SMUGGLERS & THE HANGMEN: The Hawkhurst Gang and the “Battle” of Goudhurst 1747


Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark

ABOVE: The Smugglers take over the Inn. Shots in this piece use "The Stoic Arms" by 4Ground.

Words by Chris Swan | Pictures by John Treadaway

Kipling’s poem The Smugglers song begins with the lines “Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark”. It was published in 1906 and tells the tale of “the gentlemen” or smugglers as they go about their business. Smugglers were very active across Kent and East Sussex in the 18th century bringing in goods from France and the Low Countries (modern day Holland and Belgium) to evade excise duty or tax on luxury goods including brandy, tobacco, lace and tea. 

The stretch of coast between Hythe and Rye, especially Romney Marsh, was notorious for smuggling “runs” and is the setting for Russell Thorndyke’s series of seven novels featuring Dr Syn, who is also the former pirate Captain Clegg and is now The Scarecrow: the disguised leader of the smugglers. I have an interest in his stories and 18th century smuggling in general as Thorndyke was born and educated only two miles from where I live and the Marsh is only a one hour drive away. In addition, the Hoo Peninsula which is only a 15 minutes drive from my home and is bounded on one side by the Thames Estuary and on the other by the River Medway was an equally notorious smugglers’ landing site together with the numerous creeks and inlets which are dotted along the river especially those in and around the towns of Sittingbourne and Faversham. In the 1720’s the writer Daniel Defoe wrote of the latter “I know nothing else this town is remarkable for except the most notorious smuggling trade”.

However, the reality was actually much darker and more violent then the romanticised stories could ever convey and provides great inspiration for skirmish games rich with plot lines which can be played out using only a few figures. 

 

THE BACKGROUND

“Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk”

Smuggling in the 18th Century was very lucrative and was supported by many members of society from the local farmer, who might supply ponies to carry contraband or a safe location in which to store it, to the squire or lord of the manor, who was often the local magistrate and turned a blind eye to the activities of the smugglers in his area provided that they supplied him with goods or paid him off. As Kipling’s poem so aptly phrases it: “Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk, Lace for a lady; letters for a spy - watch the wall my darling as the gentlemen go by.”


The biggest profit was made from smuggling Tea. In the 18th century tea was an expensive luxury. A single pound of tea cost more than a skilled workman could earn in a week. This was due to the monopoly on importing tea held by the East India Company and King George’s Government who added an import tax which more than doubled its price at auction. Smugglers could buy tea cheaply in Holland and sell it in England for 10 times its purchase price but this still meant it was cheaper than “legal “tea on which tax had been paid. In 1777 Excise Officers estimated that in that year alone over 1,100 tons of tea had been landed on the Kent and Sussex coasts and claimed that that more tea had been smuggled into Britain than had been brought in legally. 

In the early 1700s the Customs service had a duty to intercept smugglers’ ships but had only 20 armed Revenue craft supported by 4 small ships of the Royal Navy to cover the whole coastline of England and Wales. On land, the only force opposing them was the Riding Officers of the Revenue Service. Originally set up to stop the illegal export of wool, by the mid 1700s their duties covered all forms of smuggling. A solitary Riding officer would be assigned an area of coast to patrol (four miles in the most active smuggling areas and ten miles elsewhere) and, as his duties included tackling violent bands of smugglers, he could summon military support from local garrisons – usually Dragoons – to aid him when necessary. When Daniel Defoe rode through Hythe towards Rye in the 1720s he saw riding officers and Dragoons searching the marshes for smugglers “as if they were huntsmen beating up their game.”

The government did not provide enough money to employ a full-time force of professionals so many Riding officers had other jobs and carried out their duties in their spare time or when convenient to themselves. Some were in league with the smugglers. One smuggler from West Sussex said of the Riding Officer for his area: “it is easy as can be to make him quiet, for do but dash a bottle of Brandy in his face and he is as blind as a beetle”. 

The preventative services did have some success. For example, between 1723 and 1736 “over 200 boats had been seized, 2,000 men prosecuted and over 200,000 gallons of brandy confiscated, although over 250 revenue officers had been beaten or wounded and 10 had been killed.” However, even the most honest officers were wary of large armed gangs and of the local population who supported them through greed or fear. Such was the case across West Kent and Sussex under the power of the Hawkhurst Gang.

