The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


13    The Hawkhurst Gang & Thameside Pirates


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



Smuggling was an important part of the economy of eighteenth-century Britain – which depended upon the distribution of goods via water. It was a common part of life in many coastal towns, and along the Thameside quays in London. Many provincial shopkeepers, apothecaries, innkeepers, grocers, and various tradesmen included contraband goods in their stock, and smuggled goods were sold at stalls at country fairs. People objected to taxation on imported tea and spirits, and happily bought ‘duty-free goods’. They seldom regarded ‘runners’ as criminals, so long as violence was not used. The Duke of Richmond, who campaigned against smuggling along the south coast, wrote to Sir Cecil Bishop in 1749, ‘I have often heard you say, and with great truth, that the common people of this country have no notion that smuggling is a crime.’ John Taylor, the chaplain at Newgate prison, felt the same, concluding that ‘The common people of England in general fancy there is nothing in the crime of smuggling.’ In fact this attitude was shared by the upper classes: Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, had ‘dark cargoes’ of wine shipped for his personal use and the political entertainment at his country house (though this is not quite the kind of ‘goods running’ that gangs of smugglers organized).

            However, the fact that poor people, as Taylor said, felt they had ‘a right to shun paying any duty on their goods’, and looked more kindly upon smugglers than upon excise men, does not mean that they regarded smugglers as political activists. I would disagree with those historians who characterize smuggling as a ‘social crime’, as only technically an illegal activity, regarded by the community as a legitimate practice (such as quayside porters pilfering some of the goods they carry, as a ‘perk’ justified by custom), or an activity illustrative of political protest (such as weavers wrecking looms, or food riots). Although smuggling gangs sometimes were supported by local communities, this was often achieved by intimidation and the threat (and use) of violence. In the 1740s one Revenue officer said he was unable to persuade a farmer to give evidence because ‘he is afraid the gang will burn down his house and barn if he should discover any of them and so says everyone . . . They all say that there is no force in the country, the smugglers will do as they please with them.’ The rural poor benefited by smuggling, partly through cheap local prices for tea and brandy, partly because they received small amounts of tea or money from smugglers for assisting them. The poor, however, were not members of the smuggling gangs, which were made up of men who had been labourers or task-workers or artisans, for whom smuggling was more profitable than honest work loading and unloading ships.

            Contrary to the view of some historians that smuggling along the coast was a defence of the local economy against the encroachment of commercial capitalism, the smuggling of tea, in particular, was a capitalist business organized by men with sufficient wealth to buy ships and warehouses as well as horses and guns. One smuggler who was hanged in 1748 was said to be worth 10,000. He did not accumulate this by redistributing wealth among his poorer neighbours. In November 1778 twelve wagons and 50 horses carrying smuggled goods worth 5,000 were seized between Lymington and Christchurch, and brought to the Custom House at Southampton. The smuggling trade thrived until 1784, when the duty on tea was reduced by three-quarters, making smuggling less profitable and no longer worth the risk and investment. Although some wealthy businessmen, whether in London or France or Holland, financed some smuggling, by far the largest majority of the men who capitalized this trade were local merchants on the south coast who established a consortium to put together venture capital to buy the goods, then used the profit on selling them duty-free to increase their business. The merchants leading this trade – whether small-scale or large-scale – were entrepreneurs and financiers: they did not engage in smuggling as a socio-political act, but in order to make lots and lots of money. They do not meet the usual description of ‘social criminals’ whose flouting of the law carries political overtones or aims to achieve a fair redistribution of wealth. Smugglers were not ‘social bandits’ – they were trying to beat the system for personal gain. Far from attacking the taxation laws as being unjust or irrational, they were simply exploiting the gap between duty-paid and duty-free in order to make a killing.

