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Originally written by David Whenham for his family history website, in 1998 – unfortunately, his website no longer exits.
It was a clear moonlight night with a fresh early January breeze drifting inland from the Sussex coast. The crisp white sails of the lugger shimmered ghost-like as the white boat silently drifted in under The Bluff. The men who had stood quietly and orderly under the cliffs since around midnight now moved forwards. Moving as soundlessly as they could on the beach they began to unload the tubs from the boat which was drawn up close to the waters edge. In a well practised manoeuvre each man took two of the small kegs on his shoulders, ran up the beach and disappeared into the fields above the shore.
About a dozen men had crept swiftly away when there was a shout from the far end of the beach and another smaller group of men, obviously armed rushed towards the spot where twenty or so men were still busily unloading the precious spirit. Most of these tub-men continued with their task although a few men lost their nerve and dropping their cargo disappeared into the night. Suddenly, a large group of men, armed mainly with stout ash poles about six foot in length surrounded the smaller, but better armed force of Blockademen forcing them to retreat back up the cliff path.
A few shots were fired but in the confusion no one could see whether anyone fell during the fracas. Snatching up a couple of muskets that had been dropped by the excise men during the affray the Bat-men formed a protective line so that the tub-men could continue their task.
As the smugglers and their protectors moved swiftly up from the beach, the Blockademen regrouped. Many of them had been badly bruised during the fight on the beach but no one had suffered serious injury. The original intelligence that had led the party to intercept the smugglers had suggested that the gang, known locally as the Little Common Gang, would be heading for one of their favoured hiding places at Sidley Green about two and a half miles inland.
Determined to head off the smugglers the men of the Blockade set out from Glyne Gap where the smugglers were still rushing to clear the tubs of brandy and other contraband through the maze of lanes leading towards Sidley Green. On the way they obtained reinforcements from the Galley Hill Tower which raised their numbers to about forty armed men.
As they moved swiftly through the moonlit villages the Blockademen came upon small groups of smugglers and a running fight developed between these stragglers and their pursuers. As they ran through Bexhill local residents awakened by the noise appeared at their windows and seeing the progress of the excise men shouted warnings to the smugglers that the Coastal Blockade was close upon their heels. The excise men responded by threatening to shoot the interfering villagers but the local people had a vested interest in ensuring that their kinsfolk were not hampered. Moments before the Blockademen passed through, a cart loaded with tubs slipped into the yard of the Bell Hotel and willing hands carried inside a wounded smuggler. The men from the blockade passed within yards of the prize without realising that it had been so close.
Meanwhile, down on the beach at Glyne Gap the Master of the lugger was preparing to put back to sea after first arranging to meet the Gang’s leaders the following day at The Bell Inn which even then was taking delivery of some of the spoils of the evenings work as has been seen. A few of the smugglers remained and after a hurried discussion decided to follow the main group towards Sidley. They felt, rightly, that given the ferocity of the Blockademen that night there may be casualties; men who would need to disappear quickly to prevent them from falling into the hands of the authorities.
The Blockademen finally caught up with the smugglers at Sidley Green. Here, the armed portion of the smugglers drew themselves up in a regular line and a fierce battle ensued. These were determined and experienced smugglers who knew that the price for their nights work would be high if they succumbed to the Coast Blockade.
During the first onset, the Blockade suffered a serious set back as their leader, a Quartermaster from HMS Hyperion, fell dead. Indeed, the courage and skill displayed that fateful night by all those involved would have graced a more fitting stage. The smugglers were eventually forced to retreat to Cramps Farm but not before the tub men had succeeded in carrying away the contraband and disappearing with their haul into the cold Sussex night. During the desperate fighting which took place several men fell wounded including an old smuggler who fell fatally wounded still clutching his bat which had been hacked almost to match wood by the cutlasses of the Blockademen.
No smuggler was taken alive that night and all the contraband bar a couple of tubs which had been dropped during the flight were safely carried away. In all over six hundred gallons of spirit had been landed illegally. Two men lay dead and many had been wounded, some seriously. The price was not cheap and unknown to those involved the cost was going to increase considerably.