 

THE HAWKHURST GANG

“Unredeemed brutes.” 

The gang was first mentioned as the “Holkhourst Genge” in 1735. Named after the village of Hawkhurst in Kent, the gang reportedly used the Oak and Ivy Inn in Hawkhurst and in the Mermaid Inn in Rye, West Sussex as their main bases. 

Allegedly the gang could call upon several hundred members when needed and virtually ruled large parts of Kent and Sussex. The gang’s success relied on their ability to dominate through terror; the gang was often referred to in local papers as “unredeemed brutes.” For example when a young man called James Marshall was thought to be taking too keen an interest in their activities in Rye he was taken away and never seen again. Such brutality was not restricted to innocent bystanders. When one of the gang was suspected of providing information against them he was flogged to death. They even fought “turf wars” with other gangs. When the gang fell out with a group from Wingham near Dover in Kent over a consignment of tea the argument was settled with swords The Hawkhurst gang won the argument wounding seven Wingham men and seizing 40 of their horses for use as pack animals.

The gang was so powerful that it even felt able to attack the military. In 1740, Thomas Carswell, a Riding Officer, and his escort of Dragoons found some smuggled tea in a barn and were transporting it by cart to Hastings. They were attacked on route between Hurst Green and Robertsbidge by about thirty men. Carswell was killed and his escort was captured and disarmed before the smugglers made off with the cart and the tea. On another occasion in 1744, they unloaded so much contraband from three cutters at Pevensey Bay in East Sussex that it took around 500 pack horses to transport the smuggled goods inland. Nobody tried to stop them. The gang’s criminal activities were not just limited to smuggling. They were also accused of “supporting themselves by highway robberies and house-breaking”.

GOUDHURST & ITS MILITIA

“The people having Notice of it got all armed”

The gang was very active in and around the small Kent town of Goudhurst and frequented the Star and Eagle tavern in the town. The Maidstone Journal of 1847 recalled that: “It is well known that a hundred years ago the farmers’ wives and daughters used to attend the weekly markets at villages with their butter, cheese, eggs and pork and that in many instances the smugglers laid hands on them, stripped them and bound them in a state of nudity to adjacent posts or trees and then pelted them with their own butter and eggs leaving them in a most pitiful state.”

The acts of theft and intimidation grew so bad that many in Goudhurst faced a choice of either deserting their homes or uniting to oppose the smugglers. The residents chose the latter and signed a declaration “expressing their abhorrence of the conduct of the smugglers, and their determination to oppose them.” To back up their declaration they formed “The Goudhurst Band of Militia.” The militia was led by William Sturt who had been baptised in St Mary’s the Virgin Church in Goudhurst and had returned home after leaving the army. Sturt had served in Henry Harrison’s Regiment of Foot, (later the 15th Foot) where he had reached the rank of Corporal. It is possible that he was present one night in 1744 when 30 men from his regiment ambushed a band of smugglers at Bexhill, Sussex during which several gang members were killed and 10 were captured, all of whom were later tried and executed. He almost certainly took part in the English raid on L’Orient in Brittany in 1746.

Clearly the gang could not let this act of defiance go unpunished and so their leader, Thomas Kingsmill, informed the residents that his gang would attack at 5 o’clock on 21st April 1747 and “by force of arms, takes possession of the town, murder its inhabitants, and after plundering would reduce it to ashes” and to “broil and eat the hearts of defenders.”

What actually happened was very different. The Kentish Post for 22nd April 1747 reported that “Yesterday, about Five o’clock in the afternoon, 15 Smugglers went to Goudhurst, all armed with Pistols & knives and swore they would fire the town. The people having Notice of it, got all armed and received their first Fire, but none were hurt; they fired at the Smugglers and shot two through their Heads, whereupon the others made off.” The two dead smugglers were identified as Thomas Kingsmill’s brother George and a man called Wollit. 