            Many smuggling gangs consisted of common criminals who were classed as thieves by the ordinary community. By the later eighteenth century, smuggling became an example of organized crime unseen since the days of Jonathan Wild (and Captain Johnson who smuggled Wild’s stolen goods to Holland). Smuggling also involved much larger gangs than any other type of criminal activity. This was because a very large body of men was necessary to unload a ship full of many tons of cargo and then carry the goods across land on a large caravan of horses. The logistics necessary for assembling these forces necessitated a high level of organization. The trade was far less casual than the trades of highway robbery or housebreaking, and was characterized by a division of labour involving specialized skills, often organized by age: young men to handle the horses, strong men to unload the cargo, old men to keep a lookout while the unloading took place. Determining the safest time to run goods, when Customs officers were not in the neighbourhood, required a system for gathering and conveying intelligence, often assisted by smugglers’ wives and by pub keepers. Finally, smuggling required an organized network for the distribution of contraband goods that used many of the same fences who distributed stolen goods. The prime factor in creating any sort of organized crime is the professional network necessary for the efficient disposal of goods, whether stolen or smuggled, from the warehouses to the point of sale. The pawnbrokers without whom pickpockets and housebreakers would not have survived, were also major distribution points for the buying and selling of smuggled tobacco, tea and spirits.

            Smuggling was very common on the south coast (mainly in Sussex and Kent) in the 1740s, especially the smuggling of wool. There was a kind of guerrilla war between the smugglers and the authorities. The writers Daniel Defoe and Horace Walpole in their travels near the south coast passed camps of smugglers pitched not too far from camps of excise men. One night Walpole arrived at ‘a wretched village called Robertsbridge . . . But alas! there was only one bed to be had; all the rest were inhabited by smugglers, whom the people of the house called mountebanks.’ Not liking this society, Walpole’s party moved on, but finally had to stop at ‘a still worse inn, and that crammed with excise officers, one of whom had just shot a smuggler.’ Defoe characterized dragoons of Customs officers on horseback as ‘riding always about as if they were huntsmen beating up their game’. In September 1739 the victuallers and inn-keepers in the Tunbridge area petitioned the War Office for relief ‘from the great number of soldiers that are quarter’d thereabouts to watch the smugglers, so many in a house that they have no room for their guests; and if not eas’d they must inevitably be ruin’d’.

            The Surveyor-General of the Customs for Kent wrote from Hastings to the Solicitor of the Commissioners of the Customs in London in December 1744, describing the ‘triumphant manner’ with which the smugglers reigned, and their ‘insults, menaces, and abuses given not only to the Officers of the Revenue, but to any other persons that offer to speak against their detestable practices’. The Solicitor, among many others, believed that the smugglers were ‘a standing army of desperadoes’ who were terrorizing the people of Sussex.

            A Committee on Smuggling held Parliamentary hearings in 1745, which revealed a large network of smugglers in the area. Wool was smuggled abroad, where it was used to buy tea, which was smuggled into England. From the port of Boulogne in France, the goods were transported mostly in Folkestone cutters, carrying 15 to 40 tons, which were met three or four miles out from the coast by smaller boats, which brought the goods ashore, where men were waiting for the signal to be ready to collect it. Twenty to thirty cargoes were run each week. Abraham Walter, a tea-dealer and former smuggler, told the committee that the smuggling trade involved more than 20,000 people, and that more than three million pounds of tea were illegally imported every year. The smuggling in spirits (brandy) was probably as large. Specialized containers were manufactured for transporting smuggled goods: oilskin bags for tea, and half-anchors for spirits, both of which were paired containers slung over a packhorse’s back, the former a pair of bags holding from a quarter to half a hundredweight each, and the latter a pair of tubs holding about four gallons apiece. A horse could carry six or seven half-anchors, or four half-anchors plus a rider. The goods were stored temporarily in holes dug in sand-dunes, in haystacks, in vaults in parish churches, and in concealed cupboards built into large hearths in village inns, before being sent to warehouses south of London.

            Although piracy and smuggling, as forms of theft, were already illegal and punishable by transportation, and killing an officer while smuggling was punishable by death, Parliament decided to make sure there was no ambiguity in the interpretation of a law that was difficult to enforce, and passed an Act which made armed smuggling a capital felony, declaring that any suspected smugglers who did not surrender themselves within forty days of their names being published in the gazettes, would be declared to be automatically convicted felons subject to the death penalty.


