Amongst those watching was Daniel Chater, a shoemaker and old friend of John Dimer, one of the smugglers, who was greeted enthusiastically and given a bag of tea. Chater was so proud to be associated with the gang that he made no secret of his encounter, and over the next few weeks word of the gift reached the ears of the customs officers in Poole. Chater was arrested and encouraged to swear that he had seen John Dimer armed and carrying tea.
Dimer was arrested in his turn and Chater was asked to travel to East Marden, near Chichester, to identify him, with the promise now of a large reward once Diner was convicted.
Chater set out in the company of William Galley, an employee of the customs service at Southampton. Neither was armed. Stopping for refreshment at an inn, they boasted of their mission and said that they carried a letter explaining the details of the visit. They were sadly unaware that Dimer was a local man. Within a short time, a group of smugglers had arrived, anxious to see the contents of the letter. They plied the two unsuspecting men with strong drink until they both fell asleep. Once the contents of the letter were known, there was much discussion. It was eventually decided that Chater and Galley should be hanged.
From this time on the two men were thoroughly ill treated. They were tied together and set on a horse's back with their feet bound below the horse's belly. They were whipped unmercifully and after much suffering over many hours, William Galley died. Daniel Chater was to survive for several more days, finally meeting his end at the bottom of a well bombarded by logs and stones.
These murders, together with that of a man unjustly accused by members of the Hawkhurst Gang of stealing two bags of a hidden cache of tea, served to rouse the authorities. In January 1749 it was proclaimed that a pardon would be given, even to an outlawed smuggler, for information about any of the offenders, and this led eventually to the capture and execution of the leading members of the Hawkhurst Gang.
Another, even more dangerous and successful gang was also based on the edge of Romney Marsh, at Aldington, between Ashford and Hythe. This gang worked the coast between Dover and Rye during the 1820s. The Aldington Gang was also known as the 'Blues; perhaps from their blue clothing or from blue flares used for signalling.
The leader of this gang was George Ransley, a strong and cleverman from a family not unfamiliar with crime. Two cousins, James and William, known as the 'Roaring Ransleys', were also involved in smuggling, but met their deathson the gallows at Penenden Heath in 1800 for highway robbery. George took pleasure in organising large numbers of men in an efficient military manner. The gang could unload a cargo at great speed, protected by a half?circle of batmen armed with muskets, who would then defend the rear of the column of tubcarriers and pack?horses carrying the cargo across the marsh. Any badly injured smuggler was carried to safety and well looked after. Ransley employed a doctor, and an allowance was paid to the man's family while he was ill. This policy avoided the capture of injured men by the revenue forces and helped to ensure loyalty.
George Ransley's official occupation was farming, but he also secretly sold smuggled liquor at his cottage, which was known as the 'Bourne Tap'. Huge profits were made at this blind pig.
The first recorded confrontation between theBlues and blockade officers was in November 1820. A galley laden with spirits, tobacco and salt had been rowed across the Channel from Boulogne and pulled up onto the shingle beach at Sandgate. Three groups of smugglers had gathered; one to unload and transport the cargo and two to protect the first. A total of 250 men were involved. Two members of the blockade force shouted a challenge and were attacked and badly wounded. Two other blockade men were attracted by the sounds of fighting and rushed into the fray. One was captured and held prisoner, but the other fired into the crowd and bravely wielded his cutlass, despite being wounded in the leg. By this time the contraband was safely ashore and the smugglers made off. The captured man was released the next day.
In February 1821 a group of blockade men came across 200 or more smugglers at Camber Sands. The gang managed to unload their goods, but were chased by the blockade force across the marsh to Brookland. Five men died in the intense fighting at the 'Battle of Brookland' and more than twenty were wounded. Two smugglers were captured. One, Richard Wraight, claimed that he had only got involved by accident and was acquitted. The second, Cephas Quested, who may have been an early leader of the Blues, had approached a midshipman during the fight, mistaking him for a member of the gang, and handed him a musket, telling him to 'blow an officer's brains out'. The midshipman took the musket and turned it on Quested, arresting him. Cephas Quested was found guilty and hanged on 4 July 1821, having refused to betray his colleagues by turning King's evidence.