 

HEROES OR HUNTERS

“Extremely Vigilant in endeavouring to apprehend the Smugglers”

Historically it has been assumed that the Goudhurst Militia was formed solely to defend the village from the ravages of the smugglers. However, some local historians now challenge this view following the discovery of a letter from the 1740s in which Mr Wood of the Customs House writes to Surveyor General Collier asking whether Collier supports the actions of a group of residents from Goudhurst who “have taken up arms and frequently rummage all Houses and Places suspected of harbouring smugglers and are extremely Vigilant in endeavouring to apprehend the Smugglers”. Wood’s suggestion is that they were in fact acting as bounty hunters.

This is feasible given that the annual wage for a farm labourer in the 1740s was around £15 per annum and the reward for each smuggler captured was £50. Indeed a petition to the treasury from members of the Goudhurst Militia after the battle supports this theory, as in it they request a £150 reward for the killing of George Kingsmill and Wollit. So Sturt’s Militia may well have been formed as bounty hunters but whether heroes or hunters they certainly gave their oppressors a bloody nose.

 

THE END OF THE GANG

“Smashed up to the relief of all peaceful and law-abiding citizens.”

Although the smugglers had suffered a setback to their power in Kent, their reputation further afield remained unchecked. In September 1747 the Revenue Service captured a Dorset smuggler’s ship, The Three-Brothers, placing its cargo of contraband, “upwards of two tons of tea and thirty-nine casks of spirits” in the Customs House in Poole. 

The Dorset smugglers asked the Hawkhurst Gang to assist them in recovering it. On arriving in Poole on 7th October they found that the customs house was protected by the guns of a naval sloop but realised that – as the tide fell – the ship’s guns would no longer be able to cover the quay. At around 2am on 8th October they broke into the customs house and recovered all of the tea but left behind the brandy and rum as they had insufficient horses to transport it. They were unopposed for the whole of their return journey.

However, their acts of brutality finally led to their downfall. Several months after the raid in Poole a member of the gang known as Diamond was captured. On route to the trial the gang kidnapped the key witness against him, Daniel Chater, and his escort, a riding officer called William Galley. They were both tortured and Galley was buried alive. Chater was thrown “headlong into a well and fancying they heard him breathe or groan they threw posts and stones in upon him.”

The Government and, more importantly, the local population had had enough. A list of known gang members was published in the London Gazette and those named were given 40 days to surrender or they would be condemned to death. In addition, informants were promised a royal pardon together with a £500 reward for each smuggler who was captured. Thomas Kingsmill and the key members of the gang were soon caught, tried and convicted. Kingsmill and three others were hung at Tyburn on 26th April 1749. In all 25 members of the gang were hung and a further 40 transported to North America and the Caribbean as conscript labour. The bodies of 14 gang members were hung in chains as a warning to others. Thomas Kingsmill’s body was hung in the gibbet at Goudhurst. As the papers reported, the Hawkhurst Gang was essentially “smashed up to the relief of all peaceful and law-abiding citizens.”

As for William Sturt, he married twice, became the Master of Goudhurst Workhouse in 1765 and died on 25th June 1797 aged 79.

 

ARMS & THE MAN

“The people having Notice of it got all armed” 

 

THE SMUGGLERS

The report from Kentish Post says the smugglers were armed with Pistols. This makes sense as they would have normally needed to use both hands to move barrels or bundles or packages off of boats and on to ponies or into carts or wagons. Single shot pistols were freely available and could be thrust through or hooked onto belts or placed into horse holsters. These were sturdy and robust weapons and most had a brass fitting on the butt making them useful as a club once fired.

It may well be that the smugglers also made use of Blunderbusses. The Blunderbuss, or its smaller pistol version the Dragon, (from which the word Dragoon may have originated) has a flared muzzle intended not only to increase the spread of the shot but also make it easier to reload when on horseback or on a moving carriage. Modern tests have shown that shot from a blunderbuss could spread out to a width of over 30” and could thus cause multiple wounds or hit more than one target. A blunderbuss was typically loaded with a number of balls but anecdotal stories often refer to such weapons being loaded with nails, tacks, scrap metal and even broken glass or small stones and pebbles. Firing such objects would have resulted in damage to the gun’s bore but meant that ammunition for it would have been easy to find. The Kentish Post also says the smugglers were armed with knives but this was a catch-all phrase often used to mean any form of bladed weapon used in combat, so would include swords and cutlasses as well.

