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The Smuggling Gangs

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

Written by Helen Hollick and Edited by Paul Rushworth-Brown

The Smuggling Gangs
The Smuggling Gangs

Fiction, movies and TV tend to portray the smugglers of the past as small groups of local fisherfolk from isolated coastal villages hoping to make an extra penny or two to feed their starving children. Or you see the lone villainous ruffian out to bully some vulnerable young lad into breaking the law by smuggling in a keg or two of brandy in his poor, very ill pa’s rowing boat. Both are true to a point. But only to a point.


The Big Trade, the big money-makers, were very far from this romantic, idealistic view. The smuggling gangs were little more than vicious thugs, especially when smuggling became organised by efficient gang leaders – an 1700-1800 Mafia equivalent.


The ‘smuggling companies’ mostly operated in the southeast of England, from Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. (Not our fictional vision of a rugged, isolated Cornish cove as in Poldark… although the West Country did have smugglers – that will come later in a different article!)



Gang members were not always seamen, but landmen were based along the roads leading to London and the larger inland towns. Seamen brought the cargo in, the gangs collected and dispersed it, and if there was trouble from the Revenue Men... the gangs were well ready for them!



The Authors Porch Featuring Paul Rushworth-Brown: The Smuggling Gangs
The Authors Porch Featuring Paul Rushworth-Brown: The Smuggling Gangs

These gangs often comprised of forty to fifty men, but on a prosperous run with a large haul of contraband, the different gangs would unite into as many as two or three hundred men. The Revenue, ill-informed, under-manned, under-armed and underpaid, rarely had any hope of intervening, let alone putting a stop to such formidable opponents, especially when burly smuggler bodyguards formed two lines of protection by wielding stout ash poles. (Think Robin Hood fighting Little John and his quarterstaff on the bridge in Sherwood Forest.)



Smuggling soon hit the purses and coffers of the government and the wealthy. Something had to be done. By the mid-to-late 1780s, the militia and customs men were getting their act together. Better equipped with better firearms, ships, firepower, and more reliable ‘intelligence’ meant they stood more chance of stopping the gangs and seizing the contraband. Even so, these gangs were no pushover. They were armed, rough, tough men and were ruthless when ensuring potential informers kept their mouths shut. Betray a gang, and it was very likely you would end up dead with no hope of your murderer even being identified, let alone caught.


A FEW OF THE GANGS


The Smuggling Gangs
The Smuggling Gangs

The Colonel of Bridport Gang operated in Dorset under the leadership of ‘The Colonel’. One contraband cargo was nearly intercepted by the revenue men and had to be hastily sunk in the sea to hide it, but it floated free of its makeshift anchor. It was washed ashore near Eype Mouth, not far from West Bay and Bridport, to the great delight of the locals who discovered and liberated it!


Apart from this mishap, the Colonel’s gang was highly successful and was never caught. They supplied many of the taverns in Bridport and the Lyme Bay area with contraband liquor from France.


The Groombridge Gang, named for a village a few miles west of Tunbridge Wells, were active from about 1730. Several of them had wonderful nicknames such as ‘Yorkshire George’, ‘The Miller’, ‘Old Joll’, ‘Towzer’, ‘Flushing Jack’ and my favourite, ‘Nasty Face’. Nicknames were commonly used among smugglers and highwaymen, not as familiar terms of friendship but because they hid a true identity.


The Groombridge Gang was first mentioned in legal documents in 1733 when thirty men brought a cargo of tea inland using fifty or so horses. A group of eager militiamen challenged them but outnumbered, were disarmed and forcibly marched en route at gunpoint until the cargo was safely delivered. An inconvenience for both sides, for the whole affair, lasted four hours. The militiamen were eventually set free, unharmed, but on oath not to renew their interference.


The oath was made but did not last long.


The Hadleigh Gang from the Suffolk town of the same name were known for fighting against the local dragoons in 1735 to recover a seized cargo that had been confiscated and stored in a local tavern. More than twenty men of the gang were determined to retrieve their property. In the fight that followed, several dragoons were injured, and one was killed; the smugglers managed to reclaim their goods. Seventeen of them, alas, had been recognised and were arrested, with two of them hanged immediately after their trial.

The Smuggling Gangs
The Smuggling Gangs

The interesting thing about Hadleigh is that it is not a coastal town but lies forty miles inland!


The North Kent Gang worked from Ramsgate to the River Medway along the coast. In 1820 their use of violence increased when the Blockade Men came across the gang. One officer was seriously injured in a fight, but the gang fled with their cargo. During the spring of 1821 forty of the gang gathered at Herne Bay to land a cargo, with more than twenty more men armed with bats and pistols to protect them.


Unfortunately for the gang, the batsmen had partaken of too much pre-run ‘hospitality’ at the nearby inn. Led by Midshipman Sydenham Snow, the men of the blockade appeared - drawn by the rowdy noise that the drunken smugglers were making. Eighteen of the smugglers were arrested. Four went to the gallows, with the others transported for life to Tasmania.


