, and it was the wool from their backs that was carried out of the country by the ton to the waiting weavers on the continent. Even in the thirteenth century massive taxation on wool exports made the rewards from illegal wool export well worth the risk of capture.

The wool smugglers of Kent generally, and Romney Marsh in particular, were called 'Owlers'. There has long been debate about how they acquired this name, and people have advanced various romantic theories, mostly centred around owls — the smugglers hunted at night, so they took the name of the nocturnal bird; or they signalled to each other by hooting like owls. The most prosaic explanation, and probably the most likely, is that 'owler' is just a corruption of 'wooler', which was a common name for anyone processing wool. [8]

The wool smugglers of south east England, and their successors, the import smugglers, developed a reputation for savagery that is often used as a yardstick by other counties claiming a 'gentle' nature for their own smugglers. Certainly the horrific killings of Galley and Chater and the thuggish activities of the Hawkhurst gang lend weight to this opinion, but it's possible to cite evidence of matching barbarity from other counties. For example, read how Jeremiah Gardener lost his nose near Snape in 1727.

One possible explanation for the fearsome reputation of the Kent and Sussex smugglers is that their activities were more widely advertised than those of smugglers from other counties. The book that chronicles the torture and savage murders of Galley and Chater was first published in 1749 shortly after the trial, and reprinted four times in that year alone [9]. It has appeared in full and abridged forms many times since. Furthermore, it contained graphic engravings of the men's last moments, which would have impressed even the illiterate. Perhaps if some Cornish smugglers had received an equally bad press, that part of Britain would not now pretend that smuggling there was a harmless fraud that hurt only the King's purse?

However, assuming that the smugglers of the south east really were more violent than their fellows, are there any genuine reasons why this should be the case? Perhaps the long history of smuggling in the area goes some way towards explaining its savage nature. In the heyday of smuggling — the late 18th and early 19th centuries — the trade was carried out by large and highly-organized gangs that landed their goods mostly by brute strength. Men with cudgels and firearms lined the beach in such numbers that preventive forces could only stand and watch.

This form of smuggling was not unique to Kent and Sussex — certainly the Essex gangs landed goods this way — but it was more prevalent in the south east than elsewhere. In other parts of Britain smugglers seem more often to have favoured the clandestine landing of a smaller cargo, and to have enjoyed the benefits of greater secrecy. By their very nature, open landings demanded greater force.

The size of the cargoes may also have been a factor: Kentish smuggling was on a scale that demanded large amounts of venture capital. Such sums were often raised not locally but at some distant point, usually London. Outside investors would want to protect their cash, and would have not been averse to hiring hoodlums to do it. By contrast, the finance of smuggling in other parts of Britain was more often on a cooperative basis, with each villager buying a share in the run. This not only ensured total support in the locality, (hence less need for violence) but also that the loss of a cargo was a burden shared by all, and easier to bear as a result. Besides an aggressive streak, Kentish smuggling had one or two other quirks and wrinkles not found elsewhere.

The most extraordinary is probably the practice of rowing cargoes across the channel. This was most popular during the Napoleonic wars, shipping high-value cargoes. The chosen contraband was gold, to pay Napoleon's armies, and the boats were monsters, up to forty feet long, and seven feet wide. The port of Deal specialized in building these boats: a dozen oars each side pulled the boats over to France in less than five hours during calm weather. Even with a head-wind, the Kentish oarsmen were no slouches. On one occasion a rowing boat leaving Dover had difficulty getting out of the harbour because of the wind, and had to hitch a tow from a steamer. Once they had left the cliffs behind, though, the oarsmen overtook the steam ship, and beat it to the French coast.

Pursuit of these galleys in a sailing vessel was futile, as a preventive officer succinctly summed up when he described such a chase as 'sending a cow to catch a hare'. Little wonder that the construction of 'Guinea boats', as they were called, was eventually forbidden in England. Prohibition didn't deter the Guinea smugglers of Deal, Dover and Folkestone. Laughing at the authorities, they simply built their boats across the channel, under the self-interested protection of the French government. The boats were so cheap that they could almost be considered expendable at the end of a trip: building a 24-oared galley cost £40 or so, a small sum compared to the £30,000 worth of gold that the smugglers might be carrying on a single trip.

There's a modern-day parallel here, in that drug smugglers think nothing of abandoning a light aircraft once they've ferried in their narcotic cargo.

Kent became such a centre for smuggling activity that it is hardly surprising to find the earliest preventive efforts concentrated in the south east. In 1690 an formidable force of eight men was stationed in the towns of Lydd, Romney, Hythe and Folkestone in an attempt to prevent wool exports from these areas. These 'Riding Officers' patrolled the area on horseback to detect and deter, but the smugglers would perhaps have outnumbered them a hundred to one.

In 1816 the Kent coast blockade scheme started between North and South Foreland; and in 1824 this was extended north round to Sheerness, south to Beachy head, and in 1824 round as far as Chichester. Preventive measures existed in other parts of the country, but were never as strong as in Kent.

[8] Though in linguistic terms the corruption is unlikely, regional usage tends to confirm this idea: most postal addresses containing the word 'owler' are in the traditional wool-producing and manufacturing areas of Britain (Source — PO postcode database computer).
Of Britain's six breeding species of owl, only one, the short-eared owl, shows even a slight preference for these areas, and the three commonest species — the Barn, Little and Tawny owls — are more or less evenly distributed throughout England and Wales. (Sharrock, JTR. Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland. British Trust for Ornithology/Irish Wildbird Conservancy. 1976)

[9] Allen, 1911