THE MILITIA

The Militia is supposed to have been armed with shoulder arms but it is possible that one or two smugglers might also have carried such a weapon. Muskets were available and these would have been supplemented by Fowling Pieces. These could be single or double barrelled shoulder arms used for hunting game or water fowl, hence the name. These fired small shot or pellets and were in effect shot guns. During this period rifles did exist in Great Britain but were rare and expensive. Used for hunting by the rich they were usually called Sporting Guns. 

The Militia may well have carried some form of bladed weapon with the most well off carrying swords but more likely given the rural setting some of the Militia could have been armed with edged or tined farm implements such as scythes and pitch forks. Both sides may also have made use of clubs, cudgels and axes.

THE PREVENTIVE SERVICES

Riding Officers would have been armed with pistols, usually carried in horse holsters and probably a sword. The Dragoons would have had carried one or two pistols in horse holsters, a musket and a hanger or sword, whilst any infantry would have carried a musket and bayonet although any officers would have been armed with pistol and sword. 

SMUGGLING STORIES 

So smuggling in the 18th century was big business and a bloody one at that but our business is playing games! With that in mind I have created a scenario which is inspired by the defence of Goudhurst but not wholly based on it. It involves the fictional town of Gillinghurst, which I have placed near to a river I have named the Meadway and its surrounding marshes. I have set my story in Kent but the scenario can be set anywhere in the UK which has a coast nearby. The scenario also includes options for the players to add additional challenges to the game which capture some of the suspense and romance of the fictional stories as well as some extra fun.

In addition, I have provided the outlines for two additional scenarios inspired by real events which players may want to try out once their appetite for smuggling stories has been wetted, preferably with contraband tea.

 

SCENARIO 1: TAKING POSSESSION OF THE TOWN

The Town of Gillinghurst

The town should have a number of buildings including the Church of St Christopher the Poor Traveller, the Swan Inn and the Squire’s House. 

I set the town up on a 4’ by 4’ table and used six buildings including a walled Church together with hedge rows and fields to give a rural setting but players can use whatever buildings and scenery they have provided that the Church, Inn and the Squire’s House are all represented. These should be placed within 12” of each other arranged on opposite sides of a road which runs through the town or grouped around a town square.

 

The Protagonists 

In the first scenario they are The Hangmen, a group of smugglers who dominate the local area through acts of violence and terror and their opponents, the Gillinghurst Militia Men

The Hangmen’s name not only refers to their method of punishing any who oppose them but is also a play on words on the name of the gang’s leader, Septimus Gallows. The gang currently consists of Septimus and six others, including his violent brother Silas Gallows.

Until now the gang has ruled the roost but the arrival of “Captain” Jack Stout back from the wars to his home town of Gillinghurst has put some backbone into the locals who have now formed a Militia to oppose them. This includes the Doctor Drabble who is the town’s GP as well as a noted hunter and naturalist, Isaac Potts the local poacher, Squire Marston a local landowner and the Meadows brothers who are farm labourers. The Militia is also not above actively seeking out suspected smugglers and capturing them for the reward. They have recently seized a suspected smuggler called McGowan who is their prisoner and is locked in the crypt of the church until he can be handed over to the authorities.

The Hangmen have announced that they will burn down the town tomorrow at 4.0’clock unless McGowan is released, the Militia disarm and all of the town’s valuables are handed over. Naturally the residents have refused and so conflict is looming. 

Roll for initiative to see who will go first.

Captain Stout’s Militia

The Militia begin the scenario deployed in the churchyard but up to two characters can begin the game deployed in any building or buildings within 12” of the church.

 

The Hangmen

The Hangmen begin the game deployed on the table edge furthest away from the church and a minimum of 24” from it: they may be split into between 1 and 3 groups. 

 

VICTORY CONDITIONS

The Smugglers must: 

  • Seize the Church and free the prisoner
  • Loot and /or burn down the Inn to set an example 
  • Cause as many casualties as they can on the Militia. 

