Monday, June 22, 2020

The Smuggling Gangs

by Helen Hollick

Brandy Kegs - a smuggler's treasure chest!
© Nctfalls – Purchased Adobe Stock

Fiction, movies and TV tend to portray the smugglers of the past as small groups of local fisher-folk from isolated coastal villages hoping to make an extra penny or two to feed their starving children. Or you see the lone villainous ruffian out to bully some vulnerable young lad into breaking the law by smuggling in a keg or two of brandy in his poor, very ill pa’s rowing boat. Both are true to a point. But only to a point.

The Big Trade, the big money-makers were very far from this romantic idealistic view. The smuggling gangs were little more than vicious thugs, especially when smuggling became organised by efficient gang leaders – an 1700-1800 Mafia equivalent.

The ‘smuggling companies’ mostly operated in the south-east of England, from Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. (Not our fictional vision of a rugged, isolated Cornish cove as in Poldark… although the West Country did have smugglers – but that will come later in a different article!)

Gang members were not always seamen, but landsmen based along the roads leading to London and the larger, inland towns. Seamen brought the cargo in, the gangs collected and dispersed it, and if there was trouble from the Revenue Men... the gangs were well ready for them!

These gangs often comprised of forty to fifty men, but on a prosperous run with a large haul of contraband the different gangs would unite into as many as two or three hundred men. The Revenue, ill-informed, under-manned, under-armed and under-paid rarely had any hope of intervening, let alone putting a stop to such formidable opponents, especially when burly smuggler bodyguards formed two lines of protection by wielding stout ash poles. (Think Robin Hood fighting Little John and his quarterstaff on the bridge in Sherwood Forest.)

Smuggling soon started to hit the purses and coffers of the government, and the wealthy. Something had to be done. By the mid-to-late 1780s the militia and customs men were getting their act together. Better equipped with better firearms, better ships, with better firepower and more reliable ‘intelligence’ meant they stood more chance of stopping the gangs and seizing the contraband. Even so, these gangs were no pushover. They were armed, rough, tough men, and were ruthless when ensuring potential informers kept their mouths shut. Betray a gang, and it was very likely you would end up dead with no hope of your murderer even being identified, let alone caught.


The Colonel of Bridport Gang operated in Dorset, under the leadership of ‘The Colonel’. One contraband cargo was nearly intercepted by the revenue men, and had to be hastily sunk in the sea to hide it, but it floated free of its makeshift anchor and was washed ashore near Eype Mouth, not far from West Bay and Bridport, to the great delight of the locals who discovered and ‘liberated’ it!

Lyme Bay, Dorset
© Tony Smith 

Apart from this mishap, the Colonel’s gang was highly successful, and were never caught. They supplied many of the taverns in Bridport and the Lyme Bay area with contraband liquor from France.

The Groombridge Gang named for a village a few miles west of Tunbridge Wells were active from about 1730. Several of them had wonderful nicknames such as ‘Yorkshire George’, ‘The Miller’, ‘Old Joll’, ‘Towzer’, ‘Flushing Jack’ and my favourite, ‘Nasty Face’. Nicknames, were commonly used among smugglers and highwaymen not as familiar terms of friendship but because they hid a true identity.

The Groombridge Gang was first mentioned in legal documents in 1733 when thirty men were bringing a cargo of tea inland using fifty or so horses. A group of eager militiamen challenged them, but outnumbered, were disarmed and forcibly marched en-route at gunpoint until the cargo was safely delivered. An inconvenience for both sides, for the whole affair lasted four hours. The militiamen were eventually set free, unharmed, but on oath not to renew their interfering.

The oath was made, but did not last long.

The Hadleigh Gang from the Suffolk town of the same name were known for fighting against the local dragoons in 1735, with the intention of recovering a seized cargo that had been confiscated and stored in a local tavern. More than twenty men of the gang were determined to retrieve their property. In the fight which followed several dragoons were injured and one was killed, the smugglers, however, managed to reclaim their goods. Seventeen of them, alas, had been recognised and were arrested, with two of them hanged immediately after their trial.

The interesting thing about Hadleigh is that it is not a coastal town, but lies a good forty miles inland!

The North Kent Gang worked along the coast from Ramsgate to the River Medway. In 1820 their use of violence increased when the Blockade Men came across the gang. A fight followed in which one officer was seriously injured, but the gang fled with their cargo. During the spring of 1821 forty of the gang gathered at Herne Bay to land a cargo, with more than twenty more men armed with bats and pistols to protect them.