As day broke four or five well laden carts were already many miles away from the scene of the previous night’s events destined for the London market. It was important that the un-customed goods should be quickly mixed with legally imported ones. Once they had been dispersed detection was less likely and the smugglers slightly safer. Given the dependency of many local people in the area on smuggling to supplement meagre incomes informants were usually few and far between and so the seizure of contraband goods was vital if the excise men were to bring the guilty to trial. Many of those involved that January night would receive more pay for a few hours work than they would for a whole week labouring in the fields through which they had flown.
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 1
A Lucky Break
Like most of us, I became involved in family history for a number of reasons. Interest in my Grandfathers DCM; an article about Jane WENHAM, who in 1712 was the last woman tried for witchcraft in England; family tradition that there were smugglers in the family; the assertion that one of the family’s forefathers had escaped transportation due to the fortuitous onset of a contagious disease. Little did I realise seven years ago that I myself was on the verge of a contagious disease or obsession that would spread to my parents; but I do not need to explain that to any of you that have the family or local history bug!
I have been amazed at the number of times that chance discoveries have led family researchers onto family connections. Up until, about three years ago though my only contact with such things was reading the resultant articles in family history society journals. That was until my father was reading a book about Sussex and chanced across a transcript of an article from The Exeter Weekly Times dated April 5th 1828. This report gave details of the committal to Horsham jail of a group of men charged with affray. Mentioned in the report was a place six miles from Hastings called Sidley Green. Knowing that we had family connections with Sidley Green and Hooe which was also mentioned in the article my Father decided that some more investigation might prove interesting; we may even find that some of those involved were neighbours of our own ancestors. First stop therefore was the local library in Bristol to trawl through The Times newspaper to see if these men had been sufficiently villainous to have had their case transferred to London. I was lucky.
On Thursday April 10th 1828 at the Old Bailey in London, ten men were indicted: ‘for having in the month of January, in the county of Sussex, unlawfully and feloniously assembled, together with several other persons, armed with firearms, for the purpose of aiding and assisting in the illegal landing, running and carrying away, certain quantities of foreign brandy and Geneva, which had not then paid certain duties of customs to the King.”
At first, they had pleaded “not guilty”, but on the understanding that a plea to spare their lives would be made to the Crown, they subsequently changed this to “guilty”. The death sentence was duly passed but commuted to transportation to the convict colony in New South Wales.
The notice in The Times listed the names of those who had been convicted and the date of the trial at the Old Bailey. With this information I managed to obtain a copy of the records of the trial and these not only confirmed the names and circumstances of the crime but also the ages of those involved. Names are the lifeblood of family historians and so I of course took careful note of these.
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 2
Who Dares “Wins”!
Finding the account in The Times might have been the end of the exercise if it had not been for one small point. Amongst the eight names were two that were familiar. Thomas Miller aged twenty and Henry Miller aged twenty two. My Grandmothers maiden name was Thomas but her Grandmother was Mary Ann Miller who had been born in Bulverhythe, Sussex. It was the beaches at Bulverhythe that figured in the landing for which Thomas and Henry were now being sentenced to death.
I had already researched the genealogy of my Miller ancestors reasonably thoroughly and so knew that there were two brothers of those names on my tree. But would the ages match up? Unlikely, but just to put the matter to rest I checked. For the two gentlemen mentioned in the report to be potentially mine they would have needed to be born around 1808 and 1806 respectively.
I turned first to Thomas Miller. The younger of the two he had been found guilty not only in respect of the affair at Sidley Green but also for another run later that same month near Eastbourne. Looking at to my records “my” Thomas had been baptised on January 1st 1808 at Battle in the county of Sussex. Coincidence, obviously.
There was no suggestion at this time that Thomas and Henry were related but given their respective ages there was a possibility. Anyway, I then turned to my file on Henry Miller. Like his brother “my” Henry had also been born in Battle. His baptism took place on April 19th 1805 so if he had been involved in the smuggling at Bexhill he would have been twenty two. Wait a minute – the smuggler Henry Miller had given his age as twenty two!
It was at this moment that I ceased to be simply an amateur genealogist and became instead an amateur family historian. I only allowed myself a few moments euphoria however. Being a reasonably experienced researcher I knew that nothing in this hobby can be taken for granted and that there were many things that could go wrong to dash our hopes of kinship. What I had was simply the possibility of a family connection to an interesting piece of social history. There was a lot of work to do – and so little spare time in which to do it.
