decorative top bar graphic
blank spacer

Read the book! This fascinating book by award-winning author Richard Platt tells the story of British smuggling Click here to buy

Hidden window in Herne house
A light in this tiny window warned smugglers when the customs man was around. See below under Herne. Click picture to enlarge


Smugglers Britain logo

Guide-Book: South-East England


In the early years of the 18th century, smuggling on this part of the Kent coast was very much a small-time affair, played to rules that both the smugglers and preventives understood and adhered to. Later in the century, though, larger cargoes began to be brought in, and the increased scope for profit brought with it a totally different breed of smuggler.

Engraving of Reculver church
The cliff-top spires of Reculver Church acted as a prominent sea-marker for the beach below, making it a popular landing-spot for smugglers. Click picture to enlarge

The new entrepreneurs were not local men supplementing a meagre income from fishing and farming, but professional smugglers, such as members of the notorious Hawkhurst gang, based inland. The large out-of-town gangs were by mid-century gathering in groups of 150 and more, and carrying off their goods in long caravans of packhorses.

These groups used the north Kent beaches of Birchington, Reculver and Herne Bay, and protected their business enterprises with brute force when necessary. This had some sorry side-effects, including the loss for a Whitstable vicar of a very useful supplement to his stipend. The Rev. Patten had become accustomed to charging a tithe from the local smugglers, but discovered in 1746 that these 'rugged colts', as he called the new breed of smuggler, would not pay up. In a fit of pique, he informed the local customs authorities of the activities of these less generous souls.

The destruction of the Hawkhurst gang provided some respite from the worst of the smugglers' violence, but armed clashes between the preventives and their north Kent adversaries continued spasmodically. The establishment of the blockade in the early 19th century caused a renewal of aggression. The most celebrated battle took place at Herne Bay, and culminated in the death of a brave or foolhardy young midshipman who dared to challenge the North Kent gang as they tried to bring their goods ashore.

Photograph of Sydenham Snow's tombstone in Herne
Sydenham Snow's tombstone in Herne. Click picture to enlarge

Herne Bay and Herne

Herne Bay TR1768 is 7m N of Canterbury (map 179) red map button The Ship Inn on the sea-front is an attractive white-painted building. Herne village where Snow was buried is about 2m inland. Turn off the A299 along the A291 at a roundabout, signposted Herne and Sturry. The windmill is off Mill Lane, Herne. From the A291 (Herne Bay to Canterbury road) turn into School Lane on reaching Herne village. The mill red map button(telephone 01227 722332 or 362200) is open to the public between April and September on Sundays and bank holidays. The Kent Windmills website provides the most up-to-date information about opening times (Updated 05/11)

In the village visit the churchyard, where the grave of Sydenham Snow can be found at the very foot of the tower on the west side. Facing the church, directly across the road from the Red Lion pub is a row of smuggler's cottages, in a terrace that directly adjoins another pub now called the Smuggler's Inn. Look up at the chimneys of the cottages, and you'll see the small triangular spy-hole illustrated above left, that looks out down the road leading to the coast.

The North Kent gang were unloading a boat on the beach at Herne Bay in the small hours of Easter Monday morning, 1821, when they were disturbed by a patrol of Blockade men. The leader, Sydenham Snow, challenged the smugglers, who outnumbered the preventive men some twenty to one. The smugglers fired on Snow, but he was unable to return their shots, because his gun misfired; so he drew a knife and charged on the gang. Pistol balls in the thigh and shoulder soon brought Snow down, and the smugglers then reloaded their weapons, and used them to keep the other three members of the patrol at bay until the run was complete.

Snow wasn't dead, though, and his colleagues carried him to The Ship nearby, where a naval surgeon made a vain attempt to help him. Snow died the next day, but on his death-bed he was able to provide information that led to the arrest of five gang members. Ironically, his killers got off scott-free because prosecution witnesses broke down under cross-examination as outlined below.

The valiant Sydenham Snow was buried in Herne churchyard, where his grave can still be seen. Much of the rest of the village has smuggling associations, too: about 200 yards further up the hill (but still overlooked by the church) there is a row of old houses leading off the main road to the left. The street includes one called the box iron, on account of its pointed shape. Excavations early in the 20th century uncovered a network of cellars which were admirably suited to the needs of a smuggler. Windmills in the Herne area — there's still one on the hill above the village — were used by smugglers for signalling purposes.

The North Kent Gang

The smuggling gang that shot Sydenham Snow (see under Herne Bay above) had its roots in the smaller companies operating in the North Kent area in the 18th century. By the early years of the 19th century, though, these independent operators were faced with a concerted official attempt to strangle their business — and perhaps they drew together to counter the threat. The group was initially based on Burntwick Island, a patch of land that stands little more than a few feet above the mud of the Medway estuary.

As an organized force, rather than as individuals, the gang seems to have attracted little attention until 1820. In the spring of that year they clashed with two blockademen at Stansgate Creek, which flows sluggishly between the gang's island base and Chetney Marshes on the mainland. The gang, who were unloading a cargo in the creek, escaped by attacking one of the blockademen, wounding him seriously.

