If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
(from A Smuggler’s Song, by Rudyard Kipling)
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, smuggling was a vital part of the Kentish economy. The smugglers were not regarded as criminals by the locals, because they bought, rather than stole, their goods and their only offence was to dodge import or export duties that were considered unreasonably high. The Cinque Ports, four of which are in Kent, had seen their once significant privileges, which had included exemption from import duty, deteriorate in value or be abolished, so, as far as the men of New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich were concerned, it was only fair that they should get their money back by other means. Parsons, squires, even Justices of the Peace, all turned a blind eye to the nocturnal activities of the “owlers”.
Yet there is no escaping the fact that smuggling was a crime and the penalty was transportation or death. So high were the stakes that the smugglers themselves, however benevolently the country folk might have regarded them, became hardened and merciless. In 1742, a customs officer was assaulted while watching a cricket match at Bromley and, in 1780, fifty smugglers re-captured a hundred and eighty-three tubs of seized gin from their armed escort, two of whom they killed.
There were no smugglers more notorious than the Hawkhurst Gang. Their activities stretched nearly the whole length of the south coast, from Sheppey to Poole but their centre of operations, as their name suggests, was the Weald of Kent, on the border with Sussex. Their founder, Arthur Gray, was so bold as to build himself a house in Hawkhurst, now known as Gray’s Folly and the Gang regularly caroused, fenced and wenched at the village’s Oak and Ivy Inn, which still stands today, catering to a higher class of clientele (one hopes).
Gray was succeeded as leader by Thomas Kingsmill, who broadened the Gang’s portfolio to include highway robbery, extortion and racketeering. They borrowed horses without asking and any farmer who complained would see his barn burnt. Kingsmill also transferred the Gang’s focus of activity to the village of Goudhurst, where he and his brothers George and Richard lived. The smugglers met at the Star and Eagle at the top of the village’s startlingly precipitous High Street and used the house next door, Spyways, as a look-out post. Although they still flogged the occasional revenue man, they had ceased to be real smugglers now and had simply become gangsters, who stole what they wanted, tortured whom they wanted and trusted to popular fear to protect them from the law.
The people of Goudhurst quailed under the Gang’s yoke, desperate for salvation but knowing that they would receive none. To complain of the Kingsmills to the authorities was to risk life and limb and besides the people of Goudhurst too had winked at smuggling, back in the good old days, back when no one was hurt except customs officers. Now they were paying the price for indulging these criminals. Now, they had no one to whom to appeal, no one to save them.
George Sturt had grown up in Goudhurst but had left the village and the country to become a soldier. He returned home in the spring of 1747 after a tour of duty in Jamaica and was shocked to see the transformation that his village had suffered. He and a number of other concerned citizens formed the Goudhurst Band of Militia but, when the Hawkhurst Gang heard, they reacted with a combination of amusement at this effrontery and fury that they were defied. They kidnapped one of the militiamen, beat him and sent him back to the village with a message: On the twentieth of April the Gang would muster a hundred men and ride into Goudhurst. They would kill everyone. They would steal everything. They would burn the village to the ground.
Perhaps the Gang can be forgiven for underestimating the villagers whom they had happily terrorized for years but to underestimate the seasoned soldier Sturt was foolish. He set about fortifying the town in true military fashion. He dispatched men to find gunpowder and musket balls and he gave the villagers firearm practice. He had trenches dug and barricades thrown up. He placed snipers on the rooftops. The old, women and children were evacuated to other villages and those who could not find a safe house were sheltered in Saint Mary’s Church, at the very top of the High Street, adjacent to the smugglers’ haunt the Star and Eagle.
The day and the hour had come. At precisely the time appointed, the Hawkhurst Gang rode cockily into the village, bare-chested (steady on – a dirty shirt might cause a wound to become infected, so they were not just being vain) but well armed. Richard Kingsmill stood on his stirrups and bellowed “Before this morning’s done, I’ll broil four townsmen’s hearts and eat them for my supper!”
How the militiamen must have itched to shoot his jaw off but Sturt had warned them not to open fire unless the smugglers shot first, which, obligingly, they did. A volley of musket balls hailed over the High Street. The smarmy Richard Kingsmill was shot dead, as were two others. The Gang turned and fled but the militia, flush with victory and free of any casualties of their own, pursued them, taking several prisoners.
The two surviving Kingsmill brothers, along with other members of the Gang, were tracked down and arrested during the weeks that followed. Even so, such was the terror in which the Hawkhurst Gang held the Weald that it was only when free pardons were offered for turning King’s Evidence that witnesses finally came forward. Once they had, the smugglers’ fate was sealed and Arthur Gray and Thomas and George Kingsmill, along with many of their wicked brethren, ended their days on the gallows.
Today’s visitor to Goudhurst would hardly guess that this small Kentish village, with its somewhat misshapen church, traffic-snarling High Street and duck pond, had been the scene of such an event. When the author was much younger, he watched a play in Saint Mary’s Church about the history of Goudhurst, with the battle staged in the graveyard, full of flashes and bangs and cries. Like the equally vaunted Gunfight at the OK Corral, the so-called Battle of Goudhurst was really a thirty-second skirmish. Like all bullies, the Hawkhurst Gang melted in the face of real resistance. Yet one can hardly blame the villagers for wanting to make the most out of that day, the day of David and Goliath, the day when the little man stood up against his giant enemy and the little man won.