Smuggling Gangs


Ruxley’s Crew were a gang of “chopbacks” in Hastings. They would pirate• ships in the channel and chop the ship’s crew down the back bone. They were indicted on 30th October, 1769 for piracy and murder on the high seas. This gang hailed a Dutch hoy off the Hastings coast on the pretence of bartering goods. They chopped the master Peter Bootes down the back. They later boasted about their deed and in the end betrayed themselves. The authorities heard of this and sent four troops Of arrest them. The murderers were hung and left to rot at Execution Dock.

A great deal of smuggling was carried on in Hastings and at the time of the great riots of 1821, Joseph Swaine, a fisherman and smuggler, objected to the blockade sentinels who insisted on using ‘prickers’ in order to search the nets for hidden goods. The prickers were iron spears which pierced the nets in ordei to save the blockade men the extra task of unravelling the heaving fishing gear. England, a blockade man, insisted( on-pricking Swaine’s nets and Swaine attacked him with a boathook and threw him over the side of the boat on to the hard shingle. England shot Swaine dead. The other fishermen of Hastings dragged England to a net shed where they prepared a gallows and hanged him, but the Dragoons had been alerted and saved his life. There was a public outcry over the murder of Swaine and a trial was held at Horsham on 28th March, 1821. England was found ‘Guilty of Wilful Murder’ but was granted a free pardon shortly after and transported from the blockade force to other duties.

Swaine was 29 years old and he left a widow and five children.


The leader of the Mayfield gang in the early 18th century was Gabriel Tomkins, a bricklayer from Tunbridge Wells. He was a good organiser and became leader well before 1717. His men were known to be successful owlers. Ten leading members were farmers and regarded as men of substance. They frequently used the beaches near Lydd and Fairlight but from 1717 to 1721 they were also running goods near Hastings, Eastbourne and Seaford. In 1717 Gabriel Tomkins was indicted for the murder of Riding Officer, or Exciseman, Gerard Reeves during a fight at Langney Bridge near Eastbourne but was aquitted. He was involved in other fights with rival gangs and excisemen alike. In September, 1721 Tomkins and other members of the gang were’intercepted near BurwaSh, pursued and captured in a lane near Nutley on the Ashdown Forest. The capture of Tomkins broke up the gang. His brother and some other members operated in West Sussex for a while.


The Little Common Gang were a fairly strong band of smugglers. They began their operations from the beach at the sluice opposite the Star Inn at Normans Bay. One of the former members of the gang, George Gillham, kept an account book during the years 1825-7. The following names of the gang appeared in the book.

Thomas MessegWilliam VitlerWilliam Savage
William BrittThomas ShoesmithWilliam Winham
John FarmerSamuel BeechingJosh Curtis
A. BeneyJames SindingThomas Millers
William MillerRichard GillhamHennery Stubardfield
John GillhamThomas GillhamGeorge Gillham Senior
James GillhamGeorge Gillham

George Gillham Senior was nicknamed ‘Smack’, a cream-cheese maker by day and a smuggler by night! Many of the gang had nicknames; Thomas Gillham’s was ‘Peckham’, the Bennett brothers were ‘Ducky’, ‘Sham’ and ‘Harlequin’ and the member named Shoesmith was ‘Boathook’. One of the Bennetts became the sexton at St. Marks Church.
The gang had two boats, ‘The Long Boat’ and the ‘Princess Charlotte’, both capable of bringing many tubs of spirits from France; they were berthed at a spot known locally as Willow Tot. Some of the following entries in the account book refer to their voyages:-

£ – s – d
To the White Rocko – 3 – 0
To the old sluices0 – 10 – 0
Paid to the men at sea14 – 0 – 0
To the man in the bay0 – 3 – 0
Shoes for the man0 – 6 – 0
To working of five Mis nights0 – 17 – 6

The entry ‘To working five Mis nights’ refers to the fact that the cargoes did not arrive.
The Gillham family lived at Peach Cottage which still stands in The Twitten behind LLoyds Bank Chambers, Little Common. Beside the front door of Peach Cottage stood two box trees in tubs, beneath them were other large tubs where smuggled goods were concealed. There is a story passed down through the Gillham family about a hide-out built in the woods close to Peach Cottage. It was possibly used to save ‘Peckham’, Thomas Gillham, when Preventive men were searching for him and the locals still know the area as Gillham Wood. Despite development, part of the wood remains today.
In February 1822 Customs men, armed with carbines, prevented ‘Princess Charlotte’ landing. Three hundred smugglers armed with cudgels and bats had gathered in front of the Star Inn at Normans Bay but retreated before the greater strength of the Customs men.


