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Table tomb at Herstmonceux churchyard
Table tombs in Herstmonceux churchyards hid contraband. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England

HAUNTS OF THE EAST SUSSEX GANGS

The smuggling beaches of east Sussex were largely controlled by highly-organized gangs: the Hawkhurst Gang was the most notorious. These "smuggling companies" were frequently based in coastal hamlets, but were as likely to conduct their business operations from an inland centre on the route to the main market in London. The core of gang members would thus not have been seamen, and farmed out the channel crossing to others — often local fishermen — or to French ships. As landsmen, the gang's talents lay in raising capital and arranging distribution.

Table tomb at Herstmonceux churchyard
Jack Matthew's illustration of the Hawkhurst Gang's brutality leaves little to the imagination. Click picture to enlarge

The Hawkhurst Gang

TQ7630 12m NW of Rye (map 199/188). red map button The Oak and Ivy inn is about half a mile outside the Hawkhurst village on the A268 to Rye. Seacox Heath is on the Flimwell Road at TQ 730308 red map button

Much of the contraband entering the country across the sand and shingle coasts of Romney Marsh was shipped on packhorses to London, soon passing through the sleepy hamlet of Hawkhurst ten miles or so inland. In the 1730s this collection of scattered farms and houses was the headquarters of the most notorious gang in the history of English smuggling.

The Hawkhurst gang probably don't hold any special records: other gangs were longer-lived; a few could probably muster as many tub-carriers and batsmen on the beach; and it's likely that individuals in other smuggling gangs were equally violent. However, the Hawkhurst gang had the questionable benefit of especially good (or bad) public relations. The account of the trial of two of the gang members for the torture and murder of two men in 1748 makes grisly reading, and almost certainly played a major part in turning the tide of public opinion against the smugglers.

The Hawkhurst gang formed as a separate entity in the mid-1730s. An isolated reference to the gang appeared in 1735, and within five years the company had been consolidated into the powerful fighting force that was to dominate Kentish smuggling for the next decade.

In 1740 the gang ambushed a group of customs officers at Robertsbridge, and recovered a cargo of contraband tea that had been seized in a barn at Etchingham. The gang soon escalated their operations, and perhaps because of the sheer scale of the landings, they cooperated with other local smugglers. However, these joint ventures were somewhat unequal partnerships, and it was always clear who was in command. When the Hawkhurst and Wingham gangs joined forces in 1746 to unload 11½ tons(!) of tea, an uneasy alliance evidently turned to open warfare. The Wingham men tried to leave the landing site at Sandwich Bay prematurely, and were set upon by their collaborators. After a sword-fight in which seven of the Wingham men were injured, the Hawkhurst gang left the scene taking with them 40 horses belonging to the other gang.

In Hawkhurst village, the gang operated from the Oak and Ivy Inn, but various prominent members owned property in the area that was extensively used — or even purpose-built — for smuggling activity. Highgate House used to be a hiding place for contraband; Hawkhurst Place was said to have had a tunnel linking it to Island Pond; and Tudor Hall was supposedly linked by another tunnel to the Home Farm on the Tonges Estate. Tubs Lake and Smuggley were staging posts for contraband coming up from the coast. However, the most imposing monument to the profits to be made from smuggling was probably the mansion built by the gang's financier Arthur Gray at Seacox Heath (the smugglers were known locally as 'Seacocks'). The mansion, nicknamed 'Gray's Folly', incorporated various hiding holes for smuggled goods and even a bonded store. Unfortunately the grand mansion has been demolished but Seacox Heath still remains.

By the late 1840s, the Hawkhurst gang had developed unprecedented power, and boasted that it could assemble 500 men in the space of a couple of hours. In the absence of any effective policing, this disreputable group soon became a law unto themselves, taking without payment whatever they wished from the local farmers and merchants, and answering tolerance and patience with aggression and insult. Their activities did not go entirely unresisted, though. The most spectacular instance of rebellion by the much-abused Men of Kent came in 1747, with a showdown at Goudhurst (see below).