This escapade possibly emboldened the gang, for just a year later they landed a cargo directly opposite Herne Bay blockade station. With extraordinary cheek, the 50-strong force of smugglers tied up the two duty blockademen while they unloaded their goods from a French boat. The Easter clash in which midshipman Snow lost his life followed shortly afterwards.

The trial for Snow's murder seemed set to break the back of the gang — and this was exactly what the authorities wanted. Five of the gang had been accused of the killing, including the leader, James West, and three more had turned King's evidence to save their necks. Having as witnesses not only three of the gang but also Snow's comrades on the patrol, the crown were confident of a prosecution. However, the defense vigorously questioned one of the gang, George Griffiths, and he proved a poor witness. The North Kent five were acquitted despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. You can read the original account of the trial in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey by clicking here.

This coup made James West a local champion, and just a week or two after the trial, it was business as usual. In mid-June a run at Reculver was interrupted by blockademen, and in the battle both sides sustained casualties. The contraband got through, and none of the gang was captured, but their luck didn't hold: soon afterwards two were taken prisoner during a run at Whitstable. The prisoners were taken to Faversham gaol, but their stay was to be brief. They were sprung just 11 days after their arrest, when their colleagues arrived with pickaxes and clubs, and broke open the gaol to release the captives.

Other clashes led to the arrest of small numbers of the gang, but the round-up started in earnest in the spring of the following year at Margate. The three gang leaders were eventually executed on Penenden Heath, but the other 15 were transported.


TR2269 3m E of Herne Bay (map 179) red map button

This was one of the North Kent gang's favourite landing places and the spot was immortalized in verse by the Rev Richard Barham, vicar of Snargate, in his well-known Ingoldsby Legends. Barham was inspired to write The Smuggler's Leap by an entry in a history of Thanet, which he quotes at the start of the poem:

Illustration by Paul Hardy of Rev. Barham meeting the smugglers
Paul Hardy's illustration for Charles Harper's 1909 book The Smugglers dramatises Barham's encounter with the free-traders. Click picture to enlarge

"Near this hamlet (Acol) is a long-disused chalk pit...known by the name of 'The Smuggler's Leap.' The tradition of the parish runs that a riding officer from Sandwich, called Anthony Gill, lost his life here...while in pursuit of a smuggler. A fog coming on, both parties went over the precipice...The spot has, of course, been haunted ever since"

Barham embroiders his story to feature Lucifer and a demon horse that spouts flame when shot, but the tale begins at Reculver:

The fire-flash shines from Reculver cliff,
And the answering light burns blue in the skiff,
And there they stand, That smuggling band,
Some in the water and some on the sand,
Ready those contraband goods to land:
The night is dark, they are silent and still,
— At the head of the party is Smuggler Bill.
the epic frequently lapses into doggerel:
For Manston Cave, away! away!
Now speed thee, now speed thee, my good dapple-grey,
It shall never be said that Smuggler Bill
Was run down like a hare by Exciseman Gill!'
Manston Cave was Bill's abode,
A mile to the north of the Ramsgate road,
(Of late they say It's been taken away,
That is, levell'd and fill'd up with chalk and clay, By a gentleman there of the name of Day)
Thither he urges his good dapple-grey;...

The poem continues in similar gothic style for dozens of stanzas, and must have played a major part in the romanticization of smuggling that arguably began in the late Victorian era. And though the chase ends in death, the poem succeeds in making exciseman Gill's job sound almost exciting.

The reality was very different — life for exciseman Gill and his colleagues meant many hours of excruciating boredom shivering in the cold, interspersed with brief and probably terrifying encounters in which they were out-gunned and outnumbered by the smugglers. Little wonder that so many excisemen preferred to take two barrels as a bribe, hand one over as confiscated booty, and sit snug in the watch-house drinking the other.

East of Reculver shingle and mud beaches give way to chalk cliffs that the smugglers reached by gaps, stairs and cart tracks. Though modern development has carpeted many of these sheltered beach access roads with concrete, it's still possible to imagine chains of pack-horses hauling sweet-smelling tobacco bales up to the main road. Much of the contraband landed here would have found its way to Canterbury, either as a final destination, or en route for London. Some smuggled goods made the journey along the coast road, by Herne and Faversham.


The importance of Thanet as a mid 18th century smuggling area was emphasized by the supervisor of customs in Canterbury, who reported daily visits to the town by smugglers, and described how they openly carried arms, defied authority and bullied locals into supplying them with fodder and fresh horses.

Gaps and caves all along the Thanet coast were used for access and storage, and this was one place where tales of smugglers' tunnels stand up to close scrutiny: not only did preventive officers discover a 300 yard long tunnel that started at a Ramsgate house in 1822, but they actually caught the 'mole' red-handed. Significantly, the tunnel ended at the beach, thus neatly solving the problem of disposing of the spoil: it could be tipped in the sea. Contemporary estimates put the cost of the digging at £200.


TR3570 red map button 15m NE of Canterbury (map 179). The Smugglers' Caves at 1 Northdown Road are presently (2006) closed because they are unsafe.