In the early days of researching my family tree I had realised the benefit of having some sort of hypothesis or working theory on which to base the research. This had generally given a clear direction and focus for my research resulting in better results. After speaking to my father it was decided that a bold approach should be adopted. The aim of the research would be to establish that the two Millers were in fact brothers and were the same two who appeared on my own family tree. Despite the bold aim we were sensible enough to know that we could succeed simply in proving that these two men were totally unrelated to our own family. But what the heck! Who dares wins!
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 3
After the excitement of matching the ages the first step was to write down what we knew about the Millers from earlier research.
Firstly, the geography – Bexhill, Sidley Green, Battle and Bulverhythe are all in the same part of Sussex. Given the relatively small distances between the places it was not unreasonable to suggest that local people would have moved freely around this locality. The father of Thomas and Henry had been born in Bexhill himself so the family were no strangers to this part of the world.
Thomas and Henry Miller were the sons of Thomas and Ann Miller. As has been seen they were born in Battle in 1807 and 1805 respectively. Of Thomas junior I knew no more. He had disappeared from trace.
Henry was a different matter. The 1851 census had shown Henry living in the Bexhill area as had that for 1861. The parish records had revealed at least seven children from the marriage of Henry to Mary Ann Head ranging from around 1837 to 1851 or 1852. We had already noticed that he would have been thirty two when James his first son was born. This was a little older than we had been used to seeing in other parts of the family in the early part of the nineteenth century. As we had not found the marriage of Henry and Mary Ann we had not been able to shed any light on this phenomena. A spell in prison would account for it though!
Whoa! Slow down. The sentence had been DEATH which had been commuted to TRANSPORTATION FOR LIFE. Smuggling was a very serious crime and in addition a man had been murdered that fateful night in 1828. The chances of Henry and the smuggler being the same person had diminished surely by the simple fact that Henry had been traced in English civil and parish records from 1837 through to 1852. A salutary reminder to tread warily.
Spare time for research was as always at a premium during that summer in 1994. However, a visit to the local reference library was squeezed in and The Times newspaper again consulted in order to obtain a copy of the report and any other articles mentioning the events leading to the trial and its aftermath. With these items I had a fair picture of what had happened, where it had taken place and the names of some of those involved. What I needed now apart from evidence of kinship to Thomas or Henry or both was some background material.
A letter to the museum at Hastings produced some suggestions for books to read and over a period of several months I obtained many of these from my local library and gradually started to build a reasonable picture of the events that January night.
What I had not been able to find, however, was any further evidence regarding the Millers. I had it turns out missed a vital clue but more of that later. Something had to be done to move matters forward but what?
On reviewing my files I realised that one thing I did have was a list of names. Add to this a murder, the romance of smuggling ancestors and some dates and you have a heady cocktail which would surely appeal to fellow researchers. I approached the editor of the Hastings & Rother Family History Society’s journal to see if he would be interested in an article for the journal. The resultant piece appeared in early 1995 and was partly an account of my research experiences and partly a plea for help. I appended a list of all those who I knew had been involved including the Customs men to tempt the palates of fellow readers. I then sat back to await the deluge of responses.
I was to be honest disappointed. What now? Time was as always at a premium and there were also domestic matters which in truth were more important than family history so I decided to abandon the project. I had made some progress and enjoyed the chase so whilst the original aims had not been met something had been achieved. I had also added to my knowledge of research techniques and developed an interest in family and social history so I felt that something had definitely been accomplished. I started to prepare the papers for storage.
But then something exciting happened.
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 4
I got a letter. “I write in response to your article….” Thus began a correspondence that continues to this day.
The sender of the letter was Norma Holt who had herself been researching the same incident. She had proven that her 3 x Great Grandfather, a certain Thomas Waters, had been one of the ringleaders of the affray at Sidley. She had also gained access to ninety three contemporary documents relating to the incident that were kept by Hastings Museum.
A memory stirred. I had read about the existence of these papers but had overlooked the obvious. Had I simply contacted the museum when I first read of their existence I would have hit what Norma described as “the jackpot” even before writing the article that had prompted her to contact me. Following my article Norma has been asked to give talks on The Battle of Sidley Green and has since even appeared on television to give a brief account of the incident. I owe her a great debt as through her letter the research took on a new dimension.
