You can almost taste smuggling in the air around Romney Marsh. When I visited Rye harbour and the marshes the other year to research my current thriller, I could sense the area’s long association with contraband and Customs men. With the houses and inn so close to the River Rother, and the miles of surrounding uninhabited grassland, it’s easy to imagine smugglers unloading boats under cover of darkness.
A surprise was to come, though, when I learned how smuggling in the area started, and what it was they initially smuggled: it didn’t start with tobacco or spirits, but with wool.
Romney Marsh (known incidentally as “the birthplace of smuggling in Southern England”) was home to many flocks of sheep and when, in the thirteenth century, the government started to levy high export duty on their fleeces, it was here that wool smuggling began. With its easy access to the Channel, Rye became home to smugglers. Fleeces were taken to France, where they fetched good prices because the English wool was stronger and its threads longer than its European counterpart.
Of-course, why travel back with your boat empty? So smugglers who took fleeces for sale in Flanders, began to return with brandy, tobacco, tea and silk from the continent. With the River Rother’s proximity to local inns where such items could be swiftly sold, Rye naturally became one of the smuggling centres on England’s south coast. Boat builders became adept at creating hiding-places in the local vessels; and the Excise officers became even more determined to find them. By the early 1820s, Rye boasted 28 Excise officers.
Their efforts to identify the smugglers and seize contraband grew to become a war rather than a game. Smugglers took to wearing a “bee-skep” (a traditional woven domed bee-hive) cut with eye and mouth holes – the balaclava of the day, I suppose – so a law was soon passed that anyone found wearing one – or, indeed, even having their face blacked to hide their identity – was to suffer the death penalty.
Communication between ship and shore without these officers intercepting the messages became vital if the smugglers were to succeed. Lacking today’s wide collection of secure radio transmitters, they had to resort to simpler equipment. Lights, of-course, provided the most straightforward methods of communication, but were also the easiest to spot, a problem that soon spawned the design of the smugglers’ lamp. These had the look of a metal watering can: the bright light from the main body of the lamp was only visible along the spout that protruded from one side to give a reasonably directional light source that could be used to signal between shore and a nearby boat without light being visible farther along the coast. To send messages with the light, the smuggler aimed it carefully and then simply moved his hand back and forth in front of the spout to create short flashes.
As profits grew, so did the size of the smuggling gangs. Soon, rather than smuggling being the domain of a single smuggler making an occasional run to the French coast, it became dominated by large and often vicious gangs of sometimes several hundred men. They virtually ruled the marshes and occasionally terrorized the local villages. Many records recall full-scale and bloody battles between them and large groups of Customs men.
The nearby village of Lydd was another local smuggling centre. One account recorded by Andrew Leaning on his website records the fight that took place when a gang of two hundred smugglers was caught unloading 2000 gallons of spirits. The running battle with customs men continued across Walland Marsh, ending in the village of Brookland. These weren’t just gangs; they were now small armies.
Local taverns, of-course, played a large part in smuggling in the area. The Mermaid Inn tells of how members of the infamous Hawkhurst gang, which numbered 600 men at its peak, was so confident of its power that in the 1750s they would sit openly at the window of The Mermaid Inn after successfully landing contraband, with loaded pistols at their sides, confident that local magistrates wouldn’t dare to interfere.
The Hawkhurst gang, who took their name from the village they most frequented, was said to have dug many underground tunnels in the area to secretly connect key locations to the cellar of the village’s main inns. By the early 1700s, they reportedly had five hundred pack horses at their disposal for subsequently transporting their contraband farther inland.
It was ultimately the gang’s violence that turned the locals against them, though. Whereas initially they were often seen as heroes who battled against unfair taxes, the growing levels of violence towards those they suspected of informing on them soon reversed public opinion. When one gang member, Daniel Chater, tried to offer an alibi to Customs officials for a colleague who’d been arrested, an informer saw him talking to them and reported it to the gang. Mistakenly thinking Chatter was grassing, they horse-whipped the unfortunate Chater until nearly dead, and left him tied-up for days before deciding to kill him. In order that guilt couldn’t be laid against any one individual, they considered shooting Chater by tying string to a gun’s trigger and all pulling simultaneously. Eventually, though, to make an example of him, they chose instead to throw him down a thirty foot well in Lady Holt Park and dropped large stones on him until he was dead.
Events like that turned the public against them, and the gang’s fortunes changed. Over subsequent years, members of the gang were progressively arrested and executed and, by 1750, the gang had lost its pre-eminence.
But did all the smuggling disappear with the gangs, I wonder? With Rye’s easy access to the English Channel and quick roads to the modern airfield at Lydd, the area still has plenty of potential.
What plots are hatched in Rye’s inns these days? We may well have moved on from smuggling wool fleeces, but what other contraband might be taking its place today?
Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.
Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters. Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?
Published by Bad Day Books, an imprint of Assent Publishing.