It was soon though to be a very easy task to carry out illicit trading, as there would be very few Revenue men around. Most smugglers fished for a living. They knew the Channel very well and would meet the French half way and exchange goods in the darkness to their advantage.
Smuggling started way back in the 14th century. Early smugglers were known as Owlers as they only worked at night using the hoot of the owl as a signal. Their task was not so much smuggling in, as smuggling out. Their valuable cargo was wool, being given the name Canterbury wool. The Romney Marsh was a vast sheep rearing area and a short distance across the Channel.
Wool was in demand both here and abroad, finding its way to Holland and Belgium. Prices were very high on the Continent.
In the beginning it started small with family and friends. Activities known to the Kingís men were often ignored after a small sum of payment. Early smugglers were even looked upon with some affection. By the 18th century things had changed. The Revenue men were very short staffed in trying to prevent smuggling and very often when they did make an arrest, juries refused to convict, thus making matters worse. From the small and harmless
beginnings, it grew into a very ruthless and serious threat to law and order. In the 18th century, having spread throughout Kent and Sussex, this part of Kent was dominated by some of the most wicked and ruthless smugglers in the area. They would stop at nothing to achieve their aims. They would even kill family or friends as a deterrent if they thought they were a threat.
The harmless fishermen were soon to become thugs, highway men and desperadoes. They feared nobody and ran their schemes without interference due to their threat of reprisals. By the 1780s an estimated six thousand pounds were lost in revenue.
The smugglers of the old days were a sad and sorry lot. Their crimes were despicable and horrific, yet they thought they were justified, as they were helping to support the community. They thought themselves higher in status than, say, the pirate or highwayman, who worked for their own gain whereas the smuggler pitted his wits and courage against the law. For them, smuggling was the people versus the law.
One of the most notorious smuggling gangs ruled throughout Dymchurch and the surrounding area. They were the Aldington gang, or the Blues as they were also known. They rose to fame in the nineteenth century.
They worked the coast line from Deal down to Camber in East Sussex. The first leader of the gang in the early days was Cephus Quested. They were extremely successful until 11th February 1821, when on a run they came face to face with the blockade men. Among the dead and wounded two prisoners were captured, Richard Wraight and Quested himself. Wraight was released with no evidence offered. Quested was found guilty to be hanged. After the battle the gang
went its own way for a while.
Along the road was another soon to be member, George Ransley, a waggoner and farmer who used farming to cover his illicit trade. He was born in Ruckinge in 1782. Two of his cousins James and William, the Ransley brothers, were hanged at Peneden Heath in the 1780s for highway robbery and horse stealing, Ransley met and married Elizabeth Bailey, her father being an original member of the gang. He was soon rising in the ranks to lead the Aldington gang.
He was well organised and smuggled in two groups, farmers and workers. Ransley had a doctor and surgeon in Brookland and lawyers in Ashford, and looked after and provided for his own. 1826 saw his downfall after a run from Dover. On July 30th 1826 the gang confronted two members of the blockade. The gangs opened fire seriously wounding the soldiers, and news of this reached the authorities. They had had enough of these attacks and rewards were offered, leading to the capture of members of the gang.
Ransley was finally betrayed by two members of his own gang; a party of blockade men assisted by a Bow Street runner forced entry to his home and arrested him, and soon rounded up the rest of the gang. On January 12th 1827 they were brought to trial in Maidstone, accused of murder, smuggling and taking up arms. They were defended by their lawyer from Ashford. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to hang, the death sentence being quashed after finding
out the evidence being given incriminated people in high places, a case of saving skin. Ransley and his men were sent to Portsmouth and imprisoned on a hulk for three months, before being transported to Tasmania, never to return. Ransley worked hard on a prison farm, later being given his own land to work. His family later joined him, and they became quite wealthy and friends of the community. Ransley died of yellow Jaundice aged 77, and so fell the curtain on one of the biggest gangs, ending an era. Smuggling
still exists today but cargoes are far less lethal than in times past
The Smuggling Gangs
The Owling trade brought about the very first smuggling gang, based in Mayfield in 1720. Rochester and Faversham prospered from the trade, both legal and illegal. Whitstable was also well known for its smugglers, a street called Island Wall being the centre of their attractions.
Many individual smugglers have earned a place in history. Samuel Jackson, or Slippery Sam as he became known, was born in 1730. The son of a smuggler, he lived in Petham, near Canterbury. Slippery Sam met his end at the age of thirty after being shot in a battle.
As free traders became more organised they fell into two classes, master men and labourers. The most notorious of these was the Hawkhurst gang. They terrorised and reigned along the cost for several years. One member, thought to be the leader, was Arthur Grey.
The gang operated the coast from Shoreham to the Romney Marsh. In a battle with militia men some members were caught, including Arthur Grey. They were all acquitted as no evidence was offered. Several of the gang were captured later and taken to trial in 1749. This time they were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation.
North Kent gangs worked the coast from Medway to Ramsgate, Reculver being their favourite landing spot. Another famous smuggler, born in St Peterís in 1741, was Joss Snelling. He was successful and, as a result, few of his activities were recorded. In 1769 his gang was involved in a battle which became known as the battle of Botany Bay.
Eight were captured and injured. Snelling was captured by the Revenue men. On 10th August 1803 he pleaded not guilty, claiming he came across the contraband by chance. He was released and spent the rest of his life smuggling, along with his son George and grandson. He was even presented to the future Queen Victoria. He died a smuggler, aged 96. Smuggling thrived in Deal throughout the 18th century. Gin, brandy and tobacco were still being seized as
late as 1880. Deal ship builders developed a type of speed boat, the galley. It was long with a small sail. It made many crossings, which proved costly to the government. In 1784 William Pitt, Prime Minister, ordered the destruction of these boats. By 1785 more than 400 people were reported to be involved in smuggling within the Dover area. Smugglers were even used by Napoleon for carrying papers, letters and even their spies across the Channel.
more about The Smuggler Gangs
To learn more about Smuggling in East Kent please visit www.historickent.com.
The Dr Syn is the smuggler hero of a series of novels by Russell Thorndike, which were set in and around Dymchurch. For more information please visit our Dr Syn page.
Pictures and Poems
Greatstone resident Anthony Webb has written a number of poems about Romney Marsh, with a main theme of 18th smuggling on the Marsh. All the poems are illustrated by various artists. You can read them at Pictures and Poems.