Romney Marsh Smugglers – A Violent History

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.


Smuggling – From Songbirds to Human Eyeballs

It’s amazing what you stumble across on the internet. While doing research on smuggling for my current novel, I found a blatant request for advice on how to smuggle weed through customs – “Its cost in my home country is just ridiculous so I want to bring some back with me from holiday,” the post whinged. I did wonder if this was just a clever ploy by an enthusiastic customs official, but putting to one side the author’s authenticity, the answers he got were interesting.

The most straight forward response was: “Don’t bother – just grow your own when you get back,” with a link to a website selling suitable seed. Others offered more practical smuggling advice, which I won’t repeat here for fear of having the authorities on my tail for aiding an illicit trade in drugs.  It was amazing to realise, though, just how open some people are prepared to be about their smuggling. But then, I never cease to be astonished at what amateur smugglers attempt to do.


Not surprisingly, the most popular items to smuggle vary depending on which country they’re being taken into.  France, for instance, is a popular destination for meat from exotic wildlife like antelope and monkey, which then appears on the menus of select Parisian restaurants.  Many of them come from endangered species, which I suppose is what makes them rarer, therefore more expensive to obtain, and consequently more attractive to smugglers.

 A few years ago, it was estimated that five tonnes of such banned meat pass illegally through the main Paris airport every week.  In 2008, a selection of passengers from 29 flights into Paris from Africa were searched, and of the 134 people stopped, a staggering 83 of them (that’s nearly two-thirds!) were found to be carrying livestock or fish.  One problem customs officials had, though, was to identify what the meat was because it wasn’t always obvious from the carcasses. Their solution was for scientists to boil the remains until the bones could be removed – reassembling the skeletons then allowed them to decide which animal it had once been. Clever thinking.

Many animals come through customs alive, however. Or at least, they were alive when the smuggler boarded the plane. And they fetch good prices – a large specimen of an Asian Dragon fish, for instance, can fetch $20,000.  No wonder, then, that there’s profitable trade in endangered species.

Smuggling live animals, though, is never easy, and there are often giveaway signs. A man smuggling live songbirds from Vietnam, for instance, was caught when customs agent’s suspicions were aroused by the amount of bird droppings on his shoes.  When the passenger was searched, fourteen birds were found swaddled in cloth inside his trousers.  Unfortunately, 5 of them had died.

There’s also a recorded case of a woman flying from Singapore to Melbourne who was stopped at customs when officials heard what they described as “flipping” noises coming from her skirt. When she was searched, fifteen water-filled plastic bags were found nestled in a multi-pocketed apron hidden beneath her clothes. All full, of-course, with tropical fish.

Other smuggling exploits, though, are much weirder. Earlier this year, the Daily Mail reported a survey that had made on the oddest things smuggled through customs. In the UK, they wrote, customs officials at Stansted airport once found ten human eyeballs floating in a jam jar secreted in one passenger’s luggage. It was never reported what they were wanted for.

Then, retuning to the edible delicacies theme, they also mentioned a case from 2012 when 420lbs of cows’ brains were confiscated on their way into Cairo. Although cow brains can be bought in Sudan for under a dollar a pound, in Egypt they fetch six times that.  “Yuk. Just the thought makes me feel queasy,” is all I can say. And, yes, they are delicacies to eat in that part of the world. I write this while eating lunch; suddenly I don’t feel like finishing my paté sandwich.

Sign trip. Illustration of a group of suitcases and a plane tick

One of the more ghoulish smuggling attempts has to be the one made by Gitta Jarant, who brought her dead husband through Berlin customs in a wheelchair.  “He’s just sleeping,” she explained, but further investigation found he’d been dead for twelve hours, and she was charged with contravening laws on the shipment of dead bodies. Fancy having the seat next to that pair. Perhaps she simply didn’t want to waste a non-refundable plane ticket.

Personally, I would never have the nerve to smuggle anything through an airport [Mr Customs official: please take note!]. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writing fiction – I can do anything I fancy through my characters without the risk of getting caught.  Others, though, seem continually intent on foolish attempts to bring all sorts of weird contraband into the country.  In my novel Eavesdrop, the smugglers only deal with the more traditional diamonds and cigarettes, but perhaps I should have embraced some of this weirdness.  Maybe a lion’s head or a baboon’s bottom might have been more realistic.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever heard of being smuggled?  Can you do better than cow’s brains and human eyeballs?

[with acknowledgment to for their fascinating article on this subject, from which many of the above facts were gleaned].




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, and imprint of Assent Publishing.