A Smuggling Diary (1695-1833)

1695 – Thomas Carman of Fairlight and Thomas Harwood of Guestling while returning home from Lewes were passing through the village of Bulverhythe when they noticed a french ship anchored off shore. Their curiosity aroused, they kept watch at a safe distance. After dark a boat came ashore to be met by five men some of which were identified as John Young ‘a well known smuggler’ and Thomas Pope, Customs Officer of Bexhill. They went together to an inn called the Bulverhythe House where the landlord Roberts joined them. Later a pack of hats and a ‘large pacquet of letters’ were given to Pope by the Frenchmen, the goods were stored in the house of Edward Hall, Customs Officer of Hastings. This indicates that besides duplicity by customs officials, the smuggling network was used by spies as a way of reporting to their superiors in London.

1715 – A ship landed a quantity of brandy at Cowding Gate (Cooden), then sailed to the Cuckmere Haven (east of Seaford) to take a return cargo of wool but was intercepted at sea.

1717 – Customs Riding Officer Gerard Reeves was killed during a fight with the ‘Mayfield Gang’ at Langney Bridge near Eastbourne, the leader of the gang, Gabriel Tomkins, a bricklayer from Tunbridge Wells was indicted for the murder but was acquitted.

1736 – The Groombridge Gang who had links with James Blackman, landlord of the Red Lion at Hooe, were involved in incidents at Bexhill, Lydd and Fairlight.

1737 March – An informer called ‘Goring’ gave an account of an incident at `Bulverhide’ to the customs; ‘Cat (Morten’s man) [Robert Moreton, Groombridge Gang leader] fired first, Morten was the second that fired, the soldiers fired and killed Collinson, wounded Pigon, who is since dead, William Weston was wounded but like to recover, all were Sussex men….seventh time Moreton’s people have world this winter, all have not lost anything but one half hundred of tea, they gave to a Dragoon officer….the number was 26 men [involved].’ Later that year John Bowra, another leader of the Groombridge Gang was arrested while running a cargo of tea between Pevensey and Eastbourne. He was tried but acquitted.

1743 June – James Blackman (of Groombridge and Hooe gangs) led an escort of armed and mounted men with a convoy of tea and brandy which was brought ashore between Bexhill and Pevensey, to a hiding place at Wych Cross (between Uckfield and East Grinstead).

1744 June – Customs officers from Eastbourne with five dragoons intercepted a landing taking place at Pevensey Bay but a hundred smugglers appeared, disarmed the officers and dragoons and wounded them with swords. The cargo was then loaded up and continued up country to London. November – Sixty armed men raided the home of Riding Officer Philip Bailey at Bexhill, they destroyed his household goods and furniture and ‘insulted’ his wife and family. The next day three large cutters landed cargoes at Pevensey Bay and used an estimated 500-600 horses to carry away the smuggled goods.

1745 – A large consignment of three tons of tea and some brandy were landed at Bexhill, it was carried away by mounted smugglers ‘most of them labourers from Bexhill’. They were reportedly armed with ‘a brass loaded carbine and a large whip with a lead loaded end’. On the way to the meeting place for transfer to other inland smugglers they raided a house of a customs officer, attacked his family and assaulted another officer. A detachment of thirty soldiers of `Harrison’s regiment’ caught up with the smugglers and a pitch battle followed.

1805 October 21st –  (the day of the Battle of Trafalgar) Captain John Clerk, Commander of WM Revenue Cutter ‘Vulture’ based at Newhaven, caught a lug-sail boat making for The Sluice (Norman’s Bay) captured the crew and 540 casks of brandy.

1806 January 6th – Captain John Clark on board the ‘Vulture’ again, captures a lugger one mile off Normans Bay with 500 parcels of tea.

1815 June 6th – A reward of £200 was offered for the discovery and apprehension of the men who attacked John Wilton, Chief Boatman of the Preventative boat stationed at Pevensey who ‘with his assistants having seized at Cocksheath near Bexhill, a galley laden with smuggled goods were violently assaulted and obstructed by seven smugglers on board the said galley, who beat the said John Wilton and his assistants, wounded one of them feloniously, took away a pistol and rescued the said galley and goods.’

1816 – The frigate ‘Osprey’ ordered a lugger of Bexhill to heave-to, as the boat did not respond the Ospey fired on it, the lugger landed and the crew escaped – one was suspected of selling information about the Royal Navy to the French.

