Hawkhurst Smuggling Gang: Formidable and Notorious

The Hawkhurst smuggling gang was a formidable and notorious smuggling gang that operated from 1735 to 1749 in southeast England from Dorset to Kent. However, the gang mostly favored Kent for their smuggling activities because of its “geographical position, its local features, [and] its variety of coast.”[1]

Hawkhurst gang

Goudhurst Church. Author’s collection.

The Hawkhurst smuggling gang consisted of as many as 500 men at times with many carrying either a pistol or blunderbuss. They acquired their name from the village of Hawkhurst in Kent, although one gang member claimed they “were called the ‘East Country people’ and were fetched to help … break the Custom House.”[2] 

The gang’s success relied on their ability to dominate through terror. The terror did not just apply to their victims. Gang members were also sometimes subject to brutality. To demonstrate their brutality, when one of their own gang members was suspected of provided information against them, he was “literally flogged to death.”[3] Additionally, references to the Hawkhurst Gang often included such descriptions as “unredeemed brutes.”

Smugglers at the Custom House at Poole, Public Domain

Smugglers at the custom house at Poole. Public domain.

The Hawkhurst smuggling gang’s criminal activities were not just limited to smuggling. Supposedly, “they supported themselves by highway robberies and house-breaking.”[4] In addition, for many years the gang was also a pest to Weald area inhabitants. The cruelties meted out to the those who opposed them were brutal. This resulted in the inhabitants of Goudhurst forced to either desert their houses and leave their property or unite together to oppose, by force, the lawless smugglers. The Goudhurst citizens chose the latter and signed a declaration “expressing their abhorrence of the conduct of the smugglers, and their determination to oppose them.”[5]

To ensure success, the Goudhurst citizens also formed “The Goudhurst Band of Militia.” It was led by an army man named William Sturt, who had recently received his discharge from a regiment of foot and, had by chance, also been the person who induced the Goudhurst citizens to fight back.

When the smugglers learned of Goudhurst’s militia, they decided to test their mettle. The leader of the gang gave notice to the townsmen that he and his gang would attack on 21 April 1747 “by force of arms, take possession of the town, murder its inhabitants, and after plundering would reduce it to ashes.”[6]

On the appointed day at the appointed time, the smugglers appeared with their leader. He was a bold resolute fellow named “Thomas Kingsmill,* alias Staymaker, a native of Goudhurst. Shots were exchanged and one of the smugglers fell; but it was not until two more lost their lives and others were wounded that the smugglers withdrew.”[7] As the militia had the upper hand, they pursued the smugglers, and, although Kingsmill escaped, several other gang members were captured. 

Soon after the Goudhurst militia’s success, Dorset smugglers, who were friends of the Hawkhurst gang, suffered an unfortunate incident. Their boat was captured “with upwards of two tons of tea and thirty-nine casks of spirits.”[9] After their tea and spirits was deposited safely in the Poole Custom House, the Dorset smugglers called upon the Hawkhurst Gang to assist them in recovering it, and the Hawkhurst Gang agreed. However, fearing they might be discovered because a Fordinbridge shoemaker, named Chater, talked to an exciseman named Galley, the Hawkhurst Gang drugged both men. Then they tied them on horses and took them to the Red Lion Inn at Rake where they were tortured and brutalized. Eventually, Galley was buried alive, and Chater thrown “headlong into the well; and fancying they heard him breathe or groan, [they] threw posts and stones in upon him.”[8]

Stones Thrown at Chater, Author's Collection

Stones thrown at Chater, Author’s collection.

One of the Hawkhurst smuggling gang members eventually betrayed the gang. This resulted in a special commission established to drive out the murderers. Because of all the gang’s criminal activities, a list of wanted gang members was issued by the government and a £50 reward was offered for each smuggler brought to justice. This resulted in the capture of several desperadoes: “Benjamin Tapner … William Carter … Richard Mills … Richard Mills, the younger … John Cobby … John Hammond … William Jackson.”[9]

In 1749, the same year that the princesse de Lamballe was born in Turin, the arrested gang member’s trial was held in January at Chichester. Collectively they were found guilty. Jackson died that same evening in the gaol. The remainder were hung in chains in the presence of a vast concourse of thrilled spectators, and, later, Kingsmill was captured and executed. With his death in April of 1749, the Hawkhurst smuggling gang was essentially “‘smashed up,’ … to … the relief of all peaceful and law-abiding citizens.”[10]

*Also sometimes called Kingsmere.


  • [1] Furley, Robert and Henry B. Mackeson, A History of the Weald of Kent, Vol. 2, 1874, p. 619.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 621.
  • [3] Smuggling and Smugglers in Sussex, 1749, p. 261.
  • [4] Furley, Robert and Henry B. Mackeson, p. 621.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 619. 
  • [6] “Centenary Anniversary of the Repulse of a Gang of Smugglers at Goudhurst,” in Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, 02 May 1847, p. 2.
  • [7] Furley, Robert and Henry B. Mackeson, p. 620.
  • [8] Smuggling and Smugglers in Sussex, 1749, p. 76-77.
  • [9] “Hawkhurst Gang—Chichester,” in Bucks Herald, 17 April 1841, p. 3.
  • [10] Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, The Story of the Sea, 1895, p. 627.

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