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Ranseley family graveboard, Ruckinge
You can still see the grave board of the notorious Ransley family in Ruckinge. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England


As any modern traveller knows, the shortest channel crossing is from the east Kent coast to northern France, and this blindingly obvious fact had not escaped the early smugglers, either. The gently-curving coastline between Romney Marsh and the Isle of Thanet was well-supplied with shingle or sand beaches on which it was simple to draw up a boat. This whole area was steeped in the free-trade from the very beginning: east Kent was notorious for wool exports long before import smuggling began.

Engraving of Deal
Deal was so notorious for smuggling that Pitt sent troops to destroy all the town's boats in 1785. Furious residents were held back at bayonet-point. Click picture to enlarge  


TR3752 8m NE of Dover (map 179) red map button

The town of Deal had become a notorious haunt of smugglers as early as 1745, and well deserved to be dubbed 'a sad, smuggling town' by an 18th century writer [21].That smuggling was going on there was obvious not from activity in the town, but from lack of it:

'There are said to be in the town of Deal, not less than two hundred young men and sea-faring people, who are known to have no visible way of getting a living, but by the infamous trade of smuggling...This smuggling has converted those employed in it, first from honest industrious fishermen, to lazy, drunken and profligate smugglers.'

Deal men were well known for their skill both as boat builders and as seamen — some Deal smugglers served as pilots for Nelson — so it is hardly surprising that they turned their hand to rapid cross-channel trips for a hefty profit. It was at Deal that the 'Guinea boats' were constructed to ship gold across the channel to pay Napoleon's armies.

By 1781, the notoriety of the town was such that the authorities felt obliged to act against the Deal smugglers. A hundred mounted soldiers and nine hundred infantrymen moved in on the town, expecting to find £100,000 worth of contraband concealed there. The troops didn't bother with the formalities: [22]

'Some flint and many stones came at the windows and many shots were fired by the soldiers but most miraculously nobody was killed and only one man considerably wounded who, having thrown a mattock-iron [a pick, with an adze blade at one end] from a garden at the officers, a Middlesex militiaman fired at him as he was scrambling over a wall' [23]

Illustration of the body bags that boatmen of Deal, Kent, used to smuggle tea ashore
The boatmen of Deal bought tea and other contraband from East-Indiamen that hovered offshore in the early 19th century. By concealing the tea under their clothes in custom-made bags, they could sneak up to 30lb past the customs men.

The troops left with perhaps a tenth of what they'd expected, probably because an informer had forewarned the Deal men, who had spirited the goods back to their source on the continent for the duration of the raid. This slap in the face for the authorities evidently made them all the more determined, and three years later, William Pitt sent in troops again. The townspeople were once more forewarned (by carrier pigeon this time), and turned out in considerable numbers to resist the raid. However, the military prevailed by sheer force of numbers, and after resting overnight, they marched down to the beach where the smugglers had pulled their boats well above the high-water mark to secure them from the storms. After a nominal 'anti-invasion drill' a prearranged signal initiated the coordinated destruction and burning of the boats, in front of the very eyes of their outraged but helpless owners.
Despite this setback, smuggling soon resumed in the town, and evidently continued to enjoy the support of much of the community. In 1801 smugglers had no trouble in enlisting the help of Deal residents when the revenue men forced a smuggling lugger onto the town beach. The mob attacked the luckless preventives, and brought ashore the cargo of tobacco, playing cards and bolts of fine cloth. And 16 years later, blockademen who were attempting to arrest some local smugglers were set upon by a mob of local people, and had to shelter in a shop. To add insult to (near) injury, the mayor of Deal ordered the arrest of the midshipmen, accusing them of assault on the free-traders! Smuggling even continued in the town in a small way into the last quarter of the 19th century, long after the free-trade had been effectively snuffed out elsewhere.