The Darrells of Scotney were actively engaged in smuggling in the 18th century; one of the last of the line, Arthur Darrell, was outlawed for his smuggling activities. In order to make his escape he arranged his own sham funeral, filling a coffin with heavy stones. A mourner was approached by a cloaked figure who whispered “That is not me” and then disappeared. Many years later the coffin was opened and it was indeed full of stones.


Alfriston is renowned for the smuggling of goods especially silks, laces, brandy and gin from Holland. The chief of the Alfriston gang was Stanton. Collins, a butcher by trade, who lived at Market Cross House, now the Smugglers Inn, from 1822 to 1831. The whole building is riddled with doorways, passages and cellars, and a special hiding place in the roof. Not a great deal of detail is known of the activities of Stanton Collins but at the winter assizes in Lewes in 1831 he was sentenced to 7 years transportation for stealing barley from a farm in Litlington. The last survivor of the gang, Bob Hall, died in Eastbourne Workhouse in 1895 aged 94.


The Dipperays is a three story house which is situated behind the Tiger Inn at East Dean. This was the home of James Dipperay who died a wealthy man in 1791. He is said to have been a smuggler who turned King’s Evidence and built the house from his smuggling proceeds. There are some mysterious cellars beneath the house, cut deep into the chalk. Mr. Dipperay was known for his smuggled gin which was valued in certain London taverns. He married into a good family and died while a churchwarden. There is an elegant marble tablet to him in the chancel of East Dean Church.


The Hawkhurst Gang were most active towards the middle of the eighteenth century in the Weald and along the Kent and Sussex Coast. The area around Goudhurst, Hawkhurst and Cranbrook was an importart collecting area from the Pevensey Marsh and East Sussex coast. There are many ‘Hollow Ways’ around this area in which contraband could be concealed during daylight hours if need be. By the late 1740’s the smugglers in this area, sometimes known as the Seacocks, after the local Seacocks Heath, were terrorising the district to a very great degree. They became very powerful and rich from their profits and were able to afford to attract honest men from their trades to act as runners for much higher pay than could be obtained from an honest job. Other people were kept quiet by gifts of such luxuries as brandy and tea. The Hawkhurst Gang were also operating on the Romney Marsh, although they usually landed their goods between Hastings and Pevensey. The first reference to the Hawkhurst Gang seems to have been in 1735. Thomas Carswell and other Customs Officers and soldiers lay in wait to ambush a smuggling convoy. The smugglers were able to escape with their contraband but Thomas Peen, a carpenter from Hawkhurst, was shot by two soldiers. The next mention was in 1740 near Hurst Green, only two miles from Hawkhurst. Thomas Carswell was involved again with other Officers and soldiers. This time about fifteen hundredweight of tea had been landed between Hastings and Bulverhithe and hidden in a barn at Etchingham while the smugglers slept. Thomas Carswell and his company found the tea, loaded it onto a waggon and was taking it back to Hastings when a member of the gang, James Stanford, realised what had happened. He managed to round up thirty men with horses and weapons. They caught up with the waggon at the top of Silver Hill (near Robertsbridge). Here a fight ensued and Thomas Carswell was shot dead and a dragoon seriously injured. The smugglers escaped with their tea.

The leaders of the gang up to 1747 were Arthur Gray and his brother William, they accumulated great wealth. Arthur Gray built a house at Seacox Heath and William bought a house at Goudhurst. Other leading members were Thomas Kingsmill who organised the ialand transportation of goods, and his brother George, both of Goudhurst, John Diamond, known as ‘Dimer’ who was the chief seagoing organiser, William Fairall from Horsmonden and. James Stanford, they were all reported to be very wealthy. During the 1740’s the Hawkhurst Gang under the leadership of Arthur Gray carried out many acts of violence. One of the gang’s most daring escapades was to break into the Poole Customs House. This came about after a mission to Guernsey by John Diamond and his crew to smuggle tea. On the way back they were chased and caught by the Revenue Cutter ‘Swift’. Diamond and his crew escaped but their contraband was seized and lodged in the Poole Customs House.

