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Photograph of Shades House, Dartford Marshes
Smugglers used lonely and remote Shade House on Dartford Marshes. Follow this link for directions to it. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England

THE THAMES ESTUARY AND N KENT

The Thames estuary today has a hard-edged, definite outline imposed by the high sea wall, but a couple of centuries ago the coast was not nearly so well defined. Ships heading for London threaded their way through treacherous channels and numerous mud-banks to find a safe harbour, and many made unscheduled stops in the sticky mud. Sometimes these halts were the legitimate result of bad navigation. Frequently, though, the overnight wait for the tide was simply an excuse to unload half the cargo into a necklace of small boats that appeared as if by magic from the reedy margins of the river as soon as the ship grounded. Throwing parcels of tea from the deck of a large ship to a passing rowing boat was a simple matter; in the unlikely event that the preventive forces were watching from the shore, the ship's master could always excuse himself by claiming that the off-loading was necessary in order to float the ship off the mud. Once ashore, pursuit was virtually impossible, since the low-lying land was studded with brackish pools, and broad drainage dykes, and the safe routes to dry land were known only to the locals.
Engraving of Cobham Hall
According to local legend, smugglers dug a network of tunnels in the Gravesend area. One allegedly emerged here, at Cobham Hall, three miles south of Gravesend Quay. Click picture to enlarge

Gravesend

TQ6474 (map 177/178) 7m NW of Rochester red map button

All vessels that managed to negotiate the twisting channel tied up at Gravesend, on their way to the capital. This was the theory, at least. At the bustling Gravesend quayside, a customs officer boarded incoming vessels in order to escort the cargo safely to an official wharf in London. This practice revealed abuses of the system long before the heyday of smuggling: as early as 1410 a monk boarding a ship moored here was caught carrying a gold ring and a substantial sum of money. The same year a Flanders woman, Petite Gerderoic, was searched under similar circumstances at Haarlem, Gravesend, and caught carrying 21 gold rings, a block of gold, jewellery and rare books with coral-encrusted bindings.

In Gravesend, visit the riverside Three Daws Inn near the pier. Reputedly kent's oldest tavern, it was patronised by 18th and 19th century smugglers.

The Ship and Lobster

Approaching from the west, follow the A226 right through Gravesend, then take the 2nd exit at a mini-roundabout, down Ordnance Road. Follow the road round through an industrial estate red map button

There are many stories associating the Gravesend area with the free-trade, and though some are obviously untrue (see below), the smuggling pedigree of the Ship and Lobster is impeccable. The pub is now hidden among container depots and modern jetties, yet this setting is nothing new. Even in the 18th century, it was situated in an industrial area, sandwiched between a windmill and a sulphur mill. The sulphur mill was very probably a blind for smuggling operations: contraband was reputedly unloaded from ships at Folkestone and carried overland to Denton, to be hidden in tunnels under the mill. Some credence was added to this story when the Strood canal was being built: workers fell into one of the tunnels as they were digging. More confirmation comes from Dickens, who used the Ship and Lobster as the model for the inn he described in Great Expectations:

Photograph of the Three Daws in Gravesend
The Three Daws in Gravesend: seven staircases for escaping smugglers. Click picture to enlarge

'At length we descried a light and a roof, and presently afterwards ran alongside a little causeway made of stones that had been picked up hard by. Leaving the rest in the boat, I stepped ashore, and found the light to be in the window of a public house. It was a dirty place enough, and I dare say not unknown to smuggling adventures; but there was a good fire in the kitchen, and there were also eggs and bacon to eat, and various liquors to drink... 'I lay down with the greater part of my clothes on, and slept well for a few hours. When I awoke, the wind had risen, and the sign of the house (The Ship) was creaking and banging about, with noises that startled me.'

The Ship and Lobster is not the only Gravesend pub with smuggling connections. Before alterations the Three Daws on the waterfront boasted seven staircases to ensure that the local smugglers always had a handy escape route. The pub has now been renovated, but retains much of its old-world charm.