Engraving of smugglers on Dover beach
Smugglers lounge on Dover beach after a successful run. Click picture to enlarge  


TR3141 15m SE of Canterbury (map 179) red map button The white cliffs soaring high above Dover form a landmark that is visible on all but the darkest of nights. However, smugglers returning to Britain would have taken pains to avoid the town itself, since Dover was a local centre for the preventive forces, and soldiers from the castle were always on hand to strengthen the arm of the customs officers or blockademen.

Perhaps because of the deterrent effect of so many representatives of the forces of law and order, accounts of smuggling in Dover itself are few and far between. However, the Aldington gang are known to have used the beach here, and what started as a routine landing of contraband for the gang in 1826 ended in disaster. Two blockade men were on patrol among the bathing machines which then lined the beach when they spotted the attempted landing. One of the pair, Richard Morgan, was a brave officer who had killed a smuggler the previous December (you can still see the man's grave at Dymchurch). Morganfired a shot to summon help, and the smugglers returned fire, killing Morgan and injuring his colleague.

With the killers still at large, the dead blockademan was buried in St Martin's churchyard, but the incident sparked off a concerted attempt to round up the gang and bring them to justice. A £500 reward was offered for the arrest of George Ransley and the rest of the gang he led. One smuggler turned King's evidence, and the whole group were eventually rounded up and tried for a variety of offences: Richard Wire was charged with pulling the trigger. Though convicted, they narrowly escaped the gallows and were transported to Tasmania the following year.

Morgan's killers didn't hesitate to use violence when their livelihood was threatened, and armed clashes were becoming increasingly common at the time of his death. However, this doesn't seem to have isolated the smugglers from the local community, since the reward failed to elicit any information about the crime. The impression of solidarity is reinforced by another incident just six years before when the population had turned out in force to free a group of smugglers imprisoned in the town gaol. A revenue officer called Billy 'Hellfire' Lilburn had caught eleven Folkestone and Sandgate smugglers on a run, and had them locked up in Dover gaol. Word soon got around, and the prisoners' fellows raised a huge mob which quickly broke down the door of the gaol. When it was discovered that the captured smugglers had been moved to the most secure cells, the mob started to literally pull the prison apart, pelting the troops that had by now been called in with a hail of stones and tiles. The mayor of Dover arrived, but when he attempted to read the riot act, he was set upon, and gave up. By this time, Hellfire Lilburn himself had appeared, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the commanding officer (reputedly 'Flogging Joe' McCullock, the founder and mentor of the Blockade) to fire on the crowd.

Eventually the smugglers were released, and made good their escape in hired horse-drawn carriages — the fore-runners of today's taxis! They stopped at the Red Cow to have the conspicuous and unwieldy chains removed from their hands; meanwhile outside the mob continued to rampage through the town, smashing windows.

The gaol was damaged beyond repair and a new one had to be constructed. The whole event was commemorated in a folk-song:

We smuggling boys are merry boys
Sometimes here and sometimes there
No rent nor taxes do we pay,
But a man of war is all our fear.

'Twas on the 21 st of May,
As you will understand,
We sailed out of Boulogne Bay,
Bound for the English land.

But to our sad misfortune,
And to our great surprise,
We were chased by two galleys,
Belonging to the excise.

Oh then my boys for liberty,
Was the cry of one and all,
But soon they overpowered us,
With powder and with ball.

They dragged us up to Dover Gaol,
In irons bound like thieves,
All for to serve great George our King,
and force us to the seas.

The wives for their husbands
Were in such sad distress,
For children round the gaol
Were crying fatherless.

And sure the sight was shocking
For any one to see,
But still the cry came from the mob,
For death or liberty.

Oh then a hole all in the wall,
Was everybody's cry.
And Lillburn and McCullock's men
were soon obliged to fly.

For bricks and tiles flew so fast,
From every point you see,
And these poor men from Dover gaol,
They gained their liberty.

And now they've gained their liberty
The long wide world to range,
Long life to the Dover women,
Likewise to the Folkestone men. [24]

You can read more about
Sandgate smugglers here


TR2235 14m E of Ashford (map 179/189) red map button

Local customs authorities here were quite clear about the allegiances of the Folkestone people. One commented...

