Published: 06:00, 19 September 2020
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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.
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.’
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.
Other groups were less than collegiate in their pursuit of making a quick buck through illegal means.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.