Gravesend tunnels

A recurring theme in smuggling stories is that of secret tunnels, and in the Gravesend area one such story suggests that several local landmarks are linked by tunnels. Though much of the tale is demonstrably untrue, it is nevertheless interesting, because it throws light on how smuggling tales in general become distorted and exaggerated with time:

'...there are good reasons for believing that an extensive system of underground roads existed at one time or another for more or less illicit purposes. Some sections of these have been supported by proof of a reasonably reliable kind during excavations..'. writes one local historian. He goes on to say that there were tracks cut in the chalk... 'from Cobham Hall in the South-East to Wombwell Hall; to Swanscombe Wood, where Clapperknapper's Hole is regarded as the exit in the extreme southwest: to Parrock Manor, or Parrock, or both; to the river bank at the old sulphur mill, near the Ship and Lobster; and to an unknown destination from an unknown source at Pelham Road — Old Road — Perry Street. [10]'

Certainly the reference to the Ship and Lobster pub bears up under close scrutiny, but the other references are more dubious. Clapperknapper's hole, which has now been removed by quarry working for the cement industry, was a small indentation in the ground in Swanscombe woods. However, at that point at least 50 feet of sand lay over the chalk. Digging a vertical shaft in such soft ground would have been virtually impossible — a local geologist [11] commented 'You'd need to cut down all of Swanscombe woods to make pit-props'. Many of the other tunnels are supposed to have run for several miles through hard chalk, and crossing a water-course. Digging such tunnels would have required a phenomenal amount of labour, and a string of windmills to drain them.

Egypt Bay and Shade House, Cooling

TQ777782 (map 178) 7m E of Gravesend. Go east from Cooling along Britannia Road, and take the first left up Clinch Street. About 1.5 miles from the junction the road continues as a track beyond a locked gate. Follow the track N. The square brick outline and white shutters of Shade House soon come into view on the left, and Egypt Bay is a little more than a mile from the gate. red map button (revd. 8/06)

Egypt Bay on the Hoo peninsula was a typical Thames estuary landing spot, though its soft and changing outline has now been made regular and permanent by the concrete sea defences. Inland from the bay, though, there's still a reminder of the smuggling activity that was once rife here: Shade House was built specifically to aid the landing of contraband on the southern shores of the Thames: significantly, all the windows of this peculiar box-like building face inland, to provide a good view of anyone approaching within a mile or so. The cottage is even now extremely isolated, but would have been more so in the 18th century: the marshes were malarial, and most people lived on higher ground farther inland. Local stories tell of vaulted brick tunnels leading from Shade House towards the river, but there is no visible evidence today to back up these tales. However, we do know that the North Kent gang used Shade House in their smuggling activities, driving the many marsh sheep along the trails they had followed inland so that there would be no tell-tale footprints.
Photograph of the memorial to Wrotham's smuggling boss
The memorial to Wrotham's smuggling boss in the wall near the Bull. Click picture to enlarge

Wrotham and Vigo

Wrotham lies 8m N of Tonbridge in a quiet backwater close to the junction of the M25, the A20 and the A227. At the pair of roundabouts where these roads meet, follow the local signs to Wrotham. The Bull is on the right, at TQ613592 red map button, and the stone referred to below is set into the wall to the left of the pub. The Vigo Inn is on the right of the A227 from Wrotham to Meopham at TQ632611 red map button, near Trottiscliffe (pronounced Trosley locally). Map 188.

Not all contraband was water-borne: some consignments followed inland routes — often via traditional trackways such as the Pilgrims' Way, that traces the foot of the North Downs from Canterbury to Winchester. Not far from Gravesend, Wrotham was a major staging post for the caravans of horses travelling up from the coast, and the Bull Inn there functioned as the headquarters of a gang led by one Lieutenant Colonel Shadwell. Shadwell met an untimely end — he was shot by army deserters, and a memorial to him can still be seen in the village. A mile or so away on the Gravesend road, the little hamlet of Vigo had an equally convenient resting point for the London-bound convoys. The pub of the same name in the village once boasted a concealed hiding place for contraband that was revealed by building work on the substantial hearth. Though the pub is still redolent with the atmosphere of 18th century, the hidey-hole has now been all but forgotten locally.

High Halstow

Northward Hill is at TQ7876 5m NE of Strood. red map button The wood is now a National Nature Reserve administered by the RSPB. Park at the end of Longfield Avenue in High Halstow and walk through the fenced alley to Forge Common. Cross the stile and bear left across the common to the wood (map 178).