A bloody confrontation at Marsh Bay near here proved the downfall of the North Kent gang. A blockademan recognized one of the gang, and called out his name. At this, all resistance evaporated as the smugglers fled. This was just the beginning of the story, though. The matter was put in the hands of a Margate solicitor, John Boys. Amazingly, pursuit by the legal process succeeded where the gun and pistol had failed. Through Boys' tenacious efforts 18 members of the gang were brought to book, and a Maidstone jury convicted all 18 for armed assembly.

The conviction and break-up of the gang is especially remarkable because of the intimidation that went on in the lead-up to the trial. The unfortunate solicitor...

'...was the object of general hatred in the town of Margate; he was placarded on the walls as an informer and a hunter after blood-money, his house was frequently assailed, his windows broken, his person assaulted in the dark, the fruit trees in his garden destroyed' [20]

Boys was probably not the only one intimidated, either. Jury nobbling was commonplace, and the Maidstone jury were putting themselves at considerable risk by bringing in their guilty verdict.

Smugglers used caves in Margate to store their goods, and the earthworks remained a closely-guarded secret until they were revealed by sheer fluke: a gardener working at Trinity Square disappeared in a fatal fall when his spade penetrated the roof of the long-forgotten cavern. The owner of the site presumably mourned the loss of his employee for only a token period, for the cave was soon opened as a tourist attraction.

Engraving of Cliffs at Broadstairs

Broadstairs as it was in 1815. Click picture to enlarge


TR3967 2m N of Ramsgate (map 179). To reach Botany Bay take the B2052 from Margate towards Broadstairs. About two miles from Margate centre turn left down Botany Road. The Captain Digby Inn is about ¾ mile further along the B2052 where the road makes a sharp turn to the right. Joss Bay is half a mile closer to Broadstairs: there is a large car-park on the cliff above the beach.
Continue on another ¾ mile towards Broadstairs, past the North Foreland lighthouse, and turn right into Lanthorne Road. Stone House (now split into flats) on the corner of the road was used by the Callis Court Gang for storage, and a tunnel linking the house to the coast was revealed when it collapsed under the weight of a bulldozer in the 1950s. Farm Cottage, where Snelling himself lived, is a couple of hundred yards further along on the right. At the far end of the road, a right turn takes you along Callis Court Road. Look down Fig Tree Road as you pass it on the left. The house with the small copper cupola was once the Fig Tree Inn. Anyone seeking work as a smuggler could find it here. Carry on along Callis Court Road, and at its end continue straight ahead into Elmwood Avenue. In the garden of a thatched cottage halfway down on the left is a row of caves that once hid contraband. Updated 6/11. Thanks to Tony Adams for permission to photograph the caves in his garden.

Continue towards Broadstairs, past the lighthouse, and turn right into Lanthorne Road. Stone House on the corner of the road was used by the Callis Court Gang for storage, and a tunnel linking the house to the coast was revealed when it collapsed under the weight of a bulldozer in the 1950s. Farm Cottage, where Snelling himself lived, is further along on the right. At the far end of the road, a right turn takes you along Callis Court Road. The Fig Tree is on the corner of the road of the same name, and is now a private house with a copper cupola. Continue along Callis Court Road, and either follow the road round to the left to enter Reading Street, or continue straight ahead into Elmwood Avenue. In the garden of a thatched cottage halfway down is a row of caves that once hid contraband.

Thanet smugglers mostly emerged into the limelight briefly and reluctantly, and often transportation or an engagement with the hangman precluded further appearances. However, one character from the area lived to a ripe old age, and in his dotage was presented to a young Queen Victoria as 'the famous Broadstairs smuggler'. He even gave his name to a local cove — Joss Bay — though some believe that he took his own name from that of his preferred landing site.

Joss Snelling was born in 1741, and lived to the extraordinary age of 96. He had brushes with the law from time to time in the course of his career, and was fined £100 for smuggling at the age of 89, but he seems to have been wily enough to avoid the setbacks that hampered his fellow free-traders. It's tempting to speculate on the reasons for Snelling's good fortune. One explanation might be that he avoided the armed confrontations that left other smugglers mortally wounded or behind bars. However, an incident in 1769 rules out such an hypothesis.

That spring Snelling's company, the Callis Court Gang, were unloading a cargo at Botany Bay when they were surprised by a preventive patrol. Five members of the gang fled from the beach, either up Kemp's stairs or by scrambling up the chalk. Unfortunately, their troubles had only just begun, for they were challenged on the cliff-top by a riding officer. To effect an escape, they shot him, and the dying man was taken to the nearby Captain Digby Inn. To locate the killers, the authorities mounted a search of the area, concentrating on nearby Reading Street. In Rosemary Cottage there they found two dead smugglers, and one mortally wounded.

In all, the Battle of Botany Bay, as it came to be known, claimed the lives 15 of Joss's gang. Nine died of their wounds, and six were later hanged in Sandwich, at Gallows Field.

[20] Douch 1985, quoting the Crown Solicitor