The Smugglers Coast

by Yvonne Leach

April 2021

 A Smuggler’s Song

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five-and-twenty ponies, trotting through the dark—
With brandy for the Parson and ‘baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady and letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Rudyard Kipling

Sussex Coast – Camber Castle

The ever-changing coast line of Kent and Sussex has been a haven for the enterprising smuggler since, at least, as early as the 13th Century. However, importing spirits and tobacco was not on these medieval gentlemen’s minds. To this day, if you drive across Romney Marsh, you will notice its own breed of sheep, the Romney grazing away on the salt marshes as they have done for countless years. It was the wool of these sheep, which carried a heavy tax on exportation, which led to the emergence of wool smugglers, known as ‘Owlers’.  Perhaps a corruption of the word ‘woolers’ ? – or was it because of the warning signal they would send to each other at night, hooting like the owls?  Easy to conjure up, almost romantic images of these ‘gentlemen’ who would remain anonymous by adopting such code names as ‘Joseph Nobody’ or ‘CurseMotherJack’.  Indeed the local population would ‘watch the wall’ as the smugglers went about their work.  These smugglers’ successors, the import smugglers, would perhaps reward this blissful ignorance by leaving a small keg of brandy on the doorsteps of those officials who looked the other way.

It seems that many were involved, from the Parson to the School Master to the Lord of the Manor himself. Safer, and more rewarding to turn ‘the blind eye’, and with military’s attention on France, smuggling reached its peak in the 18th century all around the coasts of England. In Kent, with its long coastline, gangs operated not just on Romney Marsh, but all around the coast through Dover to the Isle of Thanet and up on to the North Kent Marshes adjoining Whitstable and Seasalter. Here, once lived an eccentric vicar, the Rev. Thomas Patten, of whom many tales are told. He openly kept a mistress, appeared scruffy and unkempt, and drove to church in his ox waggon. He was even known to break off from his sermon to join revellers in the local Blue Anchor Pub. He certainly was happy to ignore the smuggling activity, and even when the Archbishop of Canterbury became involved, so popular was Thomas with his flock, that he was left unchallenged.

The Mermaid Inn Rye

It was only when the Smugglers turned to more brutal ways, ruling by violence that they lost popular support. Members of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang would sit in the Mermaid Inn in Rye, with their weapons on the table, enjoying their pints of ale, and nobody dared to interfere. There later came the grisly murder of one William Galley, a Revenue Officer, and Daniel Chater, an alleged informer. Things were about to change.  The Battle of Goudhurst in 1747 led to the end of the Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers and the execution of local gang leader Thomas Kingsmill whose body was hung in chains in the village as a reminder and warning to others.

50 years later, we first hear of the South Kent or Aldington (Blues) Gang who operated on The Marsh, as Romney Marsh is known, and along the coast from Sandgate to Deal. The last leader of the Blues was one George Ransley, whom we believe became involved with smuggling in order to keep his wife in the manner to which she was accustomed thanks to the questionable activities of her father!  However, by this time, the Napoleonic Wars had come to an end, and a naval force set up on land specifically to deal with smuggling. This Coastal Blockade played an important part in bringing this era of smuggling to an end, aided by the loss of support from the community at large.  George Ransley found himself transported to Van Diemen’s Land, Australia, where perhaps he, and maybe even his wife, lived to have a second chance.

Whitstable harbour

Touring around the coast and inland villages of Kent and Sussex, we visit many of the places associated with the mystery, murder and mayhem of the past. We see remote churches where contraband was stored, and graveyards where some smugglers now lie. We see villages where battles were fought and visit inns where the ‘Gentlemen’ once refreshed themselves, no doubt planning further exploits.  Today, The Marsh is peaceful, but the sheep remind us of what once was. The captivating town of Rye with its cobbled streets, tea rooms, potteries, and antiques is still home to the 15th Century Mermaid Inn. Whitstable is a gem, with its fishing harbour, famed for oysters, its small streets with boutique shops, and countless inns, bars and restaurants.

We can’t wait to show you the rich heritage, diverse countryside and coastline which we have today, whilst we regale you with tales of our colourful past !

Yvonne is a SE England Blue Badge Guide based in East Kent