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Ranseley family graveboard, Ruckinge
Smugglers met at ruined Hope All Saints' church on Romney Marsh Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-East England


It would be fair to say that Romney Marsh was the birthplace of smuggling in southern England. The fertile land reclaimed from the sea made fine grazing for hundreds of thousands of sheep, and the export of the wool from their backs was for centuries both highly taxed and badly policed — almost an open invitation to smuggle.

Illegal wool exports from the marsh probably started the very first day that restrictions were imposed: in 1275 the government introduced a tax of £3 a bag on wool leaving England. This was doubled in 1298, and successive administrations tinkered with the laws and duties according to their need for funds. Wool smuggling from Romney Marsh — and elsewhere in Britain — fluctuated in response to the laws, and to market forces; high demand at home meant there was less incentive to smuggle. In the 15th century, though, the reverse happened, and as wool prices fell, the producers found it harder to make a living from the home market. The expansion of smuggling was inevitable.

Engraving of Rye
The silting of the River Rother prevented big ships from reaching Rye, but small smuggling vessels could unload their contraband virtually on the doorstep of the inns that sold it.
Click picture to enlarge

It was in the 17th century that the problem assumed epidemic proportions, and attention was focused firmly on Romney Marsh as the centre for the trade. In 1660 wool exports were forbidden, and two years later the death penalty was introduced for smuggling wool. The legislators of the day probably saw this as a major deterrent, but if anything, it simply made the owlers of Romney Marsh more desperate still. If you're to hang for smuggling wool, why hesitate to shoot your pursuer?

Public opinion on the Marsh generally sided with the owlers (as they were known locally), but in other circles, there was outrage at the scale of illegal wool exports. The most vocal and aggressive opponent of the thriving free-trade in wool was William Carter, who set himself up as a one-man preventive force and propaganda machine. In 1671 he published a tract, England's Interest in Trade Asserted , in which he alleged that the owlers exported wool not just from the marsh, but from a catchment area some 20 miles in diameter. Carter also documented the armed guards that the smugglers used to protect their cargoes.

In all fairness, William Carter cannot be described as an independent witness. He was a clothier, and was therefore concerned that foreign competition should not affect his own trade. Nevertheless, Carter went to extraordinary lengths to stamp out owling, often risking life and limb in the process. In 1669 he obtained a warrant from the King, and armed with it, arrested the master of a smuggling ship berthed at Dover. Carter planned to take his prisoner to Folkestone for trial, but the mariner's wife rode ahead and mustered a large stone-throwing mob to greet Carter when he arrived. The would-be smuggler catcher fled, releasing his prisoner.

Carter was nothing if not persistent. He was still enthusiastically pursuing the cause nearly twenty years later. With some assistance from his friends, he arrested ten owlers on the marsh, and took them to Romney for trial. However, the trade enjoyed such popular support that the Mayor of Romney hesitated to proceed, and he had the ten men released on bail. The outraged owlers naturally set out to extract revenge, and William Carter was chased to Lydd. There the smugglers attacked by night, and the Mayor of Lydd suggested that these freelance preventive officers should make haste for Rye to save their skins. Carter and his group were followed by 50 armed men as they headed for Guldeford ferry, planning to get a boat from there to Rye. However, they never reached the ferry: at Camber Point they were so terrified of capture that they abandoned their horses, and climbed into the nearest available boat to make good their escape. A contemporary account says...

'had they not got into the boats, Mr Carter would have received some hurt, for many of the exporters were desperate fellows, not caring what mischief they did.'


TR0420 4m NW of Dungeness (map 189) red map button. The George Inn is on the main street.

Today Lydd is landlocked, but in 1688 when the unfortunate Mr. Carter tried to take refuge there the sea still washed against the town boundaries, and the locals launched smuggling boats from the beach. Besides Mr Carter's close shave, other incidents from the period serve to reinforce the town's reputation.

Around the turn of the century two smugglers were captured as they disembarked from a French sloop at Dungeness. Taking no chances, the customs authorities took them to the George Inn at Lydd, and locked them in a room guarded by six men, their 20 'firelocks' charged and ready. Even these precautions didn't deter the locals, though: nine of them burst in and rushed the room, firing their weapons as they charged up the stairs. Outside, 100 reinforcements stood by in case help was needed. Against such odds the guards stood little chance, and the two smugglers escaped.