Unfortunately for the gang, the batsmen had partaken of too much pre-run ‘hospitality’ at the nearby inn. Led by Midshipman Sydenham Snow, the men of the blockade appeared - drawn by the rowdy noise that the drunken smugglers were making. Eighteen of the smugglers were arrested. Four went to the gallows, with the others transported for life to Tasmania.


The Northover Gang were from Dorset and named for their leaders. In December 1822 Preventative Men, William Forward and Timothy Tollerway were on patrol: hearing whistling they saw two boats coming into shore with four men already on the beach. Forward and Tollerway then met with three of the men who dropped the kegs they were carrying and ran off. Tollerway kept guard on the abandoned contraband, while Forward seized a dozen more kegs after firing his pistol to summon help, but the gang surrounded him and forced him towards the waterline. Tollerway ran to give assistance. The gang leader, James Northover Junior, was subsequently arrested when more Preventatives arrived, and he was sentenced to fourteen months in Dorchester gaol.

Lessons were obviously not headed. James Northover was to serve time in gaol twice more and was then impressed into the Royal Navy in 1827 for yet another offence. We do nor know what subsequently happened to him.

The Hawkhurst Gang. Hawkhurst is about ten miles inland from the Kent and East Sussex coast, and between 1735-1749 the gang became known as the most notorious and feared in all England. They brought in silk, brandy and tobacco which had been landed at Rye or Hastings, with up to five-hundred men able to help out when needed.

Tobacco. The smuggler's fancy
© Stephen Orsillo –  Purchased Adobe Stock
The gang joined with the Wingham Gang in 1746 to bring ashore twelve tons of tea (that is a lot of tea!) but the Wingham men were set upon by their so-called partners. Seven Winghams were injured and the Hawkhurst lot made off with the tea and several valuable horses. There is no account of whether the horses were ever returned, either amicably or by stealth.

Inevitably, despite the benefits of smuggling, villagers grew fed-up with the gang’s increasing tyranny and led by local militiaman, William Sturt, a retaliation was made in April 1747. Confident of their power the gang jauntily marched to the village not expecting to meet with a small army of people determined to put a stop to their bullying. One of the gang’s hierarchy, George Kingsmill, was shot dead and he is buried in Goudhurst churchyard. His brother, Thomas, was later arrested and hanged at Tyburn in London, with his body taken back to Kent to be hung in chains and left to rot on the gallows.

Does his ghost linger in the village I wonder?

  © stocksnapper
Smuggling in Fact and Fiction by Helen Hollick is due to be published by Pen & Sword Press in January 2019


Smuggling In The British Isles by Richard Platt
Smuggling: A History 1700-1970 David Phillipson
Smuggling In Fact and Fiction Helen Hollick (not yet published)

This article is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published April 20, 2018.

Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction.

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Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, submissions welcome.


  1. Great post Helen! Smuggling has been romanticized in literature and it helps to remember that it was a dark and violent business.

    1. apologies for the delay in responding, Cryssa (a deadline was getting way too close!) The small fishing boat with a handful of villagers ws OK - but those gangs! What a fearsome lot they were!

  2. Loved the post! Smuggling has also been romanticized in history, linked to high ideals. Across the "pond" lived merchant John Hancock, who was incensed that British tea could be purchased cheaper than the Dutch tea he smuggled. On the night of 16 December 1773, John's good pal, Sam Adams, and a bunch of fellows dressed like Indians dumped crates of British tea into Boston Harbor. But the real blow to Hancock's competition came in the 1774 and 1775, when people supporting the American Revolution *boycotted* British tea.

    1. my apologies for the delay in responding... (a deadline was getting way too close!) Yes - hence the US preference for coffee (which wasn't taxed, therefore not smuggled) Did you know there was a second "tea party"... in Philadelphia? (I'll be writing about it in another post!)

  3. Great read. My just published historical fiction novel begins in 1940 Hawkhurst, long after the gang was gone, but their exploits came up in my research over and over again. Highwaymen, thieves and cut throats, the lot of them.

    1. apologies for the delay in responding to you, (a deadline was getting way too close!) Yes that dastardly lot pop up all over the place don't they! Do contact me about submitting your novel to Discovering Diamonds for possible review!

  4. Excellent and informative read. Thanks for posting.

  5. Excellent - they were no better than the gangs today, who smuggle drugs or watches etc. Great as fodder for fiction, but in real life, probably quite scary.

    1. Indeed - I don't think it was wise to get on the wrong side of these guys!


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