 

The Militia must: 

  • Defend the Church and their prisoner
  • Cause sufficient casualties to the smugglers to force them to withdraw
  • Capture any of the smugglers for the reward

The side which gains the most objectives is the winner – if no objectives are gained or both sides gain the same number then the game ends in a draw.

 

Time Limit

The game should have limited playing time to reflect the need for the smugglers to free the prisoner McGowan before Dragoons from the neighbouring town of Hoochester arrive. Thus after 6 moves roll 1D6, if a 1 is rolled the game stops at that point; if this does not happen, then on the next turn roll again with the game stopping on a 1 or 2. On subsequent turns increase the score needed to end the game by 1 and so on until the game automatically stops after turn 11.

 

ADDED CHALLENGES

If you want to make the game more challenging then you can add in one or more of the following options. Chose those which take your fancy or otherwise select them randomly with each player rolling 1d6 to see which ones are in play. Reroll any duplicate results.

 


 

“Mist rolling in from the Sea”

Goudhurst is actually far inland but I have chosen to locate my town of Gillinghurst within a few miles of the Kent coast. This option allows for a sea mist to roll in and obscure visibility. 

Anyone in the Open and in clear visibility is automatically seen

Anyone in the open but in the Mist or in clear visibility but in some form of cover needs to be located by a visibility test.

Anyone in the Mist and in some form of cover needs to be located by a reduced visibility test.

Any character who fires has their chance of being spotted improved by 1 category

At the start of the game roll 1d6 and check the weather chart. Unless a 6 is rolled test again each turn to see if the mist thickens or clears.


“A One legged Seafaring Man”

Squire Marston has a secret – several years ago as a young man he took part in a voyage to find the treasure of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Once he found it he cheated one of his fellow treasure hunters, a one legged seafaring man known a Barbecue Bronze, out of his share. Bronze has now arrived at the Swan Inn and is waiting for a chance for revenge. He wants to kill the Squire and escape from the table. His figure is placed in the Inn and can be played as a member of the gang or as a totally independent character.


“Tunnel”

In Goudhurst there is legend that a tunnel stretches from the local pub to Church Yard but in Gillinghurst this tunnel is real and the smugglers know of it. If they enter the Inn roll 1D6

 

Up to 2 smugglers can travel along the tunnel at any one time.

Note: You could allow the defenders to use the tunnel instead thus moving unseen between the Church and the Inn.

 

“The Hooded Man”

The recently arrived Reverend Bliss is not what he seems. He is also The Hooded Man, leader of the smugglers called The Wild Hunt who use supernatural scare tactics to disguise their activities. He wants Septimus Gallows and his brother dead so he can take over all smuggling in this area but must not be seen to perform an act of violence so must kill the Gallows in secret. His figure is placed in the Church and can be played as a member of the Militia or as a totally independent character.


“Grenade”

One side, determined randomly, has acquired 2 fused grenades from the local garrison. Nominate which character(s) carry them. When they are to be used roll 1D6

 

 

“The farmers’ wives and daughters”

At Goudhurst the families had fled before the battle started but at Gillinghurst they haven’t had the chance to – so they are hiding in one of the buildings other than the church. The Militia player chooses a building and places five figures of women and children into it. They count as unarmed except for some improvised weapons such a brooms, frying pans or pots filled with scalding water or obnoxious personal substances. 

The smugglers could try to locate them and seize them to use as hostages or the militia may choose to place one or more character with them as protection.

If taken as hostages they can be used in two alternative ways:

As Human shields – a smuggler places a female hostage in front of him and so any shot fired at him frontally must first hit the woman – a marksman or expert shot may ignore this if they make an aimed shot at the man instead.

As a bargaining tool – The smugglers place the women in a line and offer to exchange them for the prisoner – the Militia must each take a courage/morale test and if more fail than pass then they will agree to the deal.

SCENARIO 2: THE FIGHT ON THE SHORE

Fiction to the contrary, fights on the beach between Smugglers and Revenue men aided by the military were rare occurrences. One example did take place in Botany Bay near to Broadstairs in Kent in 1769 when a military patrol accompanied by revenue officers surprised a band of smugglers in the early hours of the morning whilst they were offloading contraband on the shore. In the ensuing fight 10 smugglers were killed, 8 captured but 4 escaped killing a riding officer whilst doing so.