The town became especially prominent in the late 1820s and early '30s when increased preventive efforts around Dymchurch forced the owlers to move their operations from there to a cooler spot. On decamping to Lydd they lost no time in making their intentions known to the local riding officers:

'they have drove Mr Darby and his wife and family from their habitation, threatening to murder him if they can catch him'.

The smugglers at this stage still felt sufficiently confident to flaunt their trade — in 1829 when they openly paraded a convoy of contraband through the middle of Lydd, the streets were lined with cheering crowds. Ironically, though, this was to be the last open landing in the area.

Engraving of Owlers escaping at Rye by Paul Hardy
Escaping owlers take on the customs men at Rye. Click picture to enlarge


TQ9220 9m NE of Hastings (map 189)
Rye gets very busy during summer weekends and bank holidays, so if possible visit at other times. The best way to see the smuggling sights of Rye is on foot. Start in Market Street with St Mary’s church on your right and walk along Market Street until you cross Church Square. The half-timbered house two doors beyond used to be the Flushing Innred map button. Turn around and walk back to the church and turn right down Lion Street. The Georgered map button is on the corner with the High Street. Turn left and walk about 150 yards into The Mint and you will find The Old Bell Innred map button on your right. Continue downhill, and at the end of The Mint turn left into Mermaid Street. The first turning on the left is Trader’s Passage, and the building on the corner, now a private house called the Old Trader, was once the London Traderred map button, a popular watering-hole for local free-traders. Further up Mermaid Street on the left is the famous Mermaid Innred map button. Look for the concealed door in the bar, which provided a handy bolt-hole from one of the bedrooms above. (Updated 5/11. Many thanks to Ted Emson of Rye Castle Museum for help in identifying some of these landmarks)

Rye in the 18th century was connected to the rest of the marsh only by the ferry at East Guldeford. The Mermaid Inn was even then such an established hostelry that it would be surprising if it did not have smuggling associations. In fact it was a well-known haunt of free-traders,

The notorious Hawkhurst gang enjoyed a drink at the Mermaid, and drew outraged comment when they sat imbibing at the windows of the pub with their pistols cocked on the tables; but such was the gang's notoriety that the locals felt powerless to act. The gang maintained their fearsome reputation by a variety of rowdy activities; carousing in the Red Lion they fired their pistols at the ceiling to intimidate the other drinkers.

Another of the Mermaid's eminent guests was Gabriel Tomkins. Tomkins was a reformed smuggler from Mayfield, and in 1735 when he stayed in Rye he was a bailiff of the sheriff of Sussex, and had arrested Thomas Moore, a local smuggler. However, like his fellows at Romney, Moore was bailed by the magistrate, and he returned to the Mermaid to seek revenge. With the aid of the landlord, he smashed his way into Tomkins's room, dragged him through the streets and on board a boat, probably with a view to landing him in France and leaving him to fend for himself. However, the local revenue men intervened, searching vessels berthed at Rye, and Tomkins thus narrowly avoided involuntary emigration.

Secret door at the Mermaid Inn, Rye
Disguised as a book-case, a secret door in a bedroom at the Mermaid Inn, Rye, leads down to the bar. Click picture to enlarge

Other officials were not so lucky. The luckless John Darby, who had been threatened and bullied in Lydd, found himself enjoying a weekend break in France in 1742. He and one other officer had tried to impound some tubs of brandy but — as usual — they were heavily outnumbered. The smugglers kidnapped the two men, and hustled them on board a French boat from which they had just unloaded tea. This story has a surprising ending: with unusual courtesy, the smugglers made sure that when the two men had secured a passage home from the continent, their horses were waiting for them at the Old George Inn in Rye.

Other Rye pubs are just as intimately tied up with the free-trade, though few are as picturesque as the Mermaid. The Olde Bell Inn once had a revolving cupboard for rapid exits to street, a connecting door to the adjoining building, and a tunnel leading to the cellars of the Mermaid inn nearby. When Rye was still bordered by the sea the Flushing Inn backed onto the water, and smuggled goods were conveniently brought straight in to the pub after landing by the back door.


