Published: 05:00, 21 April 2022
| Updated: 10:30, 21 April 2022
The small peaceful village of Goudhurst rarely hits the headlines these days.
It's hard to believe that it was once filled with the sound of musket fire and the screams of the dying during a bloody battle between smugglers and locals villagers.
It was April 21, 1747, and the quiet streets of Goudhurst which was home to just 100 people were turned into a scene from the wild west.
Villagers decided enough was enough and made a stand against the intimidation and murder being carried out by the notorious Hawkhurst Gang, a band of smugglers who roamed across much of Kent and Sussex.
The early 18th century had seen a massive increase in smuggling.
Until then, dealing in contraband largely involved exporting wool – England’s most valuable commodity - without paying duty.
But it changed when the government placed high taxes on imported luxury goods, such as tea, silks, lace and French brandy.
The traditional occupations in the Weald - making woollen garments and the iron industry - had both fallen into decline.
So at first there was no shortage of villagers willing for a few coins to help the smugglers, if not directly, then by acting as lookouts, informing on the movements of the government's customs agents, providing hiding places for the contraband, or lending a packhorse to carry the goods.
After all, who suffered? - only the taxman.
But that soon proved not to be the case. Legitimate businesses found their trade undercut by the cheap illegal imports. Farmers found it difficult to attract labour, and patriots were angry at the smugglers' trade with France, with whom Britain was at war over colonial disputes in India and North America. So the government responded by offering high rewards for the capture of the smugglers and threatening the death penalty for its leaders.
Unfortunately this led to more extreme behaviour by the outlaws.
Anyone thought to be looking too closely at their business could expect a severe beating, and those suspected of informing were likely to be murdered.
The English poet Rudyard Kipling, who lived at Burwash in East Sussex, was very familiar with the county's smuggling history and wrote a poem with some sound advice for a little girl who accidently sees some smugglers:
Five and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!
Most smuggling gangs had brutal reputations – and none more so than the Hawkhurst Gang who operated from Deal to the Dorset coast.
To them, violence was a necessary tool to ensure business success. Among those known to have been murdered by the gang were dragoon officer Thomas Carswell, farm labourer Richard Hawkins, a youth from Rye called James Marshall, shoemaker Daniel Chater and customs officer William Galley.
By 1747 the Hawkhurst Gang, had become so wanton that some honest folk were abandoning their houses and moving away.
Into this cauldron steps 29-year-old William Sturt, born in Goudhurst. Sturt had been a regular soldier, who had served with Henry Harrison’s Regiment of Foot, (later the 15th Foot) fighting against the French at Ostend.
He had been recently discharged from the army as a corporal.
In the weeks before the battle he became increasingly disturbed at the tales of lawlessness surrounding the gang and determined to put an end to it.
In a new interpretation of the story, retired journalist Chris Tweedie, who has been researching the subject for six years, gives Sturt an additional motivation, suggesting that Sturt's mother had been the victim of violence at the hand of one of the gang's leaders.
In any case, the Hawkhurst Gang heard of this challenge to their authority and sent a warning they would be coming to Goudhurst to burn the village to the ground for its defiance.
The gang, which had the alternative name of the Siccocks, had been originally led by Arthur Gray of Seacox Heath, but Gray had been caught by the authorities and was languishing in Maidstone goal.
Stepping into his place as its commanders were two brothers Thomas and George Kingsmill.
The exact details of the battle have not survived, but its is known that Sturt and his militia had fortified some buildings in the village and were using the church tower of St Mary's as an observation post to warn of the enemies advance. The outlaws may have numbered as many as 150.
The outcome is known. Two of the smugglers were killed outright, including George Kingsmill. Many more were wounded. The rest broke and ran, some dropping their weapons as they fled.
Two of the pistols abandoned by the smugglers can now be found in Maidstone museum.
Suddenly there was no shortage of folk willing to come forward to the authorities to inform on their former oppressors.
And although the gang continued to operate for another two years, its power was on the wane.
Arthur Gray was executed at Tyburn in 1748 and Thomas Kingsmill in 1749 along with gang members William Fairall and Richard Perin.
The bodies of Kingsmill and Fairall were then taken to Goudhurst and gibbeted - that is hung up in chains - in the village, in what is now known as Gore Lane.
Perrin's corpse was similarly displayed in his home village of Horsmonden in Gibbet Lane. Smuggler George Chapman, was executed and gibbeted in his home village of Hurst Green.
Only one smuggler who was caught escaped any penalty, Richard Glover was found guilty, but became the only gang member to be pardoned.
In all 75 gang members were eventually caught and executed.
Meanwhile William Sturt stayed on in Goudhurst.
He married Ann Beeching in 1753 and they had two daughters, though one died in infancy. In 1763, after Ann's death, Sturt married again to a widow named Elizabeth Dudley.
In March 1765, William Sturt, then aged 47 was appointed Master of Goudhurst Workhouse, living on the premises with his family. His salary was £5 5s a year. His second wife died in 1791 and Sturt himself passed away in June, 1797.
Unfortunately there is no headstone to mark his grave.
The first written record of the Hawkhurst Gang was in 1735, when it was referred to in print as "the Holkhourst Geng."
While researching his book, Mr Tweedie has unearthed several other historic records: a small contemporary account of the battle that appeared in The Gentlemen's Magazine, and a handwritten petition signed by villagers seeking their reward from the authorities for informing on the gang.
The gang had several hangouts - the Oak and Ivy Inn in Hawkhurst was one, the Mermaid Inn in Rye another.
In the way of things, these spots have become tourist attractions and now form part of an official "Smugglers Trail."
The trail, opened by the Hawkhurst Community Partnership, is a tour of more than 20 buildings associated with smuggling from Hawkhurst, Goudhurst and Cranbrook down to the Sussex coast at Hastings and Rye
Mr Tweedie's book is a work of historical fiction rather than a historical record. He explores the minds and characters of the key protagonists in the weeks before and during the battle.
While the Gentlemen Go By, by Chris Tweedie is available as an ebook from Amazon.
More details from his website.