Norma arranged for the first batch of photocopies to be delivered to me and through these I was able to put together the account which opens this booklet. The letters and other documents provide a vivid insight into not only what happened that night but the hue and cry afterwards. The incident is seen through the testimony of those actually involved. It is not only the smugglers viewpoint that comes over though. Through letters and statements from officers involved it is possible to sit in both camps so to speak.
I spent weeks trawling through this treasure trove noting names dates and places and gradually building up a very clear picture of what had actually taken place. I also gleaned a few extra clues regarding Thomas and Henry such as descriptions and places of residences. Interesting as these facts were though they did not take the research forward with regards to the kinship of Thomas and Henry. I was happy though. There was plenty to keep me amused within the documents Norma sent. I also obtained copies of documents relating to the Eastbourne incident that had been mentioned in the Old Bailey records and found to my delight further references to Thomas Miller along with a William Wenham.
I now had a very detailed account of what had transpired.
The smugglers had started to assemble around 11 o’clock on the night of January 3rd and the run and ensuing battle had continued into the early hours of the following morning, the 4th of January. Within the week the Lord Admiral had issued a promise on behalf of the King that anyone not directly involved in the murder of Charles Collins, a First Rate Quartermaster of HMS Hyperion, who could supply evidence leading to the apprehension of those responsible together with their accomplices, would receive a pardon. A handsome reward of £500 was also offered. Posters issued from Whitehall were soon to be seen, dated January 10th 1828.
The night after the run had taken place a small group of men met in the Bell. Amongst these was Charles Longhurst, alias Hills, who had recruited some of the tub-men for the previous nights work. He had lost his nerve before the goods had been loaded and had returned home from where he had heard the sound of the running battle and observed the flight of his compatriots. Around seven o’clock three of the leading members of the Gang came into the bar. They laughed openly at Longhurst for his cowardice. During the evening there was much talk about the operation and Longhurst learnt that a seaman of the Blockade had been killed.
Two nights later, on the Sunday, the group met again in the Tradesmen’s Room where one of the ringleaders, Thomas Waters, paid Longhurst ten shillings for recruiting some of the tub-men. Longhurst had done other work for Waters and left that night with twenty three shillings, more than two weeks wages, in his pocket. The Master of the lugger, James Bennett, was also present and Waters gave him twelve pounds with which to pay the tub-men. Each of those who had carried away goods that Thursday night received ten shillings as his share of the spoils when Bennett met them on the Monday night as previously agreed.
The inquest on the body of Charles Collins that week returned a verdict of “Wilful murder against persons unknown”.
Such was the viciousness of the Battle of Sidley Green that The Times in London carried a report in its edition on Monday 7th January. It was evident from the tone of the article that the establishment meant to bring those responsible to justice. The efforts of the local Justices were augmented by a leading member of the Bow Street force who had been despatched over the weekend to help bring “some of these desperadoes” to justice.
It was not long before the authorities got the break they had looked for.
The District Commander of the Coastal Blockade was an ambitious officer by the name of John Green. A few days after the coroner had returned his verdict Lieutenant Green received some information from a local girl concerning the identity of some of those involved in the affray on January 3rd. On January 31st under oath Ann Easton swore before Justice Frederick North that certain men, whom she named, had assembled armed with clubs and bludgeons in order to assist with the illegal landing, running and carrying of un-customed goods. Warrants were subsequently issued against thirty seven men from Icklesham, Bexhill, Ninfield, Hastings, Rye and Guestling in respect of the affair at Bexhill.
One of these men was Charles Longhurst and within twenty four hours of Ann Easton swearing on oath before Justice North, Longhurst was doing the same. Having been deeply involved himself the song he sang was indeed sweeter to the authorities. After an initial examination on February 1st he made a voluntary statement dated February 2nd 1828 which ran to eight pages. Two days later Longhurst added a further eight names to his deposition.
It was not the length of the statement which caused delight for Justice North however but the wealth of detail it contained. In a little under four days Longhurst had delivered up to the authorities the names of virtually every man involved in the run. Over thirty men were named by Longhurst, a considerable testament to the power of his memory.
Within days of her testimony many of those who had been named by Easton had been apprehended and were being held in custody even as Longhurst sang. The information supplied by Longhurst not only confirmed their involvement but contained the evidence to prove their guilt. Longhurst had made an application to become an approver and his evidence, vital to the prosecution, had been gratefully accepted.
