One of my favourite books as a boy was ‘Doctor Syn’, written by Russell Thorndike, brother of Dame Sybil. First published in 1915, Doctor Syn is a tale of derring-do set in 18th century England. By day, Doctor Christopher Syn is the genial, well-loved vicar of Dymchurch, a little village on the coastal marshes of Kent; but by night, he is - ‘The Scarecrow’, ruthless and fearsome ex-pirate and smuggler, outwitting His Majesty’s Revenue Men and looking after the material interests of his parishioners. He comes across as a kind of Oxford-educated early superhero, with a touch of Robin Hood thrown in. Though essentially dangerous, and on the wrong side of the law, you can warm to a man like Doctor Syn. I suggest this is partly because the law can be a pompous ass and sometimes deserves to be humiliated, and partly because, deep down, we’d all like to do a bit of swashbuckling in our spare time.
Quite by chance not long ago, Head Office and I arrived at the Star and Eagle Hotel in Goudhurst (say ‘GOWD-HURST’), a straggling, pretty, village in the Weald of Kent. Our route had been via another establishment that we had to vacate in haste, lest serious injury was done; but that is another story. Suffice to say we were looking for a hostelry of character, with good beer, food and a comfortable spot to lay our weary heads for a few days. And I must say that the Star and Eagle delivered in all respects. The food had a strong Spanish theme and was excellent, the staff were charming and our room had a genuine four-poster in it. The whole place is full of oak beams and, dating from the 15th century, reeks of history. At the end of each day’s excursion, we (separately) savoured a tasty pint of Harvey’s Sussex Ale and a glass of inexpensive bubbly with a strawberry in it, whilst taking in the views of the wonderful Kent countryside and passing the time in idle chat before the rigours of dining began. See – I can multi-task.
In the Star and Eagle, and St Mary’s church next door, we learned of the exploits of a group of notorious smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang, and of a battle that took place in Goudhurst on 21st April 1747. Smuggling was rife in 18th century England, and particularly so in the south-east due to its proximity to mainland Europe. It developed from the natural desire to avoid heavy import taxes imposed by the Government on luxury items such as tea, coffee, tobacco and spirits. Usually, it took place with the connivance of the local population and, furthermore, often provided well-paid work. Farmers who turned a blind eye to unlawful nocturnal goings-on may have found a small ‘thank you’ in the shape of a bottle of brandy left in a barn. The illicit goods gradually made their way into the clubs, inns and salons of 18th century Britain and everyone made a profit – except for His Majesty’s Government. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, and not unlike the adventures of my boyhood hero, Doctor Syn. Some smugglers even had cute little nicknames, like ‘Footsey’, ‘Pouncer’ and ‘Funny Jack’; less cuddly was ‘Butcher Tom’.
However, the reality of smuggling was as far from romantic fiction as it’s possible to be. Smugglers were often violent, brutal, thugs who achieved their ends by threats, bribery and extortion. Some became a law unto themselves, at a time when there was no such thing as an organised police force. Indeed, to cross a smuggler could seriously spoil a person's day. The Hawkhurst Gang, named after the Kentish village not far from Goudhurst, was particularly nasty and operated from the 1730s until 1749 across an enormous patch of the south-east, from Kent to Dorset. It is said that they could raise a force of 500 men if they wished to, and their members openly met in the Star and Eagle (then called the Olde Starre and Crowne), placing cutlasses and pistols on the tables.
It seems that by 1747 the good residents of Goudhurst had had enough of the Hawkhurst Gang’s thieving and homicidal activities. According to the Kent and Sussex Courier, what brought matters to a head was the murder of a Mr Ballard from Tunbridge Wells, who was robbed whilst passing through Goudhurst and beaten so badly in the process that he died. In any event, meeting in the Star and Eagle, the villagers formed the Goudhurst Band of Militia under the leadership of an ex-soldier, William Sturt. The story goes that the Hawkhurst Gang captured and tortured one of the militia and sent him back to Sturt with the message that they intended to plunder every house in Goudhurst, murder every soul they could find and burn the place to the ground to teach the truculent villagers a lesson. They even announced the date of their intended attack: 21st April. Sturt organised defences around the area of St Mary’s and in the upstairs of the Star and Eagle. Firearms were assembled, musket balls were made from lead off the church roof and women and children taken to safety. The Hawkhurst Gang, masked and fortified with strong drink, duly attacked. But they met fierce resistance: one, George Kingsmill, a Goudhurst man, was shot dead as he tried to batter the pub door down with his horse’s hooves; another, Bernard (or Barnett) Woolett was fatally blasted as his horse jumped the churchyard wall to attack the villagers. The rest of the gang fled; the honest men of Goudhurst had won.
Later that year, the Hawkhurst Gang carried out an audacious raid on the Customs House in Poole, Dorset, capturing £500 worth of contraband tea which had been apprehended by customs men on the high seas. Following this, two men were murdered in a particularly gruesome manner. But the authorities were catching up: in 1748 the leader of the gang, Arthur Gray, was executed at Tyburn, followed in 1749 by Thomas Kingsmill, and others. Thomas was brother of the George who had been killed outside the Star and Eagle; his body was gibbeted (exhibited) just outside his home village - Goudhurst. More of the gang were subsequently tried and executed in Chichester, on the Sussex coast. The Hawkhurst Gang’s reign of terror was over.
These days, where the only threat to peace appears to come from the traffic rattling along the A262, it’s hard to believe Goudhurst was anything other than the serene place it seems to be. I should re-read my battered paperback edition of Doctor Syn (priced at 3 shillings and sixpence - 17½p), to remind myself that the vicar’s Scarecrow alter ego was nowhere near as terrifying as the real thing.