The gang suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the citizens of Goudhurst, but the battle proved to be only a temporary setback, and Hawkhurst men continued to operate in the area albeit with a lower profile. The final break-up came at the end of the 1740s, with the execution of the gang’s leaders, Arthur Gray (1748) and Thomas Kingsmill (1749). You can read the account of Gray's trial by clicking here, and that of Kingsmill here.

Photograph of the Star and Eagle pub sign at Goudhurst
The Hawkhurst gang drank in the Star & Eagle pub. Click picture to enlarge

Goudhurst

4m NW of Cranbrook TQ7237 (map 188). red map button The Star and Eagle still sits cheek-by-jowl with the church at the top of the village. Spyways is a short distance down the hill on the same side of the road — a stout oak door up a few steps reminds the visitor that the house once served as the village jail. The battle took place at the top of the village, along the road leading in from Hawkhurst. Since Goudhurst is so picturesque, it attracts crowds on summer weekends. Park outside the village if possible.

By 1747 the Hawkhurst gang had extended their sphere of influence to include this pleasant village, where the gang used 'Spyways' on the main street, and the Star and Eagle Inn near the church. The unfortunate citizens of Goudhurst were, it seems, able to do little but comply when the Hawkhurst gang demanded horses, help or just money.

Illustration of villagers defending Goudhurst against smuggling gang Eventually, though, the villagers rebelled, and organized a vigilante group to defend themselves from their unpopular neighbours. In April they formed the Goudhurst Band of Militia, an armed self-defense group led by a recently-discharged soldier. Despite attempts to conceal these plans, news of the Goudhurst group reached Hawkhurst, and the leader of the gang vowed to sack the village of Goudhurst and murder all the inhabitants. With extraordinary arrogance, the gang leader Thomas Kingsmill even made an appointment — April 20th.

When the Hawkhurst men appeared, stripped to the waist and armed to the teeth, Goudhurst was ready. GPR James gives a dramatized account of the battle in his novel The Smuggler. He describes how the villagers united, and prepared to defend themselves with ancient (and inaccurate) fowling pieces. On the day of the battle the women and children were sent to the next village, while the men gathered on the porch of the church, and cast bullets in the churchyard. The battle was short-lived: it's clear that the smugglers expected little resistance from the village, and turned tail when they suffered a few casualties.

Photograph of a pistol used by the Hawkhurst gang
This pistol was taken from one of the Hawkhurst gang after their abortive attack on Goudhurst. Ominously, the gun has four notches on the barrel, which you can see by clicking on the picture to enlarge it. The gun, and two other weapons, are in the collection of the Maidstone Museum. My thanks to curator Giles Guthrie for letting me photograph these guns.

Robertsbridge

TQ7323 5m N of Battle (map 199) red map button

This village was the scene of a bloody battle involving members of the Hawkhurst gang. One of the gang (nicknamed 'Trip') discovered that 15cwt of tea which had been seized earlier was on its way back to Hastings under guard, and rode around the neighbourhood drumming up support for a rescue attempt. About 30 smugglers assembled, fortifying themselves with a drink and an oath before ambushing the wagon-load of tea on the steep hill at Robertsbridge. In the battle for the tea a customs officer was shot dead, and the party of dragoons taken captive — one of them was seriously injured.

The choice of Robertsbridge as a point of ambush was a shrewd one, since the hill there was notorious, and the town equally well-known for its smuggling inhabitants, as Horace Walpole wryly observed:

...we got up, or down, I forget which, a famous precipice called Silverhill, and about ten at night arrived at a wretched village called Robertsbridge...But alas! there was only one bed to be had; all the rest were inhabited by smugglers, whom the people of the house called mountebanks ... We did not take at all to this society, but, armed with links [28] and lanthorns, set out again on this impracticable journey. At two O'clock in the morning we got hither to a still worse inn, and that crammed with excise officers, one of whom had just shot a smuggler.