The Hawkhurst Gang


Many smugglers regularly assembled at Folkestone, though their chief place of resort was the village of Hawkhurst in Kent. The ‘Hawkhurst Gang’ was noted as early as 1735, but was especially active in the 1740s. The smugglers ‘go armed; and although they are well known, people dare not venture to molest any of them’. Abraham Walter said that a group of 500 armed smugglers could be assembled in Hawkhurst in less than an hour, and that ‘not one person in ten in the country but would give them assistance, and do lend the smugglers their horses and teams to convey their goods.’ In late March 1747 about seventy of the Hawkhurst smugglers, twenty-five of whom were armed with guns, were loading smuggled tea onto fifty horses on the beach when they were surprised by twenty Customs officers. A battle lasted for an hour and a half before the smugglers fled, taking a large quantity of goods with them. Four or five of the Hawkhurst smugglers were captured and sentenced to death in 1747, and several were transported. The high number of Customs officers involved in this conflict was unusual; normally they were too outnumbered to take any effective action. (In July 1778 six officers of the excise overtook a gang of 140 smugglers near Orford, with 27 carts loaded with tea and dry goods, and managed to seize only two carts loaded with spirits.)

            Early in the morning on 13 August 1746, both townspeople and officers stood by, daring to do nothing, as fourteen or fifteen members of the Hawkhurst Gang, all armed, rode through the village of Lydd, three miles from New Romney, Kent, driving horses loaded with oilskin bags full of uncustomed tea. A farmer with his cart carrying a load of corn was forced off the road to let them go by. The ostler at the George said that the gang stopped at the inn day and night for the past seven years, putting their goods down in the yard, and that one of their leaders ‘had like to have kill’d me several times’. Sometimes thirty or forty of them would lodge at the George for three or four days waiting for the cutter to come in. They also lodged at other houses in the village, taking up all available stables. The ostler claimed he was sometimes forced to accompany them, to tend to the horses. When he refused, Thomas Dixon, nicknamed Shoemaker Tom, ‘took me several blows over my head with the great end of his whip, so I followed them’. William Tample, Esq., a gentleman who lived at Lydd, said the town was often pestered by gangs of smugglers: ‘I have often been afraid of them, and shunned them often.’ John Cook, one of the leaders of the Hawkhurst Gang from about 1740 until 1747 when he was executed, found it difficult to keep his men under control and often just managed to prevent them from committing murder. The most desperate members of the Hawkhurst Gang gloried in nicknames such as Great Daniel, Halfcoat Robin, Trip and Blacktooth. James Hodges, one of the ringleaders of the gang and an especially violent man, was commonly known by the name of Poison. A few of these men were also farmers, but most were employed in no business other than smuggling. Like thieves and robbers, smugglers often harboured together in the same network of safe houses, and many smugglers developed greater solidarity with members of other criminal subcultures than with the law-abiding members of their coastal communities.

            Goods were run mostly at night, but the smugglers became increasingly careless of detection as their power grew. Even during the daytime, gangs of forty or fifty men could be seen unloading their goods. The committee was told that ‘above two hundred mounted smugglers were seen one night upon the sea beach at Romney Marsh waiting for the loading of six boats and above one hundred were seen to go off loaded with goods; they march in a body from the beach about four miles into the country and then separate into small parties.’ This period was at the point of transition between the older era when contraband goods were distributed mainly by local innkeepers, to the new world of big business directed by London merchants and dealers. Goods were often taken from Kent and Sussex to London and put into warehouses under the care of agents, mainly at depots in Stockwell, Lambeth, known as the ‘smugglers’ den’. While conducting their business, the Hawkhurst smugglers lodged mainly at the Nag’s Head Inn, in Leather Lane, Holborn. From there they sent out parcels to their customers. Sometimes they sold to intermediary duffers, who had special coats in which they could conceal and carry a quarter of a hundred weight of tea, and they supplied the hawkers, who carried it around town and sold it to the consumers.

Print showing the Hawkhurst Gang murdering a Customs officer

            By the end of the decade the smugglers reigned uncontrolled. No magistrate would dare commit them to gaol. They operated in full daylight. Customs officers were sometimes shot and killed, notably one in 1740, when an officer was killed in an open battle with the smugglers as the seized contraband was being carried to the Customs’ warehouse in Hastings. No one was taken for this until ten years later. In a similar battle three dragoons were killed, and again there were no convictions. In November 1744 a gang of sixty smugglers entered Bexhill armed with blunderbusses and carbines, and destroyed the household goods of a Customs officer and violently abused his wife. The day after this incident, three large cutters unloaded their goods in Pevensey Bay to be received by 500 to 600 men on horses, each taking their share.