One smuggling trip in this area is particularly well-documented, and especially interesting because of the insight it provides into the organization of smuggling in the early 18th century. The story is told in a deposition made in 1728 by a couple of Medway men [12]. They travelled across the Channel in February 1726, and bought tea in Ostend. It was a very small-scale operation, since in all the men brought back just 400lb, plus a few yards of calico and some silk handkerchiefs. There were seven men on the ship, the Sloweley, and the trip was organized a bit like one of today's cross-channel shopping excursions: everyone bought tea, and paid their passage in tea, too.
Watercolour painting of Chalk Church by Ernest W Haslehust
Smugglers hid contraband close to Chalk church. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust.
Click picture to see a bigger image
Once the goods had been landed, they were carried to Northward Hill, and concealed in the woodland that you can still see on the hill. By the time the tea and fabric had been hidden it was three in the morning, and two of the group departed, leaving some of their fellows on guard — perhaps the plan was to rendezvous the following day to divide up the profits. After a long night in the cold, The three men who were left behind went into the village to get food, and when they returned to the hiding place, two more of their fellows joined them. By this time, though, the silk and calico had disappeared, and since the tea was in six bags, it proved impossible to give each man his exact share. The delay in distribution provided the preventive forces with an opportunity — there is a suggestion that one of the group was an informer — and at 5 O'Clock four customs men arrived. We'll never know what sort of a deal took place in the gathering dusk on Northward Hill, but whatever happened, it wasn't entirely to the benefit of the customs authorities. They took 3/4 of the tea, but the smuggling conspirators retained the remainder, and were never prosecuted. The most likely explanation is that the customs men were 'squared', and simply sold the tea they had seized in order to line their own pockets. The mastermind of this and many other similar trips was one Edward Roots of Chatham. Though this small trip was organized on a cooperative basis, most of the others followed more conventional business lines, with a London financier, and a 'fence' in Blackheath who had organized an efficient distribution system through the pubs of Deptford. It's no coincidence that High Halstow is within sight of Shade House. In fact, the whole of the Hoo peninsula played an active part in the free-trade, aided by the area's reputation as a malarial and mist-shrouded swamp. Smuggled goods were commonly landed on Chalk Marshes, and at Cliffe, and often stored near to Chalk Church, and at Higham.

Allhallows and Grain

Avery farm, Allhallows is at TQ841785 red map button (map 178). Go into Grain TQ 8776 village on the main road (A228/B2001) and you can't miss the Hogarth Inn which is on the left of the High Street.red map button

Illustration of a method of hiding tubs of spirits below  the sea's surface.
In 1839 smugglers on board the smack Mary sunk a cargo of 115 tubs of gin close to the Isle of Grain. Anchors at either end of the rope stopped the tubs drifting with the tide. The trick did not fool suspicious coastguards, who raised the tubs and prosecuted the skipper.

Not all smuggling stories from the Hoo peninsula are as specific in detail as the tale of Edward Roots and his team repeated above. The local headquarters for the smuggling fraternity was said to be the Lobster Inn, some 3/4 of a mile NE of Allhallows church. The pub is now a private house at Avery farm [13]. A local legend tells of a tunnel passing underneath the Hogarth Inn in Grain village; and according to another tale, contraband was hidden on the island of Gantlebor near Yantlet creek that divides the Isle of Grain from the rest of the peninsula. The creek itself made a discreet anchoring point even for quite large vessels engaged in the smuggling trade. [14]

Engraving of Maidstone Gaol
Maidstone gaol housed condemned smugglers, but not all swung. In 1747 several escaped when 12 heavily armed and disguised men broke open the gaol and freed them. Click picture to enlarge

The Medway and Maidstone

Penenden Heath is 1m N of Maidstone, at TQ7657 red map button (map 178). On mid-nineteenth-century maps the area that is now Heathfield Road was marked as 'Gallows Hill', and the Chiltern Hundreds public house, on a roundabout signposted to Boxley on the A249, stands close to the site of the old gallows. Pistols reputed to have been used by members of the Hawkhurst gang are on display at Maidstone museum, and the collection also includes a blunderbust with similar origins. Burntwick Island is at the mouth of the Medway at TQ8571 red map button

Between the Isle of Grain and the Kent mainland lies the Medway, and at its mouth are dozens of tiny creeks and low-lying islets. One of these, Burntwick Island, was the headquarters to the North Kent gang in the early 19th century, and the gang skirmished with the preventive forces in Stansgate Creek nearby. Though there was a garrison posted at Sheerness, some ships would use the cover of darkness to slip past the military into the river, perhaps to ferry goods up-river to Maidstone or farther.

Some contraband, though, would be landed on the banks of the Medway estuary — Cockham Woods, Upnor is mentioned [15] as one such landing point. Maidstone's connection with smuggling is principally through prevention and punishment of the perpetrators. Many smugglers danced 'the hempen jig' on a gallows at Penenden Heath on the northern outskirts of the town, and the gaol in Maidstone housed more. A few of the condemned prisoners escaped execution — in November 1747... 'Twelve armed and disguised men broke open Maidstone (on the Medway) gaol, and rescued the notorious prisoners, carried them some distance where twenty horses were in readiness to aid them in their escape.' [16]

Faversham

TR0161 12m N of Ashford (map 178) red map button

Faversham was notorious for its smugglers, and many of the fine buildings that can be seen there today were constructed from the proceeds of the free-trade. Daniel Defoe remarked on the town's reputation when he wrote his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain in 1824-6:

'... I know nothing else this town is remarkable for, except the most notorious smuggling trade, carried on partly by the assistance of the Dutch, in their oyster boats....the people hereabouts are arrived to such proficiency, that they are grown monstrous rich by that wicked trade.'

