West Sussex - a county of smugglers
While many of the Sussex smuggling stories are fanciful, there is a large degree of truth in many of them for the simple reason that smuggling was a huge industry in West Sussex at least up until the 1820s.
While these stories may seem romantic, in truth the smugglers were a mixture of hardened criminals, enterprising businessmen and, mostly, frightened locals who were desperately poor and welcomed the extra few shillings a night’s smuggling could bring their families.
The empty Sussex shorelineWest Sussex was an obvious place for a smuggler to ply his trade.
Before the pleasure palaces of Bognor, Worthing, and Brighton sprung up along the Sussex shoreline, the West Sussex coast was barely inhabited. In the days before the concrete sea defences that we all take for granted now, the coast regularly changed too.
Big storms rearranged beaches, river mouths and shingle spits from time to time and those Sussex folk living on the coast often found scratching a living difficult.
Men from the inland villages like Lancing or Findon would often take the short journey down to the deserted coastline at night to take in loads of valued goods, which were mostly destined for rich consumers in London who were keen enjoy their luxuries without paying the duty on them.
Although the Channel crossing to the Kent ports is shorter, the Sussex coast was very attractive to smugglers because the difficult journey to London was shorter. Shoreham, for example, is the closest English Channel port to London.
Even so, the 18th century Sussex roads were so bad, especially on the boggy clay of the Weald, that transporting heavy loads of smuggled goods to the capital was a major undertaking.
Sussex smuggling gangsLarge amounts of manpower were needed by the smugglers.
In some villages practically the whole male population lent a hand when smuggling was afoot. In truth, the violent nature of many of the leaders of the smuggling gangs meant that many potentially law-abiding citizens were afraid of the consequences of not joining in.
Many of the gangs co-operated with each other, meaning that their reach across southern England was extensive.
The most infamous smuggling gang was the Hawkhurst gang from East Sussex, who were to make their mark on Sussex history forever by the violent way in which their own demise was brought about.
But they were not alone in their violence and there are many stories of murders, beatings and fights associated with the Sussex smugglers. The rule of law and order was an illusion - no organised police force existed and the Coastguard was under-resourced, slow-witted and corruptable.
The Hawkhurst gang
THE SMUGGLERS STONEThe Smugglers Stone was erected in 1749 at the site where the convicted smuggler Jackson was buried. The inscription on the stone reads:
"Near this place was buried the body of William Jackson, a prescribed smuggler, who upon a special commission of oyer and terminer held at Chichester on the 16th day of January 1748-9 was, with William Carter, attained for the murder of William Galley, a custom house officer and who likewise was together with Benjamin Tapner, John Cobby, John Hammond, Richard Mills the elder and Richard Mills the younger, his son, attained for the murder of Daniel Chater. But dying in a few hours after sentence of death was pronounced upon him he thereby escaped the punishment which the heinousness of his complicated crimes deserved and which was the next day most justly inflicted upon his accomplices. As a memorial to posterity and a warning to this and succeeding generations this stone is erected A.D. 1749."
Fittingly, the Smugglers Stone is close to the old smugglers haunt of Brandy Hole Lane - now a nature reserve.
The Hawkhurst gang feared that Chater would identify some of its members who had brazenly tried to 'liberate' a cargo of tea which they had tried to smuggle into the country and which had been impounded in Poole.
The gang had already raided the Custom House in Poole and, as they had expected, they had met with little resistance from the puny forces of the authorities.
Perhaps emboldened by their power, a Chichester gang allied with the Hawkhurst smugglers abducted Chater and Galley, who were on their way to Poole, at a pub in Rowland’s Castle. After getting the pair drunk, the two victims were tortured, strapped to horses, and taken inland where Galley was murdered at Rake and Chater was thrown into a well at Trotton and stoned to death.
Although the practical power of the Customs men was very limited and their ability to enforce the law highly questionable, the penalties for smugglers who were caught were savage and terrible.
The brutality of these murders led to 103 smugglers names being published in the London Gazette. Publication meant that they had to give themselves up within 40 days or else they would face the death penalty. In addition, a £500 reward was offered for information leading to the capture of any of the outlawed men.
Eventually an impressively-executed sting operation led to the start of arrests being made. In 1749 a Special Assize was held at the courts in Chichester where seven men were convicted of smuggling and their parts in the murders.
William Jackson died in prison. The other six men were hanged and their bodies gruesomely displayed at various places throughout West Sussex.
Smuggling in Chichester HarbourChichester was a hot bed of smuggling with Bosham, Dell Quay and the other Chichester Harbour ports all bringing contraband into the West Sussex. Smuggling was even more rife at Selsey where it was, arguably, the greatest contributor to the wealth of local people for a time in the late 18th century.
By then the scale of the smuggling operations was huge and the ships, equipment, manpower and even weapons of the smuggling men was far superior to those that the authorities could call on. In 1784 for example the captain of the Roebuck, a Customs ship patrolling Chichester Harbour, was forced to give up the smuggling ship he had just apprehended because of the threat from another smuggling ship that decided to intervene. He was simply powerless to stop the smugglers.
- Roman Sussex
- Saxon Sussex
- The sea and its effect on coastal communities over the centuries
- Key dates in the history of West Sussex
- Bognor Regis
- Burgess Hill
- East Grinstead
- Haywards Heath
- Arundel Castle
- Arundel Cathedral
- Brighton Pavilion
- Chichester Cathedral
- Torberry Hill
- Cissbury Ring
- The Devil's Humps
- Chichester Canal
- St Mary's Bramber
- The ruins of Bramber Castle
- Knepp Castle
- Sussex Churches
- Wey and Arun Canal
- More places in Sussex with historical connections
- The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton
- Amberley Museum
- Top Sussex Museums