With lists of names to work on, and an awareness amongst the local population that someone was singing, the authorities made rapid progress. Further evidence was forthcoming and other informants, emboldened perhaps by the fact that many of the smugglers were either in captivity or had fled, soon came forward.
Night after night Lieutenant Green and his men were scouring the countryside in search of accused men. Many houses were broken into by force and hapless occupants carried away. The surrounding villages were in a constant state of terror and alarm as these nightly visits continued.4. Most of those involved in the run that fateful night had come from Bexhill and the surrounding villages. The efforts of the authorities were therefore very much concentrated on Bexhill, Sidley, Hooe, Westfield, Pett and Peasmarsh.
Many men simply absconded rather than risk being taken into custody leaving behind wives and children. For many of these unfortunate families there was no recourse but the local workhouse and in Bexhill alone it was reported that no less than twenty five families had been thrown upon parochial funds. The Exeter Weekly Times in an article published in April 1828 reported at least two cases of dreadful consequences for women who had witnessed the terrifying spectacle of their husbands being dragged from their beds in the small hours. One, confined to bed in the early stages of labour had died apparently from shock and another in a similar condition had been delirious for days after and “only narrowly escaped the jaws of death”.
Charles Longhurst was not the only local with a penchant for singing. With the continued success of the authorities in rounding up men based on Longhurst’s deposition more of the Gang came into custody and some of these had tales to tell. The penalty for smuggling was death and so the incentive to avoid prosecution was high. One who was of particular use to the authorities was a native of Pett named Thomas Bufford.
Longhurst lived in Bexhill and had been able to supply much information concerning those who lived around him. Bufford however was able to implicate many more who lived in his own neighbourhood but who were unknown to Longhurst. The prosecution had two well informed members who had both turned on their former associates presumably to save their own lives.
Such informers were vital to the success of any prosecution for smuggling at this time. The number of men involved in combating smuggling at this time was pitifully small in relation to the scale of activity in that part of the country. Smuggling gangs knew that they ran the risk of death if caught and convicted of smuggling and so as we have seen they were not averse to using strong arm tactics to protect their liberty. The history of smuggling in Sussex is indeed a bloody and ruthless tale despite the romantic aura provided by much of the folklore and by works such as Kipling’s famous poem. “Watch the wall my darling” was however the ethos followed by most locals; they knew that most of them benefited directly or indirectly from its rewards.
Whilst working through these papers I thought it would be nice to share my good fortune with another regular correspondent, Joan Shiels. We had been corresponding since 1994 and had regularly shared interesting finds. I re-read the last couple of letters from Joan before writing as was my usual habit and spotted that she had a James Foord on her tree. There had been a James Foord on the list in the Times. Working back through the correspondence I noted that Joan’s ancestor had been transported in 1829 for smuggling. The age of the smuggler tallied with the date of birth in Joan’s records so I was confident that they were the same person.
What a coincidence! Joan and I had been corresponding for several years primarily in respect of a mutual interest in the name Whenham and suddenly here was a connection through something totally unrelated. The coincidence was spooky to say the least.
It is easy to imagine Joan’s excitement when I told her of the connection. What was even more gratifying from my point of view is that she knew nothing of the circumstances surrounding James Foord’s sentence. I was able to provide her with the whole story as well as copies of documents relating to her ancestor. She in turn gave me the next big clue that would help unlock further secrets in the case of the Miller brothers.
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 5
Progress – Australia Bound
Written on Joan’s family tree was the name of the ship on which James Foord had been transported to New South Wales. It would be a simple job to get a copy of the transportation records for the Claudine as they are held at the Public Records Office. I therefore wrote to a professional researcher in London explaining what I wanted and why. He very quickly supplied me with a copy of the relevant document.
There on the pages amongst other convicted criminals were seven of the men who had been sentenced on April 10th 1828 before Lord Chief Justice Tenterden. Thomas Miller was there as was James Foord but the missing man was Henry Miller. We did get a little excited again.
The disappearance of Thomas from civil and parish records was explained by this find. Similarly, the fact that Henry had not gone on the Claudine rekindled the fire slightly where he was concerned as it raised the possibility that he had not been transported.