Engraving of Sheerness, Kent
The Sheerness dockyard and naval base was an obstacle for smugglers on their way to the Medway towns. Click picture to enlarge

Defoe singles out the Dutch for special condemnation (xenophobia is always a reliable ally when you want to pass the buck), but much of the contraband that was sold and distributed through Faversham would have been landed by red-blooded Englishmen on the open beaches to the East. Some also came in from the Swale, the channel dividing the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland. Ships sneaked past the Sheerness garrison into the mouth of the Medway, and then headed into the Swale, before pushing onwards to Faversham. This circuitous route to the town is easily explained: coming into the Swale by the back door allowed smuggling cutters to to avoid the vigilant preventives at Whitstable.

The Isle of Sheppey

TQ97 5m NE of Sittingbourne (map 178) red map button

The inhabitants of the Isle of Sheppey used historical precedent as an excuse for their smuggling activities: the town of Queensborough was granted a charter by Edward I, allowing them to import and export goods free of duty. This convenient loophole was stopped in 1575, but the spirit of free enterprise far outlived the letter of the privilege.
Photograph of tombstone of a Minster man beheaded by smugglers
Tombstone of a Minster man beheaded by smugglers. Click picture to enlarge

Minster

You can see the tombstone at the Minster Abbey Gatehouse Museum at TQ955729 red map button

The Minster smugglers took care to keep their activities well hidden. A pathetic gravestone here illustrates that they were quite prepared to use force when necessary:

O EARTH COVER NOT MY BLOOD SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF A MAN UNKNOWN, who was found MURDERED, on the Morning of the 22nd April 1814, near SCRAPS-GATE in this PARISH, by his Head being nearly Severed from his Body. A SUBSCRIPTION was immediately entered into, and ONE HUNDRED GUINEAS REWARD offered on the conviction of the PERPETRATORS of the HORRIBLE ACT, but they remain at present undiscovered.

According to local legend, the unfortunate man was mistaken by smugglers for an informer, and dealt summary justice on the spot. That the reward should have failed to bring the villains to justice is hardly surprising: it's said that the smugglers themselves carried out the collection to conceal their guilt. They also paid for the memorial stone, which used to stand in the churchyard.

Warden

TR016725 Turn N off the A250 at the cross-roads at Eastchurch, then take a right turn after about half a mile. Warden Manor is a white house on the right, close to the coastguard station. red map button

At the far eastern end of Sheppey, Warden Manor was once the home of Sir John Sawbridge, a respectable magistrate who dabbled in smuggling in the late 18th century. He cleverly incorporated into his house a novel signalling mechanism that innocently alerted him to the arrival of his kegs of spirits: a pigeon loft in the house could be observed from the smoking room, and the smuggling vessel released a homing pigeon as the contraband was dumped overboard at the mouth of a nearby creek. The tide swept the barrels in, and the cooing messenger warned the magistrate to collect the goods before anyone else found them. Legend has it that tunnels joined the manor house to the local church, and to the pub, the Smack Aground (now a private house).

Seasalter

TR0965 2m W of Whitstable. (map 179) red map button

Today, Seasalter is little more than a hamlet, and in the 18th and 19th centuries it was equally isolated. This isolation was turned to advantage by a smuggling fraternity who based their operations in the area. Wallace Harvey investigated the business of 'the Seasalter Company' as he calls it, with great thoroughness, and by tracing property transactions and marriage certificates, has built up an intriguing picture of flourishing commerce. [17]

During the 18th century the coast at Seasalter was an ideal spot for landing goods. The beach consisted of mud and shingle, so there was little risk of damage in beaching vessels, and open marshland backed onto the shore. The nearby Forest of Blean provided plenty of cover for the landed goods.

The modus operandi of the Seasalter company was to land goods close to the Blue Anchor pub, then ship them inland to Lenham, where heavy carts could load up with the brandy and tobacco for onward shipment to the major markets in London. Blue House farm was the base at the Lenham end, and Seasalter Cross farm and Pink Farm (which benefited from cunningly-concealed compartments, windowless rooms, and secret shafts) were both used as coastal depots for storage.