The Aldington Gang frequently visited an Augustinian priory at Bilsington, which was then in use as a farmhouse. Smuggled goods were stored there, and soon stories began to circulate about ghostly presences. A severed head was supposed to float in mid?air down the staircase. The stories served well to keep away curious villagers.
The Blues continued successfully for several years, dealing, sometimes brutally, with any blockade of""' who attempted to interrupt their business. One officer who was blindfolded and had his legs bound was told he was to be thrown over a cliff. He managed to cling on to tufts of grass as he fell and hung with hi: legs dangling for some time. It was not until his blindfold slipped that he realised his feet were a matter of inches above the ground. The'cliff' was only seven feet (2 m) high.
The gang exerted such influence over south Kent that some members strayed from the more publically acceptable crime of smuggling and began to break into local houses and to commit robberies quite blatantly. Some would fire casual shots at cattle on their way home from a smuggling run. Successful smuggling depended on the loyalty of the local community and the Blues soon began to lose the support of their neighbours.
On 30 July 1826, two blockade men saw a boat in the surf off Dover beach. The quartermaster, Richard Morgan, fired a warning shot which was met by several answering shots from the smugglers. Morgan was killed and the seaman with him wounded. Richard Morgan was much respected in the community and sincerely mourned, and his death proved to be the downfall of the Blues. A large reward was offered and claimed by several informers. As a result, one night in October, a grout of blockade men, together with two Bow Street Runners, marched to Aldington. The watchdogs at the Bourne Tap were swiftly dispatched and the force entered the cottage, capturing George Ransley in his nightshirt. Seven others were taken that night and within a few weeks the total arrested was nineteen.
At the trial at Maidstone Assizes in January 1827, the men were accused of various offences, all punishable by death, and found guilty. Their shrewd counsel, a local lawyer, managed to ensure that the punishment was commuted to transportation. In Tasmania Ransley's knowledge of farming proved invaluable. As a reward for good behaviour, his wife and nine children were allowed to join him. In due course he was granted a pardon and rented his own farm. George Ransley is said to have lived peacefully on into his eighties.
The end of the Blues signalled the decline of large scale smuggling in east Kent. The men of the blockade were beginning to win the battle.
In the early nineteenth century the vicar of Warehorne and Snargate, the Reverend Richard Harris Barham, retold the Thanet story of the death of a customs officer in the Ingoldsby Legends. Barham appears to have been associated with the Aldington Gang, whom he often met on late homeward journeys across the marshes. After being challenged and giving his name, he was allowed to pass, upon which a string of laden smugglers would appear. Barham frequently noticed a strong aroma of tobacco in the church tower at Snargate, and maintained that he could find the church in the dark by its smell.
Dymchurch, the scene of many landings of contraband, was used by Russell Thorndyke in his stories, based on the exploits of the Aldington Gang, about the adventures of Doctor Syn. Supposedly the parson at Dymchurch, Doctor Syn was also known as the `Scarecrow', and the stories of the devil riders of the 'Scarecrow's Legion portray them with all the ruthlessness and ingenuity of the real smugglers.
The Ship Inn, which is mentioned in the Doctor Syn stories, was actually the haunt of smugglers, as well as being the meetingplace for the local coroner's court. During renovation, a secret hiding?place was found in the chimney breast with a store of smuggled spirits still inside.
In 1734 smuggling at Dymchurch was so prevalent that extra riding officers had to be called in. The gangs quickly changed their landing?spot to Lydd, a few miles further south.
The ruined church of Hope All Saints, near Dymchurch, was a convenient secret meetingplace for smugglers, until one day a preventive officer hid there and overheard their plans.
In 1787 an attempt to revive the owling trade was made and a number of men were imprisoned for trying to ship live sheep from Dymchurch to France.