            It would be quite wrong to claim that ordinary people were not distressed by this breakdown in law and order. The smugglers waged a campaign of intimidation upon local residents as well as Revenue officers, strutting down the streets with their blunderbusses and declaring ‘they would be stopped by nobody.’ The leaders of smuggling gangs often dressed their part, with several brace of pistols and other arms theatrically hanging from their belts, making their role quite clear and daring anybody to cross their path. In Dover in 1744, 200 men on horses attacked the Customs House and tried to recover a confiscated smuggling cutter and its cargo. ‘They rode through the town about 5 o’clock in the afternoon with pistols cocked in their hands, each having two carbines and cutlasses, swearing and threatening destruction to the Officers of the Customs and to blow out their brains and burn their houses, and they put the whole town into the utmost consternation.’ In March 1744 in Folkestone a gang of armed smugglers came into town, ‘riding about the streets in a riotous manner, demanding drink at private as well as public houses and shooting through several signs’. The Customs officer said that the situation could ‘be compared to nothing more like than a frontier town in a state of war’. In April 1747 the Hawkhurst Gang threatened to burn down the neighbouring town of Goudhurst and to kill all its inhabitants, and were in the process of carrying out their threat when the newly formed local militia came to the town’s defence and killed two of the smugglers. In August that year, according to a report in the Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘About 24 smugglers well-armed and laden with prohibited goods rode through Rye, Sussex, and stopping at the Red Lion to refresh, fired several times to intimidate the inhabitants, and observing one, James Marshall, a young man too curious of their behaviour, carried him off, and he has not been heard of since.’


Barbarous and Inhuman Murders


In December 1744 three Customs officers in Shoreham were captured by the Hawkhurst Gang: ‘They put horse-locks about our legs, and kept us in chains ... they stripped us naked all above the waist, and then they began to cut us in a very terrible manner.’ Abraham Bailey, a Customs officer who went from London to Horsey in Norfolk to investigate reports of smuggling in the area in March 1746, described how a gang of smugglers broke into the farmer’s house where he was staying, dragged him out to the barn and began beating him. One of the smugglers, John Carbold, nicknamed Cockeye, rubbed his hands inside a chimney and blackened Bailey’s face with soot; ‘after this they put a gun betwixt my legs, and rode me round the room, saying, I should be their member of Parliament.’ Cockeye beat him with a leather thong, then let him go back to the farmhouse. But early in the morning they pulled him out of bed and took him to a field, where they whipped him till his flesh was flayed, and held a knife to his throat to force him to answer their questions about why he had come to the area. Then they tied his arms very tightly and put a cord around his neck and painfully hanged him up against a tree for some time: ‘after that they let me down, and forced me to unbutton my breeches, and made me swear damnation to my soul if ever I revealed it, and asked me very immodest questions.’ One man out of a gang of twenty had been apprehended running goods in Horsey in February 1746 (and also on two other occasions in Benacre), but it is little surprise that no one came forward to offer firm identification, and he was acquitted. Bailey’s persevering investigations managed to convict only two men, including Cockeye, who was hanged.