Engraving of Fairlight Down and Hastings
The Mayfield Gang landed their goods on the coast below Fairlight Down. Hastings is visible in the distance. Click picture to enlarge

Mayfield

TQ5826 8m S of Tunbridge Wells (map 199). red map button Take the A267 into Mayfield from Tunbridge Wells; on entering the village the road veers sharp right into the High Street, but instead turn left down Fletching street to find the locations described below.

The village of Mayfield was the base for a powerful company that flourished for a few years in the early part of the 18th century. The group was led by Gabriel Tomkins (who later turned from poacher to gamekeeper). They landed contraband along the length of the Sussex coastline, and into Kent. Favourite haunts included Lydd, Fairlight, Hastings, Eastbourne, Seaford and Goring.

Tomkins was suspected of the murder of a Riding officer in 1717, and his fellow gang members were scarcely less desperate. When two of their number were captured at Dungeness and imprisoned at Lydd, the Mayfield smugglers charged up the stairs firing their pistols and released the pair. Tomkins himself was wounded in this affray.

Such extreme measures weren't always needed. Faced with opposition on the beaches where they landed goods, the Mayfield gang preferred simply to restrain the customs men, rather than beating them senseless. Gabriel Tomkins' half brother was at one point wanted for tieing up a customs officer on Seaford beach during a run, and on another occasion the gang did the same to a preventive on Goring beach, throwing him into a ditch for good measure.

The gang were slippery customers, and narrowly evaded conviction several times. Sensibly they'd resist arrest when possible, but even if detained the group had an handful of aces up their sleeves. Frequently they won the sympathy of the local magistrate, who dismissed the case and sometimes even ordered the imprisonment or flogging of the arresting officer. And behind bars the Mayfield men found ways of securing their freedom — they often bribed the gaolers, or were rescued from the prison cells by their contemporaries.

Gabriel Tomkins was first brought to justice in 1721, when he was captured at Nutley after a chase from Burwash. Though he bribed his gaoler and escaped he was caught again and stood trial in London. On conviction he was sentenced to transportation, but provided the authorities with so much useful information that they freed him — only to re-arrest him three years later, and again in 1729. This time, he gave evidence to an inquiry into corruption in the customs service, and clearly made a great impression on his captors. Far for being punished for his claims to have smuggled 11 tons of tea and coffee in a year, Tomkins was rewarded with the post of riding officer, and within 6 years had risen to a high rank in the customs service.

However, old habits die hard, and Tomkins slipped quietly out of his job in 1741 to resume activities on the wrong side of the law. In 1746 he robbed the Chester Mail, and the following year helped the Hawkhurst gang in a robbery at Selbourne. It was the mail robbery that proved to be his undoing — Tomkins' long and chequered career ended on the gallows in 1750.

There are still a few reminders of smuggling days in Mayfield, though none that can definitely be connected with the gang. A little way down Fletching Street on the left there is a curious tall house built like a layer cake — masonry at the bottom, then half-timber and brick, then clapper-board, and tiles on up to the roof. This building was cleverly equipped with two cellars in order to fool the excisemen. Stop at the Carpenter's Arms and walk down the side road facing the pub. Smugglers' Lane, an overgrown footpath leading downhill on the left just before a white clapper-board house, was a regular trade route for taking goods inland.

Groombridge

TQ5337 4m W of Tunbridge Wells (map 188) red map button

The Groombridge gang rose to prominence in the 1730s, landing contraband at Lydd, Fairlight, Bulverhythe and Pevensey. Like other gangs, this team reveled in nicknames; Flushing Jack, Bulverhythe Tom, Towzer, Old Joll, Toll, The Miller, Yorkshire George, and Nasty Face all humped kegs and bales off the beaches or stood guard. These names weren't just familiarities — they hid the identities of the people involved.

Official records first feature the Groombridge men in 1733. 30 of them were ferrying tea inland from Romney Marsh via Iden in a convoy of 50 horses when three preventive men, two dragoons and a foot soldier made the mistake of challenging the convoy at Stonecrouch. For their interest the customs men were disarmed, and their guns made useless; they were then marched at gun-point for four hours to Groombridge, and on to Lamberhurst, where their weapons were returned to them after they had promised not to renew the pursuit.

