The Hawkhurst Gang was a notorious criminal organisation involved in smuggling throughout southeast England from 1735 until 1749. One of the more infamous gangs of the early 18th century, they extended their influence from Dorset, where they successfully raided the customs house at Poole, to the Kent coast. After they were defeated in a battle with the Goudhurst militia in 1747, two of their leaders, Arthur Gray and Thomas Kingsmill, were executed in 1748 and 1749.
Named after the village of Hawkhurst in Kent, the gang was first mentioned as the Holkhourst Genge in 1735. Based in Hawkhurst, it is claimed that they frequented The Mermaid Inn in the town of Rye, where they would sit with their weapons on the table. Many local legends and folklore are based on the alleged network of tunnels built by the gang. However, many hidden cellars and remote barns could have been used for storage so it is unlikely that tunnels would have been needed at that period when large armed gangs operated openly, often riding through the larger towns in daylight.
Dominance through terror
In 1740 riding officer Thomas Carswell and a party of dragoons found about 15 cwt (750 kg) of smuggled tea in a barn at Etchingham and were taking it to Hastings in a cart. James Stanford of the Hawkhurst Gang rode round the area and collected about thirty men with horses and weapons. After drinking brandy to bolster their courage, they attacked the revenue party at Silver Hill between Hurst Green and Robertsbridge, shooting Carswell dead and capturing the soldiers. One of the smugglers, George Chapman, was later executed and gibbeted in his home village of Hurst Green.
On one occasion when the gang was drinking at the Mermaid Inn in Rye, some twenty of them visited the nearby Red Lion, firing their guns in the air. A young bystander, James Marshall, who took too keen an interest in them was taken away and never seen again.
The gang generally operated freely in the area, as when in 1744 they unloaded a considerable amount of contraband from three large cutters at Pevensey, from which the smuggled goods were carried inland by around 500 pack horses.
Sometime in the early 1740s Jeremiah Curtis, who had been part of a violent gang in the Hastings area, joined forces with the Hawkhurst Gang, and was one of its most brutal members. It was Curtis who led the whipping and beating to death of Richard Hawkins, a farm labourer from Walberton whom they suspected of stealing two bags of the gang's tea. Hawkins was taken to the Dog and Partridge inn at Slindon to be interrogated. When he died of his injuries, his body was sunk in the pond at Parham Park about 12 miles away which was owned by Sir Cecil Bishopp, 6th Baronet the father of the wife of one of the accused Thomas Lillywhite, where it was found in the spring of 1748.
The Poole raid
In October 1747, members of the gang led a successful raid against a government Custom House in Poole, Dorset, which was holding about 30 hundred weight of tea, thirty-nine casks of brandy and rum, and a small bag of coffee captured from the smuggler's ship, Three-Brothers, in September. The shipment from Guernsey, worth about £500, had been organised by the Hawkhurst Gang, working with a group from east Hampshire and was intended to be landed at Christchurch Bay, but was captured by a revenue vessel Swift, commanded by Captain William Johnson on 22 September 1747. The goods were then taken to Poole, after the crew had escaped in a small boat. At a meeting in Charlton Forest Richard Perrin from Chichester, who had gone to Guernsey to buy the goods, made an agreement with the local men to recover the contraband. Thirty armed men, including Thomas Kingsmill and about seven other Hawkhurst men rode to Poole, stopping to rest in the New Forest. Arriving in Poole, at about 11 pm, they found that the customs house was under the guns of a naval sloop. The more local men were for abandoning the attempt, but the Hawkhurst men said they would continue alone, and it was then agreed that they would all continue. It was soon realised that as the tide fell the ships guns would no longer be in sight of the customs house. The gang broke into the customs house around 2 am, on 8 October, escaping on horseback with the tea. They left the brandy, rum and coffee at the customs house, presumably because of lack of sufficient transport. The smugglers were not opposed at any stage of the journey. The Customs Service offered a large reward of £500 for their capture.
Several months after the raid, a member of the gang known as Diamond was captured and gaoled at Chichester. He had been recognised by a Fordingbridge resident, a shoemaker named Daniel Chater, who was given a small bag of tea by Diamond. Chater may not have intended to betray Diamond, but word of his knowledge got around. He was later called as a witness by the customs service, but he and an elderly revenue officer, William Galley, got lost while travelling to the remote downland village of East Marden to identify Diamond to a Justice of the Peace, Major Battine. They stopped at the White Hart Inn at Rowlands Castle, a smugglers pub, where the landlady fetched smugglers William Jackson and William Carter to investigate them. They were given drink until they fell asleep and their documents were discovered, then beaten and tied on horses by members of the local gang, then taken north to the Red Lion Inn at Rake. After burying the customs officer alive in a nearby fox earth they kept Chater chained to a shed at Trotton for several days before deciding to kill him. They threw Chater down a well at Lady Holt Park and dropped stones on top of him.
Although smuggling gangs were generally supported by the local population, as they provided much needed and well paid work, the murderous brutality of the gang had turned the residents against them. At Goudhurst the people formed the Goudhurst Band Of Militia, led by "General" George Sturt, a former army corporal. Enraged by this defiance, Thomas Kingsmill, a native of the town, threatened to burn the town and kill the residents, setting an appointed time, 21 April 1747. When the gang attacked on the appointed day, the militia were well enough trained to shoot dead Kingsmill's brother George in the first volley of a battle fought around the church. Two more smugglers died before the gang withdrew. The gang were not only smugglers but robbers and extortionists. Arthur Gray was apprehended in 1748, he was indicted on the charges of felonious assembly with the intention of carrying away goods that customs duty had not been paid, in other words smuggling. He was executed at Tyburn on Wednesday 11 May 1748.
In 1748 the government issued a list of men wanted for murders, burglaries and robberies in Sussex as well as the Custom-house break-in at Poole. The list was published in the London Gazette along with a request for information leading to the arrest of the smugglers. Any informant was promised a royal pardon and as a further encouragement it offered a £50 reward for each smuggler who was captured. Eventually, Thomas Kingsmill, William Fairall, alias Shepherd, Richard Perin, alias Pain, alias Carpenter, Thomas Lillywhite (who married the daughter of Sir Cecil Bishopp 6th Baronet of Parham Park, see Bishopp baronets), and Richard Glover, were all indicted for being concerned, with others, in breaking into the King's Custom-house, at Poole, and stealing thirty hundred weight of tea, value £500 or more. Kingsmill, Fairall and Perrin were found guilty and sentenced to death. Thomas Lillywhite was acquitted and Richard Glover was found guilty, but recommended to mercy by the Jury. Jeremiah Curtis escaped before he could be brought to justice. He went to northern France joining the Irish Brigade in Gravelines.
Kingsmill, Fairall, Perrin and Pain were executed at Tyburn on 26 April 1749. The bodies of Thomas Kingsmill and William Fairall were delivered to the Sheriff of Kent, in order that they could be hung up in chains, the former at Goudhurst, the latter at Horsendown Green, where he once lived.
Seven of the gang were tried at Chichester assizes, and sentenced to hang. One of their number died in gaol before sentence could be carried out. The rest were hanged north of Chichester on the Broyle. The principal murderers' bodies were then hung in chains, one on the Portsmouth Road near Rake, two on Selsey Bill, one near Chichester at Rook's Hill and one at Horsmonden in Kent.
With the cruel deaths of Galley and Chater, among others, causing national outrage, the names of known smugglers were published in the London Gazette. Any smuggler so listed was instructed to hand themselves in within 40 days of the publication date.
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