'As most of the Inhabitants of Folkestone, Sandgate and Hythe are in the confidence of the smugglers, no information can be expected of them.'

Coloured engraving of Folkestone harbour in 1836, from Finden's Ports and Harbours of GB
Folkestone harbour in the 1830s. Click picture to see a bigger image

In the 17th century the headquarters of the smugglers in the area was The Warren, just east of the town. Four secret passages led from a house here into a nearby wood, and the premises were considered such a problem that in 1698 the government bought the lease to the house [25]. The smugglers commonly brought goods ashore at East Wear Bay, then moved them up up to the Warren, and on to the Valiant Sailor Inn nearby for onward distribution and local sale [26].

Watercolour painting of Folkestone Warren by Ernest W Haslehust
Folkestone Warren was the headquarters of local smugglers. Watercolour by Ernest W Haslehust. Click picture to see a bigger image

The area was still frequented by free-traders in the 19th century: one story tells of the interrupted sleep of a couple from the Warren who were roused when a gang of smugglers burst into their home searching for a place to hide part of a cargo of gold. They chose the four-poster bed, concealed the goods, and took their leave, urging these law-abiding (and yawning) citizens to say nothing about the visit. Soon afterwards the customs authorities arrived, and searched the house, fruitlessly. Finally the smugglers returned to collect their goods, and offered the couple a payment for the inconvenience. This was haughtily declined.

An incident that took place at West pier in 1820 gives some indication of the popular support that local smugglers enjoyed. A Blockade man caught a smuggler red-handed, and marched him and the incriminating evidence — a tub of spirits — to a nearby watchhouse. However, before the Blockade man, one John Kelty, had the opportunity to take his prisoner to more secure accommodation in Dover, a mob armed with clubs, rocks and pistols closed in; they freed the smuggler and injured a blockade man.


Aldington is 6m W of Hythe (map 179/189). Leave the A20 at Smeeth, and turn down the B2069 (signposted to Aldington). On reaching Aldington turn R at a T junction. The Walnut Tree TR063366 red map button is a short way down on the left. To reach the Bourne Tap, take a left turn at the pub (B2069) then take the first on the right. At the T junction turn L, then follow the road as it veers round to the right, then to the left. At the next T junction turn right (signpost Mersham), down a hill then up the other side — the Bourne Tap TR046365 red map button is near the brow of the hill on the left.

The story of smuggling in east Kent in the 1820s is largely dominated by the activities of a gang based in Aldington, who worked the stretch of coast between Deal and Rye. They were nicknamed 'the Blues' — supposedly because they wore blue smocks to work — though the customs authorities simply named them after the parish in which some members lived.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that every member of the Blues was from Aldington. The gang could with ease turn out hundreds of workers to unload a cargo, and to supply this amount of labour would probably have meant enlisting the help of half the parish. Rather the nucleus of the group came from Aldington, and they picked up help from a much broader area of the county.

Early reports of the gang's activities find them rowing from Boulogne to Sandgate, with a cargo of tobacco, spirits and salt. On arrival, the waiting land party of 250 or so formed the customary corridor of armed men running about forty yards inland from the galley; protected by this cordon, the contraband was moved quickly and relatively safely away. This operation was noted in detail by the preventive forces who sustained several casualties, so it's fair to assume that the group had been operating on a smaller scale, or undetected, for some time prior to the 1820 report.

This run took place in late autumn, and the company didn't come to the attention of the authorities again until the following February. When they did, it was in a dramatic and especially violent way. A blockade patrol spotted the gang at Camber Sands, and within a short time a running battle had started, as the smugglers retreated across Walland Marsh towards Brookland, firing repeatedly at the blockademen. The confrontation was bloody and bitter, leaving four smugglers and one blockademan dead, and many injured.