By 1737 the gang were said to be terrorizing the area, and the military were sent to Groombridge to restore order. In the same year an informer who signed himself simply 'Goring' provided a detailed insight into the gang's activities, referring directly to an armed clash at Bulverhythe [29]:

This is the seventh time Morten's people have workt this winter, and have not lost anything but one half-hundred [weight] of tea they gave to a Dragoon and one officer they met with the first [run] of this winter.
...When once the Smuglers are drove from home they will soonall be taken. Note, that some say it was [Thomas] Gurr that fired first. You must well secure Cat or else your Honours will lose the man; the best way will be to send for him up to London [for trial] for he knows the whole Company, and hath been Moreton's servant two years. There were several young Chaps with the smuglers who, when taken, will soon discover [identify] the whole Company. The number was twenty-six men. Mack's horses, Moreton's and Hoak's were killed, and they lost not half their goods. They have sent for more goods, and twenty-nine horses set out from Groombridge this day...all the men well-armed with long guns.
...I will send your Honours the Places where [you] will intercept the Smuglers as they go to Market with their goods, but it must be done by soldiers, for they go stronger now than ever.
...The first [run] of this winter, the Groombridge Smuglers were forced to carry their goods allmost all up to Rushmore Hill and Cester [Keston] Mark...but tea sells quick in London now, and Chaps from London come down to Groombridge almost everyday, as they used to last Winter. When once [the smugglers] come to be drove from home, they will be put to great inconveniences, when they are from their friends and will lose more Goods than they do now...Do but take up some of the servants, and they will rout the masters, for the servants are all poor...
Young [John] Bowra's house cost £500 building, and he will pay for looking up. Moreton and Bowra sold, last winter, some-ways, about 3,000 lb weight a week.

In 1740 the Groombridge gang were implicated in the attack at Robertsbridge on the customs men carrying seized tea to Hastings, and they continued to operate up to the end of the decade, when an informer provided information that led to the round up and subsequent trial of the majority of the gang's leading lights.

Engraving of Herstmonceux
Smugglers used the ruins of Hersmonceux Castle, and may have been responsible for spreading legends of ghosts, which discouraged local people from taking too close an interest in their activities. Click picture to enlarge

Hooe and area

Hooe is at TQ6809 red map button 4m NE of Hailsham. Boreham Street (TQ6611) is on the A271 Bexhill Road Red map button The Smuggler's Wheel restaurant is in the middle of the village on the main road. Herstmonceux church is close to the castle and observatory, about 1½ miles south of the A271 on Chapel Row Red map button (map 199)

The informer who painted such a detailed picture of the Groombridge company's efforts also pointed the finger at a smuggling company from Hooe, nearer the coast, and though we know little about this group, it's clear that the two gangs cooperated in landing goods on the Sussex coast. In Hooe village the Red Lion Inn was the gang's headquarters. The lime trees that still stand outside signify — like the ship fresco in Snargate church — that this was a safe haven for smugglers.

Numerous places close to Hooe are known to have been used for concealing contraband, so perhaps the the gang was among those who used the ghostly reputation of Herstmonceux churchyard to deter visitors while they stored goods in the table-tombs there. At Boreham Street, closer still to Hooe village, you can still see a shaft and winch that smugglers used to lower goods down into a cellar. The house is now a restaurant that takes its name from the winch wheel, and in the restaurant garden there are the remains of a tunnel leading away from cellar.

Crowlink and Birling Gap

Leave the A259 In East Dean. red map button There is a NT car park, and walks to the sea. (TQ554960 map 199) red map button

Two centuries of erosion have changed the shape of the Sussex coast, creating cliffs where once there was Britain's most famous cart gap. Crowlink, as it was called, provided easy access to the sea, and the east Sussex gangs from Alfriston, Jevington and farther inland took full advantage of the spot to haul contraband from their beached ships. The gap gave its name to the illicit gin that entered England here: 'Genuine Crowlink' was a guarantee of a good drink. During a period when illegally imported goods could be legally sold over the bar, some landlords even chalked this slogan on the gin barrels.