            This kind of torture was not limited only to Customs officers. In February 1748 a kind of ‘court’ of the Hawkhurst smugglers met to consider the charge that one of their own members, Richard Hawkins, had privately stolen two bags of tea without sharing the goods with the others. Though Hawkins denied the charge, he was whipped mercilessly and died shortly after being kicked in the groin, then his body was weighted down with rocks and thrown into a lake near Parham. Two weeks later one of the men who had whipped Hawkins, John Mills, nicknamed Smoker, was part of the gang responsible for torturing and murdering a West Sussex Customs officer and an informer. This notorious incident was described in numerous popular pamphlets such as A Genuine History of the inhuman Murders of William Galley and Daniel Chater. The story began in September 1747 when a group of about thirty men formed a plan to smuggle tea via Guernsey, but one of their ships was seized and its contraband tea was lodged in the Custom House in the port of Poole, Dorset. They decided to retake it. On the night of 6–7 October the West Sussex gang set out from Rowland’s Castle and were joined in the forest of Bare by about thirty men from the Hawkhurst Gang. About half of what was now a total force of about sixty, led by John Diamond or Dymar, broke open the Customs House and took the tea, about 1300 hundredweight, which they loaded onto thirty-one horses. The rest of the gang were posted at various stages along the road to secure their retreat. When their cavalcade reached Fordingbridge in Hampshire, they stopped for a triumphal dinner, during which Diamond recognized the local shoemaker, Daniel Chater, who had once worked with him at the harvest, and as a friendly gesture tossed him a bag of tea and shook hands with him. Diamond was eventually arrested at Chichester on suspicion, and the authorities asked Chater to make a positive identification. In February 1748 Chater went with one William Galley, a Customs House officer, to a Justice of the Peace in Sussex to give information about Diamond. On the way, the two men stopped at the White Hart Inn at Rowland Castle kept by Elizabeth Payne. She told some friends that ‘she was afraid that these two strangers were come to do the smugglers hurt.’ Her two sons – who were smugglers – sent for William Jackson and William Carter. Four more members of the smuggler gang were fetched. Galley and Chater were made drunk with rum, and slightly beaten up before they fell asleep. A total of seven smugglers debated what to do with the officer and the informer. Two of the smugglers’ wives decided the issue, saying ‘Hang the dogs, for they came here to hang us.’ Jackson waked Galley and Chater by leaping on the bed and running his spurs across their foreheads, then when they both got up all bloody, whipped them out of the room with a horse-whip. They sat both men on one horse, tying their legs together under the horse’s belly. The smugglers whipped the two men steadily for a mile, the horse going at a very slow pace, until they fell off. ‘Then they laid Galley across the saddle, with his breast downwards, as a butcher does a calf, and then Little Sam got up behind him, and as the horse walked on, he put his left hand into Galley’s breeches, and squeezed his private parts to such a degree that the poor creature groaned very much, and said he could not bear it, for that would kill him.’ As Galley began falling off the horse, Richards gave him a shove and said ‘Fall and be damned.’ They thought he had broken his neck in the fall, and was dead, so they buried him in an enlarged fox-hole. Later when his body was found, his hands were covering his eyes, as if to keep the dirt out of them, so he must have been buried alive.

            Chater, still alive, was taken to another public house, where fourteen members of the gang met to decide what to do with him. All agreed he must be disposed of. They forced Chater to kneel, while one of the men drew a knife across his eyes and nose, almost cutting both of his eyes out, and cutting quite through the gristle of his nose. One account says they cut off his genitals. Then they put him on a horse and headed for Harris’s Well, whipping him cruelly all the way, while his blood soaked into the saddle.

Print showing the Hawkhurst Gang throwing the Customs officer Daniel Chater down a well

Once there, they tied a rope around his neck and pushed him into the well, but he grabbed the sides, and hung there for a quarter of an hour. They pulled him out, still alive, and beat his head against the wall of the well, then threw him in head first. He continued to groan from the bottom of the 20- or 30-foot deep well, so they threw down two large logs of wood and some stones until he stopped making any noises.

            Both bodies were recovered in the autumn, and Jackson and Carter were eventually arrested. A campaign to suppress smuggling was mounted by the Duke of Richmond, who himself paid for agents to gather information and interrogate witnesses, and effectively broke the gang. A modern historian has foolishly suggested that the Duke of Richmond’s motive was merely to check a threat to his power and prestige in West Sussex, where he enjoyed hunting, playing cricket and beautifying his garden at Goodwood. In fact the Duke of Richmond was concerned for the well-being of his local community, which was being destroyed by criminal gangs. Social responsibility rather than self-interest was his motivation. He was relatively unharmed financially by smuggling, but he was shocked, like many people, by what he correctly called ‘dangerous outrages and barbarous and inhuman murders’. The smuggling trade involved more murders than any other type of criminal activity, and it was this clear threat to people rather than property that prompted him to use all his power and prestige to put an end to such lawlessness.

            Partly due to pressure from the Duke of Richmond’s initiative, His Majesty’s Privy Council issued an order on 22 June 1748 declaring that if the notorious Suffolk smuggler Benjamin Watts, nicknamed Rotten, did not surrender himself within forty days he would be declared to be a convicted felon and subject to the death penalty. Advertisements ordering Rotten to surrender himself were printed in a local newspaper and posters were put up in several market towns. However, he did not surrender himself within the time allotted, and he was eventually captured and hanged in February 1749. Men guilty of smuggling before the Act took effect were subject to transportation (or sometimes just branding) rather than death, though the men prosecuted for the events following the raid on the Poole Customs House were charged in connection with murder, a capital felony.

