THE HAWKHURST GANG
We come now to consider the desperate character of a band of men who rendered themselves for all time notorious in the domestic history of our country by acts of unbridled violence and consummate cruelty.
But before we proceed to relate as fully as our limited space will allow the details of these incidents, it is necessary to remind ourselves once again of the great, solid mass of sympathy, both active and passive, that was always at the back of the smugglers. Without this such daring runs by night could never have occurred: doubtful of the assistance which could be whole-heartedly given by the people on shore, the seafaring men would never have dared to take such enormous risks of life and goods. Not merely did the villagers come down to the shore to help to bring the goods inland, not only did they lend their horses and carts, but they would tacitly suffer the smugglers to hide casks of spirits in wells, haystacks, cellars, and other places. In Cornwall, for instance, fifty-five tubs of spirits were found concealed in a well, over the top of which a hay-stack had been built. This was near Falmouth, one of the most notorious of the smuggling localities. And there is actual record of at least one instance where the natives charged a rent of a shilling a tub for stowing away the smuggled goods. In another county a cavern had most ingeniously been hollowed out under a pond big enough to hold a hundred casks, the entrance being covered over with planks carefully strewed with mould. So clever and original was this idea that it was never discovered for many years.
But the most notorious, the most formidable, and certainly the most abominably cruel gang of smugglers which ever achieved notice was the Hawkhurst contingent. The “Hawkhurst Gang,” as they were known, were a terror to whatever law-abiding citizens existed in the counties of Kent and Sussex. They feared neither Custom officers nor soldiery, they respected neither God nor man, and in the course of attaining their aims they stopped at no atrocity nor brooked any interference from anyone. By the year 1747 smugglers had become so daring and committed such terrible crimes that the only course left open for decent people was to band together in mutual protection. The inhabitants of one locality joined together under the title of the “Goudhurst Band of Militia,” their leader being a man named Sturt, a native of Goudhurst, who had recently obtained his discharge from the Army. But this union became known to the smugglers, who waylaid one of the militia, and by means of torture the whole of the defenders’ plans were revealed. After a while he was released and sent back to inform the militia that the smugglers on a certain day would attack the town, murder all its inhabitants, and then burn the place to the ground.
The day arrived and both forces were prepared. Sturt had gathered his band, collected fire-arms, cast balls, made cartridges, and arranged entrenchments, when, headed by one Thomas Kingsmill, the Hawkhurst gang appeared in order to make the attack. But after a smart engagement in which three were killed and many wounded, the smugglers were driven off, whilst others were captured and subsequently executed.