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Kent's links to smuggling on International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Britain had its fair share of nefarious smugglers capitalising on the extensive coastline of Kent, the most ruthless carving a legacy of criminal deeds and brutal skirmishes with the law.

In 1783, the Prime Minister William Pitt was informed by the Board of Excise that more than 250 vessels of more than 20 tonnes were engaged in smuggling activities around Britain.

The bizarre day has been going since 2002. Pic: Maasdam Photography
The bizarre day has been going since 2002. Pic: Maasdam Photography

So on today’s annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day, rather than irritating friends and family with ‘ooh arr’s and a rather tired ‘shiver me timbers’, you can instead impress them with your knowledge of the real-life seafaring criminals defying the law across Kent.

‘Yo ho ho’ indeed.

Century of crime

The 1700s were the heyday of the smuggler in Kent.

Sneaking contraband into the country took off in earnest after the 1698 Act to Prevent the Exportation of Wool was passed.

Engraving of a boat returning to the smuggling town of Deal
Engraving of a boat returning to the smuggling town of Deal

The law forbade the buying and selling of wool within 15 miles of the coast, regulated by mounted customs officers who would roam the fields and towns.

Crafty traders known as ‘owlers’ moved through the cover of darkness to avoid the authorities and even constructed ‘owling boats’ which were fast ships capable of making a quick getaway across the Channel.

The Isle of Sheppey, quite literally meaning 'The island of sheep', was at the centre of the illegal wool trade.

A large part of the ‘owling’ activities was exporting, with one of the most popular ‘exit’ routes for the product being through Favershamand out to Romney Marsh.

Journalist and trader Daniel Defoe said in 1730: "Nay, even the owling trade has seemed to be transposed from Romney Marsh to this coast (Faversham) and a great deal of it has been carried on between the mouth of the East Swale and the North Foreland."

The Fountain Hotel, a smuggling hideout in Deal. Pic supplied by Gregory Holyoake
The Fountain Hotel, a smuggling hideout in Deal. Pic supplied by Gregory Holyoake

The wool market declined in the 1720s, leading the opportunistic businessmen to switch to more luxury items.

What were they smuggling?

The most popular contraband being smuggled into the county was tea from the Far East, gin from Holland, whisky and tobacco.

The government began charging import fees on spirits, tobacco and tea in the 16th century, giving a handful of daring traders a way of making some extra cash.

The Channel Islands became a kind of trading point for smugglers, who would legitimately purchase these items and prepare to smuggle them into Britain, selling them to locals and businesses sans import fees.

People recreating smuggling runs during the 1973 Dymchurch Carnival. Pic: Kent our County by H R P Boorman, page 106.
People recreating smuggling runs during the 1973 Dymchurch Carnival. Pic: Kent our County by H R P Boorman, page 106.

Supposedly half of all the gin smuggled into England landed on the beaches of Kent and Sussex in the 18th century.

Kent was a smuggler's haven

Despite their criminal and often violent behaviour, smugglers were not resented by the majority of Kent's working class.

In fact, they were mostly welcomed by people because they could offer paid night-time smuggling work as well as tax-free luxuries they would otherwise be unable to afford.

Most sided with the essayist Charles Lamb, who said of known contraband merchants in Folkestone: "I like a smuggler, he’s the only honest thief."

The view from Folkestone harbour arm, built years after the smuggling trade came to an end
The view from Folkestone harbour arm, built years after the smuggling trade came to an end

There was a shared feeling that because the only losers in the equation were the ruling class and the government, the lawlessness of the activity could be overlooked.

This ‘Robin Hood’ mentality continued well into the mid 18th century, as the government became increasingly committed to stopping the criminals in their tracks.

Gangs aplenty

The smugglers effectively owned Kent’s coastline, with gangs small and large taking stretches of beach for themselves.

Professionalism between clans, however, did vary.

"I like a smuggler, he’s the only honest thief..."

The Seasalter Company were a secretive group who have been described in historical documents as a ‘fraternity.’

Taking influence from the brotherly community of Whitestable's oystermen, they developed a complicated process for importing and transporting the goods across to places such as Lenham and Ospringe.