1818  December 23rd– A decked lug sail boat called the ‘Fox of Bexhill’ was seized at Normans Bay with a cargo of Geneva (gin). The smugglers however returned late that night to reclaim their boat and ‘knocked down….John Aston (a seaman under the command of Lieutenant Henry Collins of the Coast Blockade, stationed at Pevensey Sluice, parish of Bexhill), walked over him and bruised and ill-treated him’. A reward of £100 was offered by the Collector of His Majesty’s Customs at the Port of Rye.

1819  January 4th – John Aston while on duty at Martello Tower no.55 at Normans Bay investigated a lug sail tub boat landing nearby, he was attacked by smugglers who ‘drove him back and violently obstructed him’. Four officers came to his assistance, Philip Wynn, James Pendegrass, Alexander Mackay and Thomas Mitchell. A fight ensued, the smugglers using large bludgeons and stones but the Blockade men seized the boat and contraband spirits. Other Blockade men were less conscientious for later in the year a Blockade man of Martello Tower No. 46 (site of The Colonnade) was ‘entertained’ at the Bell Inn (old town) and offered £50 down and a further £50 if he would go ‘to Bulverhythe Point and look the other way’. Another Blockade man was ‘squared’ at the Bull Inn, Bulverhythe. 3 September – Admiralty Midshipman Charles Fitzgerald and a party of Coast Blockade men from Martello Tower no. 50 seized two French galleys and 14 half ankers of foreign spirits between towers 49 and 50 [tower 49 stood at Veness Gap (Hartfield Road), 50 was near the Cooden Beach Hotel] at 2-3am. They also pursued smugglers up country and fought with 50 men armed with stout bludgeons. Fitzgerald tried to secure a smuggler with tubs on his shoulders but was thrown to the ground and struck on the head.

1819 December 27th – Dennis Brennan of the Coast Blockade of Hastings was obstructed and assaulted by smugglers whilst he tried to seize spirits from a french boat near Martello Tower no. 52 (between Cooden and Normans Bay).

1821 – Coast Blockade man George England was searching recently beached boats at Hastings and using a ‘pricker’ (large forklike spear) to prod nets for contraband, Joseph Swain, a well-known fisherman and smuggler objected to the use of this as it was alleged they damaged the nets, he attacked England with a boat hook and threw him off the boat onto the beach whilst snatching his cutlass. Swain then jumped off of the boat and the two men fought, Swain was eventually shot dead. England claimed that he staggered back from Swain and his pistol accidentally discharged, witnesses (all fishermen) claimed that he deliberately drew back to shoot. A riot ensued and England was carried off to the net shops. Customs men and dragoons from Hastings and Bexhill were called in. At England’s trial at Horsham on 28 March 1821 the judge called for his acquittal, the jury however found him guilty of murder. He was swiftly pardoned by the authorities, discharged from the service and moved away. Swain was aged 29 and left a widow and five children.

1822 February – ‘At 3am a….numerous gang of smugglers marched down to Martello Tower No.52, opposite the village of Little Common [sic] and endeavoured to seize the Blockade Sentinel; but the man having received several blows with the smugglers bats or sticks, drew forth his pistol and shot one….dead….the boat made sail….with her cargo on board’. Other Blockade men were summoned by the shot and apprehended one smuggler. One version of this story states that a coach and six horses with lady passenger were waiting nearby but drove off rapidly when the boat made off. Was the lady a spy waiting to receive or hand over information? Also in February was an incident reportedly near the Star Inn, Normans Bay when 300 smugglers of the Little Common gang gathered to unload one of their boats the ‘Queen Charlotte’. They were armed with cudgels and poles (six feet long ash timbers). Before unloading took place however, Preventative Customs men armed with carbines arrived and forced the men to disperse, one smuggler was shot. The story of a lady with coach and horses is also given to this incident!

1824 September 22nd – A landing of goods was intercepted by Coast Blockade Lieutenant William Henry Bland and seamen under his command, near Martello Tower No.50. One hundred tubs of spirits and seven smugglers were seized. One Blockademan, William Welch however was taken by the smugglers when he boarded their boat. The boat cast off and his mauled corpse was found on the beach the next morning. At an inquest it was recorded that he had been stunned and drowned.