            At a special Assize held in Chichester on 9 January 1749 seven men were tried and convicted for the murder of Galley and Chater, three as principals and four as accessories to the murder. A total of twelve witnesses gave evidence. Several others were also indicted, but not taken, including Little Harry (Henry Howard) and Little Sam (Samuel Sherman). Mrs Payne and her two sons were held in custody in Winchester gaol, to be tried later. Five of the men were sentenced to be hung in chains, two to be hanged then buried. Jackson, who was very ill, died before he could be hanged, but his body was hung in chains anyway. Legend has it that he died from the shock of being measured for the gibbet. All were bold and resolute while awaiting their execution, which took place on 19 January, before a huge crowd of spectators.

  • Richard Mills, sen., aged 60, was a breaker of colts, and a smuggler for many years. He persuaded his two sons to become smugglers as well. The result was that he ‘lost most of his business and character’ in the community. Nevertheless, ‘he owned he had been concerned in that trade for a great number of years, and did not think there was any harm in it.’
  • Richard Mills, jun., aged about 30, smuggler for many years, was ‘a daring, obstinate, hardened fellow, and seemed capable of any mischief’. His brother John Mills, also one of the smugglers, was not yet taken.
  • John Cobby, 28 years old, had not been long with the smugglers. He was easily influenced, a harmless, inoffensive creature.
  • Benjamin Tapner, age 30, was persuaded by Jackson to become a smuggler two years ago. He acknowledged ‘that he might in the hurry pick one of [Chater’s] eyes out with the point of his knife, for he did not know what he did, the devil had got so strong hold of him’. He claimed ‘it was bad company that had been his ruin.’
  • William Carter, aged between 40 and 50, said that ‘Jackson had drawn him away from his honest employment many years ago, to go a smuggling, which was the cause of his ruin: and that they had been as sworn brothers in smuggling.’
  • John Hammond, who had a wife and four children, was ‘a hardened obdurate fellow, and very resolute, and always held great antipathy against the king’s officers, or others concerned in suppressing smuggling; and often would let drop words out of his mouth, as that he did not think it any crime in killing an informer.’
  • William Jackson died in his cell the same night he received sentence of death. ‘He had been one of the most notorious smugglers living in his time; and most of them, as well as Carter, gave him the worst of characters, and that he was even a thief among themselves; for when he knew that any of them had got any run goods, he would contrive some way or other to steal them from them.’ He accused others of being directly involved in the murder in order to prevent them trying to turn King’s evidence.

            Other men who had broken into the Customs House in Poole or been involved in the murder of Galley and Chater were soon arrested. In East Grinstead in March 1749 six men were convicted and hanged. In Rochester four men were convicted and hanged. At the Old Bailey in London in April 1749 three were convicted and hanged, one was acquitted, and one was convicted but recommended for mercy: Richard Glover, who had been forced to join the gang by his brother-in-law, who threatened to shoot him if he did not go along with them in the raid on the Customs House. Thomas Kingsmill, a native of Goudhurst, was employed by smugglers to hold their horses when he was a boy, and when he grew up he joined their gang. In Lewes seven men were convicted. In 1750 in East Grinstead one man was convicted. Two brothers and their father were hanged on Slendon Common, Sussex. In all, thirty-five men were executed within two years, and ten died in gaol. The bodies of convicted smugglers hung in gibbets across Kent. One of the men who turned King’s evidence against his smuggling colleagues, John Rice, in 1759 was hanged for stealing more than a dozen horses. At the trial he protested that the prosecution was brought ‘out of spite’ to get revenge on him for squealing on his accomplices. One of the smugglers who was transported in December 1749, Thomas Palmer, had the following verse engraved on his carbine:

All you Rogues that keep me from this nation,
This Carbine shall be your damnation.

            As can be seen from the brief biographies of the men hanged at Chichester, few of these men were integrated into a community of ordinary people engaged in lawful employment. The claim of the Enlightenment free-trade economist Adam Smith that ‘The smuggler . . . would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so’ is not supported by the facts. Smugglers were recognized both by the communities where they lived and even by themselves as belonging to a ‘criminal’ class. One marker of this may be the fact that quite a few of the men had aliases, a common feature in the underworld. The continuity of that class can be shown by the fact that once the smuggling gangs in Kent and Sussex was broken, after 1750, the number of ordinary robberies markedly decreased.