TWO OF THE WORST GANGS OF THE LOT

The Northover Gang were from Dorset and was named for their leaders. In December 1822, Preventative Men William Forward and Timothy Tollerway were on patrol: hearing whistling, they saw two boats coming into shore with four men already on the beach. Forward and Tollerway then met with three men who dropped the kegs they were carrying and ran off. Tollerway kept guard on the abandoned contraband while Forward seized a dozen more kegs after firing his pistol to summon help, but the gang surrounded him and forced him towards the waterline. Tollerway ran to give assistance. The gang leader, James Northover Junior, was arrested when more Preventatives arrived, and he was sentenced to fourteen months in Dorchester gaol. Lessons were obviously not headed. James Northover was to serve time in gaol twice more and was then impressed into the Royal Navy in 1827 for yet another offence. We do not know what subsequently happened to him. The Hawkhurst Gang. Hawkhurst is about ten miles inland from the Kent and East Sussex coast, and between 1735-1749 the gang became known as the most notorious and feared in all of England. They brought silk, brandy and tobacco, which had been landed at Rye or Hastings, with up to five-hundred men able to help out when needed.

The gang joined with the Wingham Gang in 1746 to bring twelve tons of tea ashore (that is a lot of tea!), but the Wingham men were set upon by their so-called partners. Seven Winghams were injured, and the Hawkhurst lot made off with the tea and several valuable horses. There is no account of whether the horses were ever returned, either amicably or by stealth.

Inevitably, despite the benefits of smuggling, villagers grew fed up with the gang’s increasing tyranny and led by a local militiaman, William Sturt. A retaliation was made in April 1747. Confident of their power, the gang jauntily marched to the village, not expecting to meet with a small army of people who were determined to stop their bullying. One of the gang’s hierarchy, George Kingsmill, was shot dead and buried in Goudhurst churchyard. His brother, Thomas, was arrested and hanged at Tyburn in London, with his body taken back to Kent to be hung in chains and left to rot on the gallows.

Does his ghost linger in the village, I wonder?


Smuggling in Fact and Fiction by Helen Hollick published by Pen & Sword Press in January 2019 ~~~~~~~~~

The Smuggling Gangs
The Smuggling Gangs

Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony

stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction.


~~~~~~~~~

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three published novels.

He was born in Maidstone, Kent, England in 1962. He spent time in a foster home in Manchester before emigrating to Canada with his mother in 1972. He spent his teenage years living and going to school in Toronto, Ontario where he also played professional soccer in the Canadian National Soccer League. In 1982, he emigrated to Australia to spend time with his father, Jimmy Brown who had moved there from Yorkshire in the mid-fifties.

​Paul was educated at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia. He became a writer in 2015 when he embarked on a six-month project to produce a written family history for his children, Rachael, Christopher and Hayley.


Skulduggery - The bleak Pennine moors of Yorkshire; a beautiful, harsh place, close to the sky, rugged and rough, with no boundaries except the horizon, which in places, went on forever. Green pastures and wayward hills, the colours of ochre, brown and pink in the Spring. Green squares divided the land on one side of the lane, and on the other, sheep with thick wool and dark snouts dotted the hills and dales. The story, set on the Moors of West Yorkshire, follows wee Thomas and his family shortly after losing his father to consumption. Times were tough in 1603 and shenanigans and skulduggery were committed by locals and outsiders alike. Queen Bess has died, and King James sits on the throne of England and Scotland. Thomas Rushworth is now the man of the house being the older of two boys. He is set to wed Agnes in an arranged marriage, but a true love story develops between them.A glorious read of a period well versed and presented with accuracy and authentic telling by an author who is as much engrossed in his prose as the reader he shares with...masterful and thoroughly enjoyable...5 stars."


Red Winter Journey'- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642. A GREAT STORY CLEVERLY WEAVING WELL-RESEARCHED INFORMATION. The research for this book was thorough. The author describes the environment and conditions of Yorkshire in the 16th century, building these facts into fictional circumstances and families living in the times. I found it fascinating that this book came from a search for family history. Very cleverly done, a must-read for those interested in the period, and a good read. Looking forward to the next book.


Reading this book can feel like time travel as you let the world pass by as you explore a whole new one. This novel is not a history textbook, but a gripping account of a moment in time seen through your ancestor’s eyes. If you like adventure and intrigue with a dash of forbidden love, then you will be engrossed by this story of sons, John and Robert, who leave the moors and travel to Leeds to earn their fortune. The story is full of colourful characters like John Wilding, a brute of a man, with no manners or decorum, typical of the lower sort of the time. Will he catch Robert Rushworth and earn the reward to pay back the 'Company' to who he is hiding from and dangerously indebted to. Meet Milton Killsin, a pompous little Puritan man with a secret desire. Also, Captain Girlington, with a troubled past who must choose between life on the seas and love for another. Facing fear head on! Meet professional beggars, cutpurses, felons, debtors, lifters, prostitutes, and sneak thieves, "You’ll find ‘em all in the Shambles." At a time when any person caught stealing goods worth more than thirteen shillings was tried and hanged. Will Robert pay for his indiscretions? Murder, mystery, and mayhem keep you guessing, and only the most astute readers will predict the ending.








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