One of the smugglers, William Baldock, is thought to have died with more than £1 million to his name, which amounts to more than £116m in today’s money.

Hawkhurst Gang

Other groups were less than collegiate in their pursuit of making a quick buck through illegal means.

A plaque on display in Hawkhurst. Pic: Wikimedia Commons
A plaque on display in Hawkhurst. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Today the sleepy village of Hawkhurst is a model of quaint Kentish beauty, a short walk from the stunning countryside of the High Weald.

But if you delve back hundreds of years, the area was known for far bloodier reasons than robust pub lunches and picturesque strolls.

Villagers and aristocrats alike knew of the dreaded Hawkhurst gang, and its name rang out across to Deal and all the way along to the Dorset Coast.

Often described as the ‘Mafia’ of the early 18th century, the gang was initially appreciated by many poor people living in the area as it offered employment in the wake of the wool and iron industries disappearing from the region.

The Hawkhurst gang's infamous attack on the Poole Customs House. Pic: Wikimedia Commons
The Hawkhurst gang's infamous attack on the Poole Customs House. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

According to Clive Aslet, author of Villages of Britain, the area was strategically good for the gang - despite being 15 miles from the sea, it had good road links to London and was protected by its wooded surroundings.

Led by Arthur Gray, the group brought tea, duty-free tobacco and brandy to the people of Kent and beyond.

But its good stead with the locals came to an end in October 1747 when the gang robbed a government customs house in the Dorset town of Poole, stealing back items seized from a ship weeks before.

After a shoemaker called Daniel Chater informed customs of the gang’s involvement in the crime, its members murdered him as well as killing a riding officer by throwing him down a well.

Now seen not as 'Robin-Hood' types but the murderous criminals they were, 29-year-old former corporal William Sturt led the Goudhurst militia in an epic battle against the notorious gang.

St Mary's Church in Goudhurst, which was at the centre of the fierce battle between militia and the smugglers
St Mary's Church in Goudhurst, which was at the centre of the fierce battle between militia and the smugglers

Gray was tried, executed and gibbeted, a historical punishment where the guilty would be displayed from hanging gallows until they died - probably quite an effective deterrent.

There is even a Gibbet Lane in Horsmonden, near Tunbridge Wells, where Hawkhurst member William Fairall was strung up in chains.

Aldington Blues

Sounding more like a National League football team than a dangerous smuggling gang, The Aldington Blues operated much closer to the demise of the illegal trade in Britain.

Following the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century, ex-soldiers who had been drafted to fight against the French Empire found themselves with few ways to make money, so resorted to smuggling.

"Most of these guys drank heavily, they swaggered, they thought they could get away with all sorts..."

George Ransely, who had started out as a wagoner for a farmer, was the gang leader.

According to Chris McCooey, a historical author from Tunbridge Wells, Ransley tired of the honest working life and went to live in Aldington, which sits halfway between Ashford and Dymchurch.

He said: "He married a girl from Aldington and gave up work to devote his whole time to smuggling.

"He was a businessman as well as doing the illegal things - rather interestingly he did not drink.

"Most of these guys drank heavily, they swaggered, they thought they could get away with all sorts.

The Martello tower in Dymchurch High Street. Picture: Andy Jones.
The Martello tower in Dymchurch High Street. Picture: Andy Jones.

"But Ransley was a very good administrator and he efficiently ran this network of distribution of goods."

But following the war with France the government had ramped up their coastal defences.

The Martello towers, which had been built to fortify the coast, started being used to deter smugglers from landing on the beaches.

After a number of years running cargo through Dungeness, Deal and Dover, the government officers caught up with the gang and deported Ransley to Tasmania.

Despite his criminal activities, the man was eventually reunited with his wife and lived happy ever after on 500 acres of Australian farmland until his death.

The government's asserted crackdown ended the wholesale smuggling of luxury items into Kent but the wild tales of the wily and often-violent smugglers remain weaved into our county's colourful history.

To find out more about Chris McCooey's book Smuggling on the South Coast, click here

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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