Rye and Lydd may have been the smuggling capitals of the marsh, but numerous other spots are equally steeped in the traditions of the free-trade. Finding favoured landing sites on this part of the coast is easy, since almost all of the low coastline was used.


TR0917 8m SE of Lydd (map 189) red map button

The isolation of Dungeness proved an irresistible lure to smuggling gangs: the absence of prying eyes and wagging tongues meant that they could carry on their work undisturbed. In a single week of 1813 free-traders were known to have landed 12,000 gallons of brandy here. Nor was this the first cargo of spirits to cross the coastline illegally at Dungeness: 180 years earlier the local smugglers lured aground a Spanish vessel, Alfresia. They murdered the crew and looted the cargo of spirits.

Camber and adjoining beaches

TQ9518 6m E of Rye (map 189) red map button

Camber beach had one unique feature that made it a particular favourite: the dunes. In the high sand-hills, it was possible to conceal large numbers of tub-carriers and batsmen while waiting for an incoming boat. The convenient dunes perhaps explain why the last smuggler to die 'in the course of duty' fell at Camber. Thomas Monk, a fiddler (sic) from Winchelsea was shot here by the coastguard in 1833. Nearby Jew's Gut (now Jury's Gut) was also widely used, and Fairlight beach to the west of Rye was popular too. However, erosion has greatly altered the landscape in that part of the marsh, making some of the smuggling beaches inaccessible.

Snargate church, Romney Marsh

The faint image of a ship painted on the wall of Snargate church may have indicated to smugglers that it was a place of safety. Click picture to see a larger, digitally-enhanced version.

Marsh churches

(Map 189) None of the marsh churches is hard to find, since the land around is so low. Ivychurch is 3m NW of New Romney TR0227 red map button ; Inside the church look at the hudd: an 18th century graveyard shelter, used to protect the vicar's wig from the rain. Snargate is 2m E of Appledore at TQ9928. red map button

Most of the marsh churches have stories to tell: almost all of them were used at one time or another for storing contraband, though there are specific yarns associated with a few of them. At Ivychurch there was vault under the nave that was used for storage, and cargoes of tobacco stored at Snargate church smelt so strongly that in the Marsh mists the vicar was able to locate it with his nose. The vicar was R.H. Barham who wrote the smuggling poem that appears in the Ingoldsby Legends. Snargate church is particularly interesting to visit today, since there is a wall painting of a ship — an owler's coded symbol marking a place of safety.

At New Romney the ruined church of Hope All Saints was a smugglers' meeting point. In the churchyard at Dymchurch itself, look for the grave of smuggler Charles Keely, who was killed in a skirmish with blockade men in the last days of 1825. Richard Morgan, who fired the fatal shot, was a midshipman from HMS Ramillies, and had been leading a patrol when one of its members, a 'landsman', was attacked by gang of smugglers that he had surprised. As the gang closed in, the landsman tried to shoot at his assailants, but neither his pistol nor his musket would work. Richard Morgan's first pistol wouldn't fire, either, and had his second gun not functioned it would surely not have been smuggler's blood spilled on the marsh that night. When they saw one of their team shot dead, the remainder of the smuggling gang fled into the darkness, leaving behind the body and their booty. Morgan was himself shot by the Aldington gang the following July on Dover beach.

The Royal Military Canal

At Pett Levels the canal lies 5m NE of Hastings at TQ8713 (map 199). red map button

The Royal Military Canal is a prominent feature on the marsh, and its construction in the first five years of the 19th century must have caused some consternation among the marsh smugglers. The canal was intended to prevent a French invasion, but it was equally effective at stopping the movement of contraband from the marsh coast to the markets inland. Some parts of the canal were shallow enough to ford, but these points weren't always easy to locate: several smugglers drowned at Pett Levels when they were chased into the water by the preventive services — evidently they searched unsuccessfully for a safe crossing point. Toot Rock nearby was a rendezvous for the smuggling fraternity, so perhaps a free-trader's business discussion had been rudely interrupted.