This scenario is set on the Kent coast at Flora Bay a few miles from Gillinghurst. It should be played on a 4’ x 4’ table divided into three zones. The first of these is along one table edge is 4’ wide and 6” deep and is the sea/water’s edge: all movement in this area counts as bad going especially for those in riding boots! 

Adjoining this is an area 4’ wide by 18” deep which is the shore – made up of shingle or sand – again players may want to reduce movement rates in some areas due to deep sand or shifting shingle. In the middle of this near to the water are several barrels, small chests and packages all containing smuggled goods plus 3 or more pack horses/ponies – the Smugglers are grouped around these when the scenario begins. Their objective is to escape off of the table via the countryside. If they can do so with some of the contraband they will score a major victory. 

The last zone is 4’ wide x 24” deep and is the beginning of the countryside, covered in scrub and stunted trees. This could also include a cliff edge with a path leading up or through it. 

As the game is set in the early hours of the morning clear visibility is set at 12”- anyone beyond this has to be spotted although any one firing or using a light to illuminate the area will be seen automatically. For this game use the Hangmen for the Smugglers and the following for the patrol: 

 

The patrol may enter the table as one big group or be split into two or three groups. They are deployed 6” in at one or both ends of the beach; if three groups are used then one may be placed anywhere in the country side zone where it can attempt to block the smugglers retreat from the beach. Their objective is to capture or kill as many of the smugglers as possible. 

 

SCENARIO 3: ESCORTING THE GOODS

This type of game represents an attack on a convoy of contraband. It could be the smugglers escorting pack horses to a nearby barn for storage or the Revenue with some dragoons or Infantry taking seized goods in a cart to a safer location which, in my setting, is the Customs House at nearby Hoochester. It may be used as a follow up to The Fight on the Shore: indeed if the patrol captured one or more smugglers then the “goods” could be prisoners being taken to the nearby goal.

It is played on a 4’ x 4’ table the set should have a road winding through it, perhaps crossing a bridge at mid point. The surrounding area is covered with scrub, trees or fields lined by hedges and walls. Again use the Hangmen for the smugglers and the Revenue men/Dragoons/Infantry given above. Either or both parties could be on horseback. If the “goods” are being conveyed by the smugglers they are on three or more pack horse/ponies: if by the Revenue they are in a cart or wagon. Whoever is escorting the “goods” their objective is to travel along the road from their entry point on one table edge and exit where the road leaves the table on the opposite table edge. 

The attacker can place half of their force in ambush and bring the rest onto the table from a random location excluding the table edges where the convoy must enter and exit. Their objective is to seize the “goods” and escape of off the table. In both games a time limit should be set to determine who wins.

 

RULES SETS & FIGURES

To play these Games I have set out some generic characters for players to use based on the By Crom! Rules which can be found on this magazine’s web site tabletopgaming.co.uk/downloads, but any good set of one to one skirmish rules which emphasises combat with black powder weapons and allows for close combat can be used. A supplementary page listing black powder small arms used by smugglers and their opponents and the rules for using them under By Crom! can also be found on the web site.

To play all of these games you will need around twenty figures plus a further five for the females and children option so these scenarios should be within everyone’s pocket. The numbers also lend themselves to using larger scale figures such as 40mm or 54mm. We used 28mm figures from Black Scorpion’s Pirate Range and civilians from Redoubts’ French Indian War range. There are plenty of pirate and 18th century figures out there providing you choose figures with tricorn or broad brimmed “floppy “hats, head scarves or who are bareheaded. The choice is so wide that it would be impossible to list them all but Out Post Wargames Service does a range of Highwaymen, smugglers and both mounted and dismounted dragoons. Also look at Wargames Foundry, North Star Designs, Perry Miniatures AWI range, Front Rank and The Galloping Major to name but a few. Parkfield Miniatures also does a nice range of 25mm smuggler figures including a Scarecrow figure along with some Revenue men. 

So will the Smugglers make a successful “run” or will they be caught by the prevention men and hang at the next assizes? Only you and the gods of the dice will decide! Happy Gaming. 

 

This article originally appeared in issue 445 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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