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Hawkhurst: The story of smuggling in the 18th Century


In his new book Hawkhurst: Murder, Corruption, and Britain's Most Notorious Smuggling Gang author Joe Dragovich covers a fascinating era that is underrepresented in non-fiction historical true crime...

18 December 1744

John Bolton sat in the King’s Head Inn in Shoreham in Kent. With him were his colleagues John Jones, a tidesman, his old friend Thomas Quaif and Club James,who had taken a new name since his information landed Jockey Tom in jail. He was going by Peter Floyd now, and was helping Bolton and Quaif on their latest assignment. They had been to the far east of Kent, unsuccessfully trying to arrest John Jenner, another smuggler. Quaif and Bolton were working far from their usual area in London, though the fraught climate in Kent and Sussex meant they were better suited to arrest smugglers than the riding officers stationed along the coast. Darby had been driven into hiding, Bailley’s house lay in ruins and Walsh was nearly killed by a mob. Bolton and Quaif lived in the capital, further from the reach of the gang. It was one thing to gather 100 smugglers to terrorise a riding officer in a lone house, it was another to march that same army of smugglers into London. Quaif had an advantage against the Hawkhurst Gang as well.

He was a local man, born in the village, and must have grown up with most of the men he faced on the other side of the law. It might be why Club James trusted him enough to help arrest Jockey Tom the month before. They were stuck in Shoreham, a village in northern Kent on the outskirts of London, because of a lame horse that needed to be reshod, an eighteenth-century flat tyre. Waiting for the farrier to finish his work, their peaceful boredom was shattered by terror. Gunshots, lots of them, were coming from outside. The Hawkhurst Gang were in town, Arthur Grey and Jeremiah Curteis at the head of a posse. Bolton and his crew knew why they were there, and that they were in grave danger. They hid as best they could, but it was the horses tied up outside that betrayed them. The gang knew they were hiding, and announcing their arrival with gunfire had the village running for cover. No one was around to help them. 

There were eight, heavily armed smugglers outside the inn, but simply rushing inside to take the customs men was a dangerous proposition. Barging their way into the building was asking for a well-timed blunder buss to kill half of them before they could even lay a hand on Bolton and his companions. However, there was a safer, though arguably more brutal method. Calling into the building, they gave the customs men an ultimatum: come out, or they would raze the building to the ground. Facing the choice between a certain death by fire and the infinitesimally greater chance of surviving whatever the smugglers had planned, the customs men came out and surrendered to the Hawkhurst Gang. As they exited, Quaif saw his moment and somehow escaped the smugglers, leaving his friend John Bolton and the others to face whatever Curteis and Grey had in store for them. 

The gang did not kill them immediately. In one sense that was too good for a snitch like Club James; in another, murdering a lawman in cold blood is something they had not actually done before. When they had captured customs men before, they had taken to beating and humiliating them, but then let them go home. A customs officer that remembers the beatings and torment of a meeting with the gang must have been preferable to dealing with their replacement, who would likely shoot first and ask questions later knowing that his predecessor had been so cruelly murdered. But Bolton and Jones were different. They were strangers, agents from the city sent to hunt them down. There was no local social network protecting them. However, they certainly knew Club James, the traitor who was now in the company of lawmen. They would need to make an example out of him. Taking their weapons and money, the gang tied the prisoners’ hands behind their backs, put them on horses, tied their feet to the stirrups and started for home. They would figure out what to do with them later.

Whipping the customs men as they left town, they embarked on the 30-mile ride to Hawkhurst. It would have been a long trek by horseback, especially if one is whipped while tied to a horse. Setting out at noon, they made it back to Hawkhurst in the early hours of the morning, trudging through the dark winter night. Despite the ungodly hour, capturing Club James was too good to wait until morning. They took Club to see the boss, William Grey, at his house. William leapt out of bed, almost naked, bounding down the stairs to find the beaten, bedraggled Club standing in the middle of his house. Grey was followed by his similarly delighted mistress, a local woman who had left her husband to live with the tea kingpin of the south-east. Club had done the unforgivable, he had informed. Jockey Tom, their partner in crime, who had been there with them when they killed Carswell four years ago, was in jail because Club had run to the law. William was angry, to the point of murder. He took a blunder buss in his hand, about to decorate his home with a spray of shot and pieces of Club James. 

At that terrifying point, John Cook, William’s servant and fellow smuggler, stepped in to talk some sense into him. Whatever Cook said to Grey, it was effective in saving Club’s life, for now. Grey satisfied his rage by smashing the butt of the blunderbuss in Club’s face with all his might. His mistress followed up with a lit candle pressed to Club’s newly battered face. Bolton and the others were held chained in Hawkhurst for four days. The gang stripped the customs men above the waist, and began to carve at them with their hanger swords, a torture that had been meted out to Walsh the month before. The smugglers were toying with them, making them suffer. Club naturally got the worst of it. One newspaper following the story reported that Club was:

‘almost cut to pieces with their hangers’.