In the 1820s a martello tower at Dymchurchwas used as one of the coastal blockade stations.
Hythe, another of the Cinque Ports, is close to Dymchurch, and the Red Lion, a coaching inn, is mentioned in the Doctor Syn stories. The Bell, probably the oldest inn in the town, has a tunnel in the cellar. In smuggling times, a mill stream which ran under the inn proved useful for floating in tubs of liquor, which were then stored on hooks in the ceiling.
The churchyard of St Leonard's in Hythe contains the grave of Edward Lakin, the inventor of the lifeboat. It is said that the coxswain of the fast lifeboat was tempted to make use of early trials of the boat by carrying a little contraband aboard. Unfortunately the goods were discovered and the lifeboat was destroyed. Hythe smugglers would use St Leonard's Church to store contraband before transporting the goods to Canterbury for sale. The large collection of skulls and thighbones in the crypt served to keep inquisitive people away from the area of the church at night, when the smuggling runs took place.
The town of Hastings was the head port of the Cinque Ports in medieval times. Although situated in Sussex, Hastings was a favourite haunt of Kent smugglers, as was Rye, another Sussex port. Hastings men built and manned some of the larger smuggling vessels. The harbour at Hastings itself had silted up, but there were several smuggling beaches nearby, and a network of roads led inland. The Bo Peep alehouse, a few miles to the west of Hastings was much frequented by smugglers.
The Surveyor General of Riding Officers from 1735-50, John Collier, was based in Hastings. It was from here that he organised the revenue officers' efforts against the violent smuggling gangs of the thirties and forties. Collier left some 2,000 letters describing smuggling activities in Kent and Sussex in fascinating detail.
Some Hastings smugglers were also involved in piracy. Ruxley's Crew, who were much feared in the area, found this an easy way to augment their smuggling income. In 1768 the gang boarded the Three Sisters, a Dutch ship, in the Channel and killed the master. Their subsequent public boastingthat they had chopped him down the backbone led to the arrival of 200 Inniskilling Dragoons, sent to arrest the men and take them to goal aboard a man?ofwar. Thirteen of the gang were captured and eventually hanged.
Two watch-houses were built in Hastings at the time of the blockade. Smuggling continued, using less obvious methods, but the revenue men soon learned to look more carefully for contraband. One Hastings preventive officer, George England, was examining the nets of a fishing boat with a sharp fork to check for hidden tubs, when the fisherman, Joseph Swain, took exception to this and attacked the officer. England got out his pistol as they fought and it went off, killing Swain. It is not known whether England's suspicions were correct, or whether Swain was merely objecting to the damage that the fork would have caused to the nets. George England was tried for murder, and convicted, but a pardon was quickly granted. England himself had to be smuggled out of the town to escape from rioting crowds making threats on his life, and was never able to return.
There are several recorded incidents involving smugglers at Rye. In April 1733 thirty armed
smugglers with fifty heavily laden horses were stopped by a small group of customs officers from Rye. It is said that the smugglers swore at the revenue men, tied them up, took them on horseback to Lamberhurst, four hours' ride away, and then released them.
Smuggling contacts were made with several French and Dutch ports, and the Channel Islands also proved useful sources of contraband. In one month during 1745 nine smuggling cutters from Rye arrived in Guernsey harbour to take on goods. Rye boatbuilders were particularly clever at concealing secret compartments for smuggled goods in their boats.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who strongly disapproved of smuggling, preached often against the practice in Rye, although he knew that virtually the whole community was involved in the illegal trade. The sheer numbers of willing men still prepared to help on a smuggling run in 1826 were demonstrated when a ten?oared galley ran ashore in Rye harbour, with a revenue boat close behind it. The smugglers opened fire, and when reinforcements from the watch?house at Camber arrived and captured one of the seamen, over 200 armed men appeared from behind the sandhills and fired on the blockade men, killing one and injuring another. Despite this, the revenue forces managed to fight the smugglers off and seize the galley.