Theft on the Thames


Although large gangs of smugglers are usually associated with coastal towns, they were also occasionally seen in London. On 18 July 1772 the Craftsman; or Say’s Weekly Journal reported that ‘Yesterday morning early a powerful gang of smugglers, to the number of 70, all on horseback, passed over Putney-bridge; but notwithstanding their formidable appearance, a party of Custom-house Officers attacked them in the rear and killed three of their horses laden with smuggled goods, which were seized; the smugglers, seeing they could spare no horses to carry the seized goods, did not attempt to retake them, but betook themselves to flight.’ Smuggling warehouses were also located on the Thames, ready for loading into ships bound for Holland. In August 1730 there was a shoot-out between several Customs Officers and smugglers who had stored a considerable quantity of muslin and tea in a house near St Mary Magdalen’s Church in Southwark. But only 75 lbs of tea and some muslin was seized, and the smugglers made off with the rest on horseback, threatening anyone who would resist them. In 1746 eight or nine men from Feltham, including the brothers George and Henry Gunel, and William and Noah Groves, loaded 208 lbs of smuggled tea at Redhill, Surrey, which they brought into London and threw over the wall of the house of their distributor, a certain Salmon, along the Tyburn Road. Each of them was armed with a carbine and cutlass. All of them were day labourers. The Groves brothers turned King’s evidence, several members of the gang escaped, and two were tried and transported, despite calling ten witnesses to testify that they bore a very good character with their neighbours in Feltham. When one man was asked by the Court if he knew them to be smugglers, he tellingly replied ‘No, my Lord, I never knew them to smuggle at all to signify.’

            Smugglers often used the prisons of London as warehouses to store large quantities of contraband goods. In August 1778 Customs officers, guarded by a file of musqueteers, entered the Fleet Prison, with a warrant to search for run goods. They seized 2,491 lbs of tea, 1,874 lbs of coffee, 1,020 lbs of chocolate, and a large quantity of lace, worth about 1,500. The smugglers had raised ladders on the outside of the walls of the prison and let down the goods inside, where the prisoners received a very small proportion of the goods in return for warehousing them. The security of the prisons worked both ways, keeping criminals in, and keeping officials out. The kinds of smuggling activities that were typical in London were more directly related to small-scale theft, which occurred all along the Thameside quays. When Richard Ford and Connell Neal were prosecuted for taking 12 hundredweight of sugar from a ship moored in the Thames in 1759, Ford’s defence was that he was merely taking the ‘sweepings’ to which he as the ‘lumper’ (one who handled the unloading of cargo) was customarily entitled. The master of the ship explained to the court: ‘After the cargoe is deliver’d, that which is left, trod under foot, and not fit to be put into the cask again, for fear it should spoil the rest, we call sweepings.’ However, this defence failed because the sacks of perfectly clean sugar were purloined well before the loading began, and efforts were made to hide the fact of the theft.

            Many of the ‘river pirates’ boarded ships at night and made off with the goods. For example, in 1748 four or five men boarded a ship docked at King Edward’s Stairs, Wapping, and stole 36 hundredweight of iron shells and shot, and sold them to a dealer who kept an old rope shop. This was part of 50 tons of shot and shells that was some of the ‘prize’ of a captured French ship. Each man hired to be concerned in the affair was paid 9s. 7d. halfpenny. Though one man turned King’s evidence, a person higher up the ladder who must have organized it was not identified. One man who engaged in this type of smuggling/theft from the Thames quays, Robert Davis, had a long career: when he was sentenced to transportation for stealing ivory tusks from a ship in 1750, evidence was produced to prove that he had been transported for stealing tobacco in Summer’s Key as long ago as 1739.