With nothing to lose I again contacted the London researcher explaining what I needed. After agreeing with him both a price and also what records would be checked I settled down to await further developments. In the meantime there was plenty of work to do in transcribing and indexing the many documents I had collected. All the data was then transferred onto the computer to make analysis easier. I also had the pleasure of providing a fellow researcher in Australia with additional information relating to one of her ancestors who had also been involved in the smuggling at Bexhill.
Six weeks later I got the news that Henry Miller had been found alive and well in March 1834 aboard the prison hulk Captivity.
The first thing the researcher had done was to look at the Newgate Register for 1828 as I had been able to tell him from previous research that this was where Henry had been immediately following the trial. The register had shown that all but one of the Bexhill smugglers had been transferred to the Captivity moored at Devonport in Plymouth on June 16th 1828.
The Public Records Office also holds copies of the quarterly returns that by law had to be compiled for each of these prison hulks. Henry had been traced through these returns up until March 1834 when the records ended. It was assumed that subsequent records had been lost. There were also copies of various petitions made on Henry’s behalf and copies of these were also provided for my perusal.
Whilst my researcher consulted further records I managed to find mention of the Captivity in a book. This showed that the hulk had been decommissioned in 1834 which probably explained the lack of records after March 1834. The probability therefore was that the convicts had either been transferred elsewhere or had been transported. I kept my fingers crossed.
Let us return briefly to 1829. The crew of the Claudine under her Master, William Heathorn, were preparing for the voyage to Sydney. Built in Calcutta in 1811 the Claudine was a class E ship weighing 452 tons who had already made the trip as a convict transport once before. In 1821 she had sailed from Woolwich via Tenerife to Van Diemens Land under the command of John Crabtree. For this voyage to Port Jackson the Surgeon was to be another William. The responsibility for the crew as well as one hundred and eighty male convicts fell to William Henry Trotman.
The convicts, including Thomas Miller and his companions from Sidley Green embarked from London on August 24th 1829. Three ships sailed that December and a total of five hundred and eighty men were transported that month from London to Sydney. A further two hundred were sent on the Larkins from Dublin so the ranks of convicts were swelled in Sydney that month by over seven hundred and eighty after allowing for the inevitable deaths en route. This was a mere drop in the ocean however compared to the almost one hundred and sixty thousand men and women transported between 1788 and 1868 from Great Britain and Ireland to the penal colonies in Australia.
None of the ships used for transportation to the Australian colonies had been designed and built as convict ships. They were on the whole ordinary merchant ships and although some made many journeys none of them was used exclusively for the transporting convicts. The Claudine was of moderate tonnage as was normal for convict transports at the time. The usual practice was to carry one convict for every two tons. Any surplus would have been used for the shipment of provisions and stores although military or civilian personnel were sometimes carried.
The journeys invariably took several months and were prone to many hazards so payment for these voyages was put out to tender at what must have been a mutually acceptable rate for the authorities as well as the owners. In 1829 the average rate was around £5 2s. per ton.
In fact, the voyage of the Claudine was one of the fastest in 1829. The ship arrived in Sydney on 6th December after one hundred and four days at sea. Only two convicts were lost during the voyage although several of them were ill when they disembarked. One of these was James Foord who had supplied a hand cart that fateful day in 1828. He subsequently died on February 15th 1830 in a Sydney hospital from heart failure brought on by the rheumatic fever he had contracted during the voyage. As a footnote, three of his children settled in Australia as free settlers in 1838 and according to one of his descendants with whom I have corresponded there are over five thousand descendants of James Foord, convicted smuggler mainly through these children.
Finally, just before Christmas 1996 I got the news I had been hoping for. Henry had been found in the records of another hulk, the Leviathan in Portsmouth. The register for the Leviathan revealed that Henry had been pardoned in November 1835. He had never left England and now we had the evidence that he was freed before the birth of James Miller (son of “my” Henry Miller) which kept our hopes alive.
There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that the two Millers sentenced in April 1828 were the same two men who sat boldly on my family tree but what was needed was hard proof. Where would this come from?
This is the fifth instalment of The Battle of Sidley Green. As time permits I will supplement this with the story of how the research unfolded, why I am interested in this event and the current position with the research.