1825-7 – An account book exists written by the leader of the Little Common gang, George Gillham and gives a fascinating insight on local smuggling. The names and nicknames of the gang members are listed as: Thomas Messey, William Vitler, William Savage, William Britt, Thomas Shoesmith (`Boathook’), William Winham, John Farmer, Samuel Beeching, Josh Curtis, A Beney, James Sinding, Hennery Stubardfield, Thomas Millers, William Miller, George Gillham Snr (`Smack’), Richard Gillham, John Gillham, Thomas Gillham (`Peckham’), James Gillham and George Gillham. The Gillham family lived at Peach Cottage, The Twitten, Little Common. The gang used two boats ‘The Long Boat’ and the `Queen Charlotte’, beached at a place called Willow-tot between Cooden and Normans Bay. Many stories have been told of their exploits, however many are undated and some completely impossible. Recollections of old men in the late 19* and early 20th century are usually anonymous. One interesting tale concerns a run of goods starting in Sea Lane (now Sea Road). Having loaded the carts etc with goods, thirty Coast Blockademen came upon the smugglers and more came from over Galley Hill, a running battle ensued from Sea Lane to Holliers Hill_ one Blockademan was killed in ‘Mr Brooks meadow’ (north of Magdalen Road). a smuggler was killed and taken to ‘Bennet’s House opposite the churchyard’ and another shot dead ‘up in the Flat’ (junction of Ninfield and Wrestwood roads). A part-time member of the gang was a shepherd, John Mott who lived in a `cottage on the north side of Barnhom FM’. In one incident while he was carrying two tubs of spirits, he was chased by a Blockademan over Pevensey Levels. The Blockademan slashed Mott with his cutlass across his back, cutting deeply. Losing the tubs, Mott hid in a stream and eventually made his way home. He was afraid to see a doctor and was crippled for the rest of his life.

1828 January 3rd – The Battle of Sidley Green. Local smugglers landed a cargo ‘at Mr Brooks 40 acre point’ (site of Sackville Hotel area). The goods were loaded onto carts and tub-men and there were 16 to 18 batsmen as guards. The convoy was spotted by the Coast Blockade from Galley Hill Martello Tower (no.44) but they decided to seek reinforcements before attacking. Eventually 40 Blockademen were assembled and caught up with the smugglers at Sidley Green (by the New Inn). There, a furious fight took place, the Blockademen eventually being forced to retreat and the cargo went on its way. One Blockademan, Quartermaster Collins, was killed, one smuggler called Smithurst was also killed. Smithurst was apparently found with his bat still in his hand but his body was hacked by the Blockademen’s cutlasses. He was taken to a barn at Cramps Farm. One wounded smuggler was taken to the yard of the Bell Hotel in old town and another became crippled for life. It is known that smugglers always carried away their wounded men although whether this was from loyalty or fear of being betrayed is not certain. Following this incident, eight smugglers were caught and tried at the Old Bailey in London, their names were Thomas and Henry Miller, John Spray, Edward Shoesmith, William Bennett, John Ford, Stephen Stubberfield and Spencer Whiteman. They were indicted for armed assembly to which they pleaded guilty, five men plus two others also pleaded guilty to a similar offence at Eastbourne on 23 June. They were initially sentenced to death, but this was commuted to transportation. Through research we know the fate of Edward Shoesmith. He was transported to New South Wales, Australia for life but did not sail until 1829 when he went out on board the ‘Claudine’ when 26 years old. He left a wife and five children, his trade was said to be ‘ploughs, reaps, indoor servant’. He later remarried in Australia and had a further 11 children. He died on 29 August 1889.

1832 February – At 3am a boat containing 300 tubs of spirits was beached at Worthing, 200 smugglers cleared the cargo guarded by ‘a company of Bexhill batsmen with a few firearms’. A fight with Preventative men took place which left one smuggler killed, two injured and four Preventative men wounded.

1832 February 23rd – Two Coast Blockade men from the Bulverhythe Martello Tower no. 42 were killed in the course of duty. They were buried in the old graveyard in Barrack Road, Bexhill which was later cleared of headstones. Fortunately the inscriptions were recorded in 1923;

In memory of William Meekes, the Chief Boatman of Coastguard Station No. XLII Tower. He was mortally wounded on the night of the 21st and died on the 23rd of February1832, aged 35 years.

In Memory of David Watts of the Coastguard Station No. XLII Tower. He was shot and almost instantly expired on 21st February1832, aged 45 years. Short was the warning , quick the summons flew, ere scares his weeping friends could bid adieu. 

1833 November – Local Coastguards observed a landing of goods between Pevensey and Normans Bay and summoned assistance due to the large numbers of smugglers. The tub-men were protected by batsmen armed with guns. A two hour running battle ensued which spread over six to seven miles as the smugglers carried the goods inland. By this time, the last recorded battle, the smugglers had perfected a system whereby they would keep behind the tub-men, draw-up in a line to fire at the pursuing coastguard, then retreat and line-up again and so on. The result was one smuggler killed, five captured together with 68 tubs of spirits and the quantity of tea. The captured men were indicted at a court held at Pevensey on 19th November.

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