            A typical Thameside smuggling gang can be illustrated by the gang which circulated around the figure of James Penprise. We first see him in September 1750, when he was branded in the hand for stealing cotton material and 200 hempen sacks from George Best in Greenwich, to which he pleaded guilty. The reason he was only branded was that he turned King’s evidence against his accomplices, six of whom were convicted and transported. Penprise together with Joseph Watson stole some canvas and sheeting and a bale of linen from a lighter while it lay at Summers’s Key stairs, Billingsgate. The bale of linen was taken to the house of John Roof, a sugar-baker in Shadwell, facing Cole stairs, and the rest was hidden in a cellar next to Penprise’s house nearby. They opened the bale of linen, which had printed chintz patterns, and Roof said he believed he could sell them, but said they must be stored away for a period, because they would be advertised. Other people privy to the theft were Edward Newby, a publican in Shadwell, and Thomas Harrison, a broker on the Ratcliff Highway, who said he could dispose of the goods in a day or two. Penprise warned him to be careful, as the goods were not being advertised, but Harrison said, ‘Never fear, we know who to sell them to’, and the goods were moved to another location. Mr Kirkley, who agreed to keep the goods in a safe place at his house in Old Street, sent word he wanted six guineas for warehouse room; they offered three, but finally agreed to pay five and a half, which was paid by Roof. Some of the goods were sold to Mrs Maculley, the wife of a sea-faring man, who sold linen and ribbons and so on. She went to Harrison’s house to examine them, and offered three shillings a yard; but before paying for what she was told were thirty-six yards, she insisted on measuring the lengths, which came to only twenty-five yards. Another person who bought some of the goods, knowing them to be stolen, was Joseph Bradley, who kept a chandler’s shop in Hoxton. Eventually all the goods were sold, and Penprise and Watson received twelve guineas, and felt cheated. Penprise was shortly afterwards arrested for stealing some logwood; he asked Harrison to put up bail for him, but Harrison refused; Watson ran away and was not caught. In response to the 20 reward offered in the Daily Advertiser, plus the 40 statutory reward for catching a thief, someone advised the owner of the goods, Mr Best, a stationer at Greenwich, where his goods could be found. Newby, Harrison and Bradley pleaded guilty and were transported; Kirkley absconded; Mrs Maculley’s testimony helped to convict them, so she was not prosecuted.

            In the second case tried in September 1750, Penprise together with Robert Davie, Richard Parker, Henry Faulkner and Joseph Watson, stole nine ‘elephant’s teeth’ – ivory tusks – weighing 450 pounds from a lighter moored in the river near Summer’s Key. Penprise had gone on such adventures with Parker for the past ten years, though he had worked with Davie for only a couple of years. Their small boat lay alongside the lighter for most of the night, hoping the lighter’s watchman would fall asleep. Around 6 o’clock in the morning one of their men went ashore and called to the lighter’s watchman to come have a draught of purl with him, which he did, only to discover on returning to his station that the tusks were missing. They were stored at Roof’s house, and sold for 29; 20 were received in advance by Penprise and Faulkner, who divided it up equally between the five men engaged in the theft, who then went and drank at the Fox in Fox Lane, Shadwell. The next day Parker and Davie collected the rest of the money; Davie intended to keep it all, but the others ‘hussled’ him and took it away from him. Davie and Parker were convicted; Roof’s evidence helped to convict them, and he was not prosecuted; Faulker and Watson absconded.

            In the third case that September, Penprise together with Joseph Watson took two bundles of hempen sacks from a lighter at Bear Key and carried them to Penprise’s house at Shadwell. The goods were advertised and Penprise didn’t know what to do with them. He offered them to William Escote, a tobacconist, who gave him a single guinea for them. Escote showed Penprise how to cut out the distinguishing red marks from the sacks. Penprise had known Escote for several years, and said ‘I have dealt with him very considerably for about a year.’ Escote was convicted for receiving stolen goods; other men involved in the transactions were Mr Camphor, who turned King’s evidence, and James Johnson, who absconded. Escote protested in court, ‘if I had bought them, no one is to be blam’d for buying a cheap bargain of a pawnbroker’; he was sentenced to transportation.

            In a later incident, prosecuted in January 1751, Penprise together with John Lighorne, Watson, Faulkner and Davie stole two bags of cotton from a lighter at Summer’s Key, and carried one bag to John Ross’s house in Shadwell, and the other to his house in Rotherhithe, which was managed for him by Jenny Sparks. Several people testified that Lighorne was an honest waterman and lighterman, but he was convicted. Penprise of course turned King’s evidence, Davie was already transported the previous year, and Faulkner and Watson were still missing. It is worth noting that a man who helped arrest Dan the Baker, Holland and Chailes at the Fox in Drury Lane in June 1751, mentioned in Chapter 6 in connection with the Royal Family, was named James Penprise. Although this may be a different person with the same name, perhaps after giving King’s evidence so often, Penprise had decided to become a professional thief-taker.


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