The kidnap, torture and murder of farm labourer Richard Hawkins in 1748 was the beginning of the end for the most notorious smugglers gang operating along England’s South Coast. Within a year the Hawkhurst Gang had added two more murders and large amounts of back-door goods to their tally.
The King’s Men were closing in on the gang and recovering smuggled spirits, silk, tobacco and tea from hoards concealed across the counties of Kent and Sussex.
Smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries was a big business. A night out at sea could earn a smuggler the equivalent of a week’s wages for labouring in the fields. They kept a tight control on their swag and hid it in divers locations throughout their territory. Local villagers helped, out of fear or for a share in the proceeds.
It was the heavy import duties charged by the Government that made smuggling very lucrative for gangs to take the risk of bringing in luxury goods through the ‘back-door’. The shallow sandy beaches such as Middleton, Clymping and Ferring were ideal for these midnight ventures.
The Hawkhurst Gang, named after the village in Kent where they originated from, were a vicious breed of men. They would not hesitate to commit murder should they deem it necessary. Their evil actions were experienced in Yapton, Sussex.
Double murder ended at the gallows
It was in January 1748 that these Hawkhurst smugglers started on their road to decline: A road that ended at the gallows…
In a barn belonging to a Mr. Boniface, Richard Hawkins, a farm labourer was threshing corn that day. Unbeknown to him, members of the Hawkhurst gang had hidden 12 bags of tea in the building. Two members of the gang, Jeremiah ‘Butler’ Curtiss and John ‘Smoker’ Mills, came to collect the smuggled goods and found that two bags were missing.
They assumed that Hawkins had taken them. After they had discovered his whereabouts, they held him at gunpoint, sat him in the saddle of Mills’ horse. They then rode to an alehouse on Slindon Common by the name of The Dog and Partridge.
Here, according to accounts of the inquest and subsequent trial, he was taken into the back room where other members of the gang were waiting. A “Smugglers Court” was held with Mills, Curtiss, Thomas Winter and a fourth smuggler by the name of Robb, alias ‘Little Fat Back’ being the Judge and Jury. Hawkins was tortured, punched, kicked and whipped by them. In an attempt to stop further beatings Hawkins implicated his father-in-law, John Cockrel Senior of Walberton, and his brother-in-law also named John Cockrel, a Yapton alehouse keeper.
Pardon given by the crown
While two of the smugglers left to find the father and brother-in-law and take them prisoner, Hawkins died of his injuries. The two smugglers, on their return, released their prisoners after swearing them to secrecy. They took the body of Hawkins and carted it to Parham Park owned by Sir Cecil Bishop, weighted it down with rocks and immersed it in a lake where it lay undiscovered for 9 months.
Following an investigation and a pardon being given by the Crown to a smuggler who had nothing to do with the murder, but supplied incriminating evidence, John Mills and John Reynolds, Master of the Dog and Partridge, were arrested. They were tried at East Grinstead Assizes. Unfortunately, Curtiss, by this time, had escaped arrest by fleeing to France. Reynolds was found not guilty of murder. He was however, tried later along with his wife for withholding information.
John Mills, aged 30, was found guilty of murder and hung from a gibbet on Slindon Common near to the Dog and Partridge. His body was hung in chains from the same gibbet, as an example to other would-be murderers.
The irony of the tale is that on a further search of the barn, the missing bags of tea were found.
Smugglers retrieve their tea swag
Contraband owned by the Hawkhurst Gang and other Chichester smugglers was seized in 1747, and was taken to Poole Customs House for safekeeping. A group of thirty smugglers from Chichester joined forces with seven members of the Hawkhurst Gang to ride to Poole and reclaim the goods.
As there was no resistance put up at the Customs House, the smugglers were able to carry away two tons of tea. After stopping for breakfast at Fordingbridge in Hampshire, they dispersed the goods throughout the southern counties. There was a long search for the smugglers, and eventually, one of them was apprehended in 1748.
The Poole Customs House Officer, William Galley, and another witness to the crime, a shoemaker named Daniel Chater from Fordingbridge, were called to give evidence at his trial near Stansted in West Sussex. On their way to the trial, the men were intercepted at Rowlands Castle by the other members of the smuggling gang. Both William Galley and Daniel Chater were tortured and brutally murdered.
The public were shocked by the barbarity of their deaths. When the gang were finally caught they were brought to trial at a special Court held in Chichester’s Guildhall on January 16, 1749. Seven members of the smuggling gang were tried and sentenced to hang the day following their trial.
As a warning to other smugglers, their bodies were placed at various sites around the major routes to Chichester and the stone was put up at the Broyle, where it now stands.
The stone, which is now no longer legible, says that Richard Mills, one of the smugglers, died in his prison cell the night before he was executed: “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 AD1749.”
Five and twenty ponies, Trotting through the dark – Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk. Laces for a lady; letters for a spy, Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by! by Rudyard Kipling
Do you come from Yapton?
The phrase ‘Do you come from Yapton?’ was often directed at anyone who entered a room or building and left the door open. The phrase is even stencilled on the saloon bar door of The Murrell public house in nearby Barnham. The reference is believed to be associated with the custom of villagers leaving their doors open at night to allow smugglers to evade the “King’s Men”, or to leave contraband as payment for their silence.
Because of the poverty that existed in the 18th and early 19th centuries it is highly possible that many villagers were not averse to turning a blind eye or even assisting the smugglers. They could probably earn in a night as much as they could in a week of toil in the fields.
This article has been compiled from several different sources published at the time and since the event. All give subtly different accounts from which I have attempted to portray as near accurate sequence of events as possible. – Allen Misselbrook, author.