The great era of smuggling can be roughly divided into two periods, 'free trade' and 'scientific', and the methods used in each differed drastically. '1 'he 'free trade' period, as its name implies, was really the golden age of the smuggler, when there were so few restrictions that the smuggler could, and frequently did, make his fortune with little fear of punishment. While a preventive system did exist, its officers were hopelessly overworked, treated very badly (many had to stand on cliffs in freezing rain , all night), invariably outnumbered by smugglers if they did attempt to make an arrest, and were so poorly paid that they usually preferred to accept a bribe than to risk their lives in the course of duty.
During this period then, the goods were landed openly on the beach, where they were met by crowds of'local people, some of whom, the batmen, were armed with cudgels or other weapons just in case there were any interruptions. The rest of the men carried two tubs of spirits each, slung on rope harnesses over their shoulders, so that they could be more easily transported. Horses were'borrowed' from farmers if an especially heavy cargo was expected, and it would then be efficiently and quickly distributed to the numerous hiding?places in houses and inns where the goods could be stored till they were needed.
At this time, smuggling was a comradely affair, with generous rewards given to all the participants. When the train of men and horses had to pass through a village, the inhabitants would turn their faces to the wall so that they could truthfully say that they had seen nothing if they were questioned by the revenue men ? in the words of Rudyard Kipling: 'Watch the wall my darling, while the gentlemen go by.' Once the goods arrived at their destination they ceased to be illegal because, until the laws were changed in the nineteenth century, the actual selling of contraband was not an offence.
The times were changing, however, for when the war against France ended in 1816 the Government suddenly had enough surplus men and ships as well as enough time and money to form a more efficient preventive service and the blockade around the coast of Kent was set up. This was the beginning of the 'scientific' period, for smuggling was too essential and lucrative a way of life to be relinquished at the first sign of trouble, so, when the revenue officers became an organised force, the smugglers realised that they had to follow suit if they were to survive?They could no longer rely on the old-fashioned landings but they were, with a few exceptions, loath to use violence unless it was absolutely necessary. Thus, they began to devise ingenious methods of outwitting the coastguard.
The earliest of these was 'crop-sowing'. The smuggling boats would anchor some way off shore and the 'ankers' (tubs) would be fastened to a length of rope, interspersed with heavy stones with an anchor at either end.Then,under cover of darkness, the tubs would be dropped overboard at a pre-arranged spot. Later, innocent-looking fishing boats would casually halt over the spot and, using special pronged hooks known as 'creepers' or 'centipedes', they would draw up the tubs and conceal them under their nets. These tubs would then be buried in the sand until they could be safely collected. The coastguards, not wanting to be outdone (they could earn 'prize-money' for each captured cargo), spent much of their time 'creeping' in likely spots hoping to find contraband before the smugglers could lift it. Occasionally the tubs were submerged for so long before they could be recovered that the contents became sour and vile smelling, in which case they were known as 'stinkibus'. The taste could sometimes be improved by the addition of lovage or shrub.
While crop-sowing was always the most popular method, the coastguards became too proficient at 'creeping', and although the smugglers were usually quite content if they could recover one cargo out of three, they began to experiment with more sophisticated methods. They came to the conclusion that it would be simpler to hide the goods on the actual boats, so boats with ingenious false bottoms became a common requirement. The cargo could also be disguised as ballast; tobacco was plaited inside the many ropes used on board ship, and spirits could be hidden inside hollow oars or a water?tank with false sides. One captain created a false ceiling in his cahin, while another stuffed a turkey with rare silks .it is hardly surprising that the preventive force was frequently baffled. When a ship was discovered,to be concealing contraband, however, it was sawn up into three parts, thus ruining many a smuggler's business completely.
Although bribery was still in evidence, the preventive force was growing stronger and more loyal all the time, and it was this factor, coupled with the reduction of customs duties on goods, that finally led to the decline in smuggling. It was simply no longer viable, for the risks had increased dramatically while the profits were now only marginal. Thus, though individuals continued to bring contraband into the country, the first great era of organised smuggling was a thing of the past.