Alfriston

TQ5203 5 miles NE of Seaford. red map button Approach along the B2108 from Seaford. The pub is in the centre of the village. Parking is restricted; avoid the village at popular tourist times (map 199).

Market Cross House (now Ye Olde Smugglers Inn) in the centre of Alfriston was the headquarters of one of the lesser East Sussex gangs. Though the house was standing well before the 18th century, it lent itself admirably to the gang's purposes, since it had at one time 21 rooms, six staircases and 48 doors: the maze of passageways and doors made escape easier in the event of an unwelcome caller, and tunnels reputedly led away from the house to nearby buildings and off to Wilmington.

The leader of the gang, Stanton Collins, seems to have used the house to great advantage, since the gang were singularly successful at eluding the customs authorities...

'For years they defied the law, and although many outrages committed at the time were attributed to them, they plied their trade with so much caution that no real evidence could be brought against them. No doubt this was in a measure owing to the connivance of the inhabitants [of Alfriston]...'

One of the 'outrages' referred to was the death of a patrolling customs man at Cuckmere Haven. Fearing that his attentions would interfere with their landing, the gang moved the lumps of white chalk that the officer used as way-markers for his moonlight sorties along the cliff-edge. Instead of leading him safely along the coast path, the stones lured the poor man over the parapet. Hearing his cries as he tumbled from the precipice, the gang emerged from hiding, only to find the man desperately hanging by his fingertips. Deaf to pleas for mercy, one of the gang cynically trod on their adversary's finger-tips, sending him tumbling to the rocks below. [30]

The break-up of the gang came only when their leader was transported for seven years for stealing sheep. [31]

Jevington [32]

TQ5601, about 5 miles NE of Eastbourne on the B2105 (map 199) red map button . Thorpe cottage is almost opposite the pub in the centre of Jevington; it is now renamed King's Farthing. The Rectory is a little way south of the Eight Bells. Filching Manor (TQ569030) red map button is a beautiful and ancient building about 1¼ miles north of the village. Birling Gap, where the Jevington smugglers landed their goods, has suffered from coastal erosion, and the beach is now approached down a flight of stairs. The gap is at a bend in the minor road leading from Eastdean to Beachy Head (TV554960). red map button There is a large car-park and a cafe.

The Jevington smugglers used Crowlink, and additionally landed goods at Birling Gap. They were led by James Petit or Jevington Jig who, like Gabriel Tomkins of Mayfield, tried his hand at many occupations. His regular trade was as innkeeper at Jevington, but smuggling came a close second, and he also turned to horse stealing and various other petty crimes. Again like Tomkins, Jevington Jig turned his coat at various stages in his career: he acted as an informer (for which treachery he nearly paid with his life when chased by a mob at Lewes) and cooperated with customs officers in 1792 in the seizure of a haul of tobacco.

Jevington Jig probably regarded collaboration as a last resort: he was certainly nothing if not resourceful in avoiding this undesirable option. On one occasion he disguised himself in women's clothing and rushed in theatrical hysterics from his inn when it was encircled by the authorities. Only his heavy boots, which showed beneath the petticoats, gave the game away.

The Jevington gang left their mark on the buildings in the village: there was once a tunnel linking the Eight Bells to Thorpe Cottage, and to the nearby church; tombs in the churchyard were reputedly once used to store contraband. Filching Manor has a subterranean passage leading away from its cellars, and a concealed cupboard in what is now the drawing room. Jevington Rectory also had large cellars that formed a convenient storage spot.


[28] A lantern-carry bodyguard

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

[30] Piper, 1970

[31] Padgen, 1948

[32] My thanks to Mr Foulkes-Halbard of Filching Manor for permitting me to photograph his splendid house.