The headquarters of the Seasalter company was Seasalter Parsonage farm — now a private house in the village. The route the smugglers took from the coast was via Pink Farm, Yorkletts, Dargate, Herne Hill, to White Hill along Brogdale Road, and then on to Lenham. At Seasalter Cross, cargoes of tobacco were stored in greatly-enlarged haystacks (though this ruse would have worked only when the wind was blowing in the right direction, for the aroma of tobacco would have alerted a customs man standing 50 yards away.)

It seems that the Seasalter company were either in league with the preventive forces, or at least had developed a policy of peaceful coexistence. One tale serves to illustrate how this worked: one of the company would stand close to the coastguards' cottages at Seasalter, and bellow 'The coast is clear' at the top of his voice. In what was clearly a well-rehearsed pantomime, this would lure the 'suspicious' coastguard, into pursuing the 'smuggler', who would of course head away from the true landing point. In order to make pursuit more difficult, the decoy carried a long plank, which he used to bridge the numerous dykes. The panting coastguard had to take the long way round, and the cat-and-mouse game kept suspicious eyes off the truly dubious activities on the coast.

In the course of time the Seasalter company had cause to take more care in its illegal activities, and eventually developed an elaborate signalling system. A chain of houses had rods running up their chimneys or a tree outside, with a broom attached at the top. Pushing the rod from the grate end raised the broom, and the signal was copied down the line. The signalling points were Moat House in Blean, Frogs Hall, Honey Hill farm in Blean, a house at Pean Hill built by the company, Clapham Hill Farm, Martin Down Mill, and on to Borstal and eventually to Whitstable. At night a lantern in a window replaced the broom in the chimney.

The Seasalter company flourished for over a century from 1740, and must have made many fortunes for its partners. Certainly one man, William Baldock, benefited to an unprecedented degree: when he died in 1812, he left over a million pounds — more than £200 million in today's money.

Whitstable

TR1166 6m NW of Canterbury (map 179) red map button

Whitstable played a full and active part in the free-trade. This is unsurprising, but what makes Whitstable more unusual is the trade in smuggled prisoners of war that was carried on in the area.

During the Napoleonic wars the enormous numbers of POWs put a considerable strain on the country's resources, and led to a vast prison building program (including Dartmoor). Many French prisoners lived in appalling conditions in prison hulks — filthy, overcrowded and disease-ridden vessels anchored off-shore. Through an elaborate network of contacts and safe havens, prisoners who succeeded in escaping from the hulks would be brought to London, then smuggled on a hoy or an oyster-boat to a timber platform at the low-tide mark near Whitstable. This platform was a mooring for the oyster-boats and fishing vessels that were prevented from reaching the true shoreline at low-tide by the two-mile wide ribbon of mud that fringes the beaches here.

Mingling with fishing folk and wildfowlers, the French escapees were able to make their way back to the shore, rest up and hide for a few days, then make a clandestine departure one dark night from Swalecliffe Rock — a shingle spit close to the Herne Bay road.

Relatives of the wealthier prisoners would no doubt have paid handsomely for their safe return, and the arrangement no doubt suited the smugglers, who would otherwise have had to pay for their returning cargo of contraband in currency, rather than bodies. The trade continued between 1793 and 1814. [18]

This period was exceptional, though, and smuggling in Whitstable generally followed the national pattern, with smugglers moving the familiar cargoes of brandy, tobacco, lace and gin using bribery and violence. Bribery worked when there was little opposition: officialdom at Whitstable at the end of the C17 was represented by a single corrupt boatman who took so much money in bribes that he was able to build a fine house on the proceeds [19].

Violence worked when there was greater resistance. In February 1780 the Supervisor of Excise set out from Whitstable for Canterbury, with 183 tubs of gin that had been captured earlier. The caravan was guarded by a party of 8 troopers and an officer, but 50 smugglers attacked at Borstal Hill, the steep road that crawls up out of Whitstable. In the battle, two soldiers were killed, and Joseph Nicholson, the Supervisor, fled with the survivors. A fat reward induced an informant to supply the name of an 18-year old (John Knight) who played a minor role — this man was executed at Penenden Heath, Maidstone and later hung in chains at Borstal Hill.


[10] Philip, A.J

[11] Personal communication; Wally Roberts, Blue Circle Heritage Centre

[12] Bygone Kent, 1980

[13] Finche, 1929

[14] Morgan, Glyn H, 1963, The Romance of Essex Inns. Benton, Philip, 1867, History of the Rochford Hundred

[15] Finche, 1929

[16] Finche, 1929

[17] Harvey, Wallace, 1983

[18] Harvey, Wallace, 1971

[19] Williams, 1959