Two of the Blues were caught in the 'Battle of Brookland', as it came to be known. According to some accounts the smugglers' leader, Cephas Quested, was found after the battle lying dead drunk on his back in the marsh. When his case came to court, one piece of evidence against him was particularly damning, and probably sealed his fate on the gallows: in the thick of the battle, he mistook a blockademan for a smuggler, and handed him a pistol, suggesting that the man should 'blow an officer's brains out'. The other man arrested claimed to have been an innocent bystander, and attributed the gunpowder stains on his skin to a rook-shooting trip. The gullible (or terrified) jury believed this alibi and acquitted him.

The trial was a setback for the gang, and further reports of their activities don't appear for another five years. By this time, George Ransley had assumed the mantle of leadership. The Ransley family hailed from Ruckinge, and were originally farmers, though George Ransley apparently gave up the plough for smuggling when he accidentally stumbled on a hidden cargo of spirits. The proceeds from the sale paid for his house at Aldington, the Bourne Tap, and capitalized his ventures into smuggling. Other legends that surround the family and the activities of the gang contain the usual mixture of truth, exaggeration and simple fiction, but what doesn't seem to have been exaggerated is the violent nature of the gang's activities, and the viciousness of some of the batsmen that protected the cargo. George Ransley's second-in-command was his father-in-law, who was reputedly always armed with a threshing flail — a vicious instrument when used to crush skulls instead of corn husks. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Blues forced cooperation from the more unwilling of the local farmers.

Ransley organized his business methodically and professionally. He retained a surgeon, Dr Ralph Papworth Hougham, to attend to wounded smugglers; his solicitors in Ashford, Langham and Platt (no relation to the author), defended him in court just as they would the most respectable banker; and because Ransley took care of the families of those unfortunate to die on active duty, he seemed able to command considerable commitment from those he led.

Photograph of Ransley memorial
The Ransley memorial in the churchyard of St. Johns Evangelist Church, Plenty, Tasmania. Photo courtesy of Gaye Farmer.

At Aldington, the gang used the Walnut Tree as their headquarters, but George Ransley also made a considerable profit by selling smuggled liquor from the Bourne Tap. The house was notorious not only for drunkenness, but also for the scenes of unbridled sexual license that took place on the premises. Local legend has it that George Ransley did not himself take part, but sat sober outside the house during these orgies.

Ransley's long and distinguished career in the service of free-trade finally ended here at his home one stormy night in 1826. The gang had been running wild locally, terrorizing the neighbourhood, and generally making themselves unpopular. The killing of Richard Morgan on Dover beach had lost them considerable support, and the preventive authorities finally grasped the nettle and took on the gang. A party of blockade men aided by a couple of Bow Street runners encircled the house, cutting the throats of the guard-dogs. George Ransley was in bed when the doors were smashed down, and was taken to Newgate prison to await trial, the local gaols being considered too insecure for such a big fish in the smuggling world. Seven more of Ransley's gang were taken in a simultaneous swoop, and another 11 were arrested soon afterwards. At their trial a form of plea-bargaining seems to have secured the lives of the gang; though all were sentenced to death, the punishment was reduced to transportation. George Ransley thrived in Australia, and though some tales suggest that he sneaked back as an old man to die in England, his great-great-great grand-daughter, Gaye Farmer, has evidence that this is not the case. She writes that "...he died in Tasmania and we have burial records showing the church cemetery where he and his wife Elizabeth are buried, George was buried on 29th October 1856 and Elizabeth on 1st. January 1859."

George Ransley's burial record appears near the bottom of this parish register from St. Johns Evangelist Church, Plenty, Tasmania. I am grateful to Gaye Farmer for sending me this, and for her diligent sleuthing while tracking this down in the archives.


TR025335 2m E of Ham Street (map 189) red map button.

The Ransley family graveboard can be seen in the graveyard behind the church of St Mary Magdalene here [27]. Walk round the back of the church — the board is on the SW side. William and James Ransley, who were hanged in August 1800 for highway robbery, are buried here.

[21] Fanny Burney

[22] Author's additions and amplifications in square brackets

[23] Morning Post, October 31 1781 quoted by Douch, 1985

[24] Hufton & Baird, 1983

[25] Williams, 1959

[26] Waugh, 1985

[27] Church brochure