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 6
Beyond Reasonable Doubt
It was time to take stock again. Through contemporary newspaper reports, access to original documents and background reading in various books a fairly clear picture had been drawn of the events at Sidley Green and over the following months. These culminated in the trial at the Old Bailey in April 1828 when those apprehended were sentenced to death. The sentence as we have seen was commuted to transportation for life. Whilst none of those convicted were innocent saps it has to be said that the main ringleaders, men such as Thomas Waters, had escaped justice. However, the authorities had made a mark and from letters of the time it would appear that they were reasonably happy with what they had achieved.
The fate of those convicted had been reasonably well ascertained. Thomas Miller was m New South Wales and research was continuing into his fate through fellow researchers in Australia and the Archives Office of New South Wales. As for Henry Miller he had been given his liberty on November 17th 1835.
Considerable success had been made in tracing the history of The Battle of Sidley Green and the fate of some of its participants. I had also enhanced my knowledge of smuggling, the history of English prison hulks and of transportation to Australia. On many counts it had been a successful exercise, apart from one factor.
The original aim had been to show that Thomas and Henry Miller were brothers and that they were ancestors of mine. Despite a considerable amount of information the answer to these two questions was as far away as when we had started. Or was it?
One of the first things I had learnt during the early days researching my family tree had been to constantly review what material you had. A fact that made no connection at the start of research could take on a new meaning later with the revelation of other information. So, quite simply I started to work through everything again.
Amongst the material from the Public Records Office was a copy of a petition for Henry Miller’s release dated November 9th 1833. I had been unable to completely decipher its contents earlier but had managed to glean the fact that it was a plea for Henry’s release. I now sat down patiently and carefully to decipher the letter. It had been sent from Bexhill and talked of the truly penitent behaviour of Henry and the fact that prior to his conviction he had always been a man of unimpeachable character. Henry himself had protested the same in an earlier plea for clemency.
A few of the words that I had been unable to read earlier took shape on the pad in front of me. “Heartbreaking parent….” , “my son….” , “broken hearted parents”. I realised that the letter was from Henry’s father.
I had found two sets of Thomas and Henry Miller brothers in that part of Sussex whose ages fitted the description of the smugglers during the earlier research into my family tree. One set were the sons of Richard and Anne and the others, “mine”, were Thomas and Ann. The letter I was deciphering was from Henry’s father Thomas!
What I needed now was evidence that Henry and Thomas were brothers and I would have everything I wanted. The same document provided the final piece of the jigsaw.
Two people had scribbled notes on the front of the letter. One had asked “when will his term expire…” and “can employment be found for him…”. The other hand had added the following comments “conduct good aboard the Captivity” and “brother [ ] New South Wales”. I could not make out the words following brother but it seemed slightly irrelevant. This was surely the proof that Henry and Thomas were brothers. That one letter that I had obtained two weeks earlier held the key to solving the puzzle.
Not wanting to leave out anything I passed the letter to Amanda, my wife, who had not previously looked at any of the documents. After fifteen minutes she brought the letter back with the news that the brother had escaped from New South Wales. I looked at it again and yes she was right it actually said that Henry’s brother had escaped. The search therefore continues even as I sit here writing these notes.
Whilst it is perhaps not possible to say with total one hundred percent certainty that the Thomas and Henry Miller convicted in 1828 for smuggling are my 3 x Great Grandfather and his brother the research has now reached the point where we can be reasonably certain. Beyond reasonable doubt perhaps?
The Battle of Sidley Green – Chapter 7
As with most writers and particularly those whose subject required considerable research I have been fortunate enough to receive the help and encouragement of many people.
Fellow researcher Joan Shiels has given tremendous encouragement over the last few years as well as considerable amounts of family history data to feed the voracious appetite of my PC.
The original documents relating to the incidents retold here are held at the Hastings Museum and I have received help from staff there in photocopying papers and suggesting books to read for general background material.
Another fellow researcher who deserves special attention is Norma Holt. A fellow student of this escapade it was she who introduced me to the papers held at Hastings and has shared her research freely.
Considerable assistance with research relating to Thomas Miller was given by Beryl Bauld in Australia. Help has also been forthcoming from Evelyn Weir also in Australia.
Finally, my family. Living with an armchair researcher can sometimes be frustrating especially when he leaves piles of papers and books spread around the dining room but they have always encouraged and supported me in this quest.
The help and generosity of all these people has been my good fortune. Likewise any errors in this document are also mine.