As the customs men suffered, the mood in Hawkhurst was almost bacchanalian. Years later one of the gang would recall how they had ‘entertained’ the customs men while they were in town.

While Bolton, Jones and Club James were being tortured, the gang convened to figure out what to do with them. They wouldn’t kill them outright, but they couldn’t just let them go. They had already done enough to catch charges, and this wasn’t just the normal beating they had meted out to the customs men. This was serious, shocking stuff of the kind that gets attention. Taking a group of government agents home and torturing them for days meant the press was closely following the story. Where they were and what was happening was not a secret. They needed to get rid of them before someone tried to rescue them. The gang would stick to their tried and tested method of making people disappear, sending them to the galleys in France. On 20 December, it was time for the gang to start preparing for their next run. They would dispose of the prisoners on the same boat that brought the goods. Bolton, Jones and Club, their bodies beaten and sliced, were once again tied to horses and taken 25 miles over road to New Romney, at the base of Dungeness.

They waited for the cutter for two days, guarded at night by a smuggler that went by the name Poison, who beat Bolton’s already battered body.  Once the word came that the boat was near, they were on the move again, this time to Lidlight, a lighthouse at the end of Dungeness. The gang had gathered around 200 horses and the 100 men for the run, a small army of workers and horses mustered for industrial-scale crime. Their feet crunching in the shingle, they picked their way through the scrub on the windswept peninsula to the beach. The army of smugglers began to unload the cutter’s cargo, 5 tons of tea along with some wine and brandy. There was a fortune of tea on the beach, with an approximate street value of £4,000, enough to buy an opulent house, or fund the operation of the most dangerous criminal gang Britain had ever seen. One of the smugglers gave the prisoners a swig of the brandy that they were transporting. A small act of humanity towards the men who had gone through days of hell. Bolton and the other prisoners watched as the gang unloaded the cutter with a small boat, making several trips back and forth to fully unload the cargo.

Once the boat was empty, it was time for the prisoners to board, bound for their new life as a galley rower in the French prison fleet. But something was wrong. The captain of the cutter would not take the prisoners on board. What the gang had done to the customs men was so brutal and so public, he wanted nothing to do with it. Smuggling was one thing, even making people disappear into a French prison ship was OK, but this was a whole other level. The argument soon got heated, and then the shooting started. As the firefight between the cutter crew and the gang raged, Bolton and Jones took their opportunity to escape, perhaps assisted by the quick-thinking John Cook. Club James was not so lucky, and was never heard from again. Some reports claimed that the gang managed to convince the crew (at gunpoint) to take Club to France after all; however, one indicated a more gruesome fate.

Many beaches in Britain are flat and shallow,and tidemarks can be hundreds of yards apart. When the tide was out, the smugglers took Club to the low tide mark, staking him down to the beach. The incoming water did the rest, slowly rising, almost imperceptibly, until it covered the terrified Club. Bolton and Jones took days to make it back to London, arriving in town on 3 January. They were battered, beaten, lacerated, and no doubt exhausted, but they were alive. The national press picked up the story and papers as far as Scotland were reporting on the gang’s savagery, putting the Hawkhurst Gang in newspaper readers’ imagination. Smuggling was rife all over Britain, but only the Hawkhurst Gang were capturing revenue officers, torturing informants to death, and selling people as slaves to Britain’s perennial enemy. The rumour mill spun at a dizzying pace over the fate of the captured customs men. Names were changed and the accounts of the torture became ever more lurid. Papers reported that the smugglers intended to:

‘cut them into Stakes [sic] make a bonfire and broil them’,

that the gang tied the men to trees and whipped them until they begged for death, at which point the smugglers told them that they had much more in store for them. The evolving saga of Bolton, Jones and Club James was an early form of breaking news, with papers posting regular updates on the story. The Hawkhurst Gang had arrived, both as a potent force in the south-east and the most famous group of smugglers in Britain. They had broken free of the normal pattern governing smuggling for generations and had become a law unto themselves. The local customs officials were largely powerless, and customs agents sent from London were met with the sort of violence rarely seen outside of armed conflict. The Hawkhurst Gang were a growing national emergency, one that would be temporarily eclipsed by another political crisis to the north.

Extracted from Hawkhurst: Murder, Corruption, and Britain’s Most Notorious Smuggling Gang by Joe Dragovich

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