The beginning of the end for this gang came when, in 1747, a number of notorious villains, most of whom seemed to be the founder members of the Hawkhurst Gang, had been arrested in Sussex. The Gentlemen of the county wished to make examples of these offenders so a special Assize was held in Chichester on 16th January, 1749.

There came to light a lot of evidence of brutal murders committed by these men. The most famous and brutal were the murders of Daniel Chater, a shoemaker, and William Galley, a Customs House Official. These murders came about after the break in at Poole Customs House. In the trials which followed, Thomas Kingsmill, William Fairall and Richard Perrin were convicted at the Old Bailey and hanged at Tyburn. Fairall’s body was then gibbeted at Horsmonden and Kingsmill’s at Goudhurst. Four more of the Hawkhurst Gang were tried at Rochester and hanged on Penenden Heath near Maidstone. Eight others died for their parts in the murder of Thomas Carswell near Battle, and other crimes. Six other members were hung for other offences and one was transported.

This has only been a quick glance at the activivites of the Hawkhurst Gang. For a more detailed study the following books are highly recommended:-

Smuggling in Kent and East Sussex 1700-1840 by Mary Waugh published by Countryside Books

Smuggling in Sussex by William Cooper which gives a detailed account of the murders of Chater and Galley. (This will probably now only be available through a Public Library.).


By the late 1820s, the smugglers from Bexhill and Little Common were relying on superior numbers and brute force to make their runs. Intimidation was rife and over the years several blockade men were murdered.

A serious fight took place on Sidley Green in the early hours of January 3rd 1828, following a landing at Bulverhythe.

The patrols from Galley Hill station were out—numbered by the armed smugglers and their batsmen. The blockade men obtained reinforcements and met the smugglers on Sidley Green. A fierce fight followed, during which a quartermaster named Collins was killed. Also killed were two ‘batsmen’, one named Smithurst. His body was laid out in the barn of Cramp’s Farm (near the Pelham Hotel).

All the goods and wounded were removed safely, although one of the wounded became a cripple for the rest of his life.

After indictment at Horsham Assizes that same Spring the following men stood trial at the Old Bailey on April 10th 1828.

Thomas Miller Henry Miller John Spray Edward Shoesmith William Bennett John Ford Stephen Stubberfield Spencer Whiteman

They pleaded ‘not guilty’ but upon understanding that a recommendation to spare their lives would be forwarded to the Crown, they changed their plea to ‘guilty’.

They were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales in Australia. Of these, Edward Shoesmith remarried at the age of 51 and lived to be 90, having fathered a sizable family.


In January, 1828 a lugger landed between the shores of Bexhill and the Bo-Peep public house (St. Leonards) and the smugglers, armed with bats, landed their cargo, loaded it on to carts, horses and the backs of men and proceeded to Sidley Green.

Here they were met by a blockade of Preventive (Excise) men and a bloody fight followed. The Preventive men were repulsed and Quartermaster Collins was killed. A smuggler called Smithhurst was also killed, and was found nest norming with his bat, badly hacked about by Preventives’ cutlasses, still in his hand.

As was the smugglers’ habit, the wounded were safely carried away.

Contraband was landed regularly at Pevensey Sluice (now Normans Bay) and the Red House, Pevensey Bay, and transported to places on the fringe of Pevensey Levels (Herstmonceux, Ninfield, Little Common, Hooe and Pevensey) where the headquarters of various gangs were situated. The Star Inn, Red Lion and the Lamb were regular storage places.

In 1833, in one of the last battles, a two hour confrontation resulted in the coastguards chasing the smugglers for six or seven miles, during which time three smugglers were killed and five taken prisoner. The rest escaped, leaving a bloody trail, to Wartling and Boreham Street.

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