The Hawkhurst Gang Season 1 Episode 2

The Hawkhurst Gang Season 1 Episode 2

As the gang entered the 1740s, expansion west to the more accessible and flat beaches of West Sussex was an obvious business move. Gray and by now the notorious bunch of men who followed, were expanding by amalgamating with other gangs  through alliances and hostile take overs. This could be described in contemporary terms as a 'turf war'. Arguably, the struggle for Gray was not necessarily the Revenue and Dragoons as they were thinly spread, it would have been the other gangs.  Smuggling was a battle of survival, hearts, minds and only the fittest or maybe in this case the cruelest would survive. The lawlessness continued.....

Mermaid Street, Rye. On the right you can see the pub sign for the Mermaid Inn.
Mermaid Street, Rye. On right pub sign for the Mermaid Inn.

A regular haunt for the gangs as well as other villains was Rye, East Sussex. The Transport gang led by Jeremiah Curtis (aka Alexander Pollard) worked with John Grayling in the Hastings area. Hastings would have been rich pickings in the 1740s with its beach Port, Hastings made for a busy commercial town at the time.It even had Breeds' ship yard on the beach in front of the 'America Ground'. The America Ground was an independant area of ground from the the rest of the UK. The habitants built ram shackled homes on the ground and refused to pay any rent ! The small  population of the America Ground hoisted the betsy rose flag in defiance and independence. The America ground exists today and was incorporated into Hastings in 1835 when Burton's St Leonards was constructed. The old town under the castle cliffs and particular George Street with its taverns,inns and bawdy houses would have been a cesspit for Rogues, Harlots, Pirates and Smugglers. The gangs would certainly feel at home here and at Rye. 

George Street, Hastings old town.

The gangs were supplying the many taverns of the former cinque port of Rye with contraband. The Hawkhurst gang frequented The Mermaid Inn with their flintlock pistols cocked on the table and ready to draw on a potential foe.It is worth noting to the reader, the Mermaid Inn and its past has not left. The Hawkhurst gang are still said to haunt the Inn. It's not surprising given the wickedness and cruelty dished out by the gangs in the town. I was on a photo shoot twice in the town. I had the strange feeling of being watched in Mermaid street. A lot of the women on the shoot were complaining that they were being pinched, one even had bruises after being inside the Mermaid inn. Another venue,  the Red Lion Pub, Lion Street now the tea room Simon the Pieman was another drinking venue the Hawkhurst gang frequented. They fired their pistols into the ceiling to intimidate other drinkers. If you examine the ceiling you can still see musket ball marks on the wooden beams to this day. Rye local, James Marshall was drinking in the Red Lion took vocal exception to this behaviour, He was taken away and never seen again ! This is another violent act committed by the gang to enforce their will in a series of acts.   And like most criminals their crimes  only get worse.

The scene was now set as the Hawkhurst gang as they asserted themselves in Rye and allied themselves with the transport gang also known as  'the Curtis lot'. One possible driver for Curtis to join the Hawkhursts' was  Graying's capture and subsequent transportation for seven years. The entrepreneurial opportunities for Curtis was too tempting and He was an expert in giving the authorities the slip, We will examine this later in another episode. 

However, in 1746 following a landing of 11 tons of tea at Sandwich bay, the Hawkhurst gang launched an attack on their associates the Wingham gang. The Wingham gang left before the landing had been completed. Deliberating  information contained in the book 'Smuggling in Kent 1700-1840, Waugh' it could be inferred that the landing had operational issues i.e. tea was lost at sea upon disembarkation. The Wingham's took their quota, this led to a shortfall for Gray and the Hawkhurst gang. Gray's men at this point put the Winghams to the sword injuring seven of them and taking forty horses as compensation. The violence did not stop there.   

"In March 1743 Revenue Officer Taylor, returning home from Ramsgate, Kent, was met in a narrow Lane by a gang of Smugglers knowing him by his vigilance and faithful discharge of his duty, without provocation shot him dead" - Confessions and dying words before execution, John Cook, Smuggler & Head Servant to Arthur Gray, 29th of July, 1747.

The Hawkhurst gang expanded further west to the flat beaches of West Sussex such as Sea Place, Goring. Sea Place was a collection of farm buildings surrounded by a moat. The sea would reach up to this point and it was understood that some ships with a shallow draught such as a sloop could reach what is now considered inland. If you visit the road Sea Place you'll observe the old agriculture stone walls and if you look towards the yacht club and onto the greens, you will note how flat the area is. This was because the sea would cover this area before the Victorians dammed the beach with the promenade.  In a violent landing of contraband at Sea Place Dragoon Micheal Bath was mortally wounded in the fire fight, his killers Thomas Holman of Hastings, John Mills from Trotton and Thomas Ward (Bulverhythe Tom) from the Groombridge gang were  involved. Sea place now a quiet beach and residential area marks the skulduggery that once was with road names such as Smugglers walk, Moat way and buildings such as the grade two Smugglers Farm and number thirty six Smugglers walk with the plaque 'The Old Custom House' mounted on a concrete gate post which may have been the site of the Custom's house for Sea Place, maybe this it was here Micheal Bath was taken too for his wounds to be seen too before He died in service !       

"There are numerous Instances might be given of the Barbarity of Smugglers, but I shall confine myself to one or two very remarkable, in which Gray was principally concerned…..” Judge Sir Robert Ladbroke, 11th of May 1748 at Arthur Gray's trial.  

The books composed by authors on the Hawkhurst gang all agree on one thing. That is their violence. You will read about their exploits to a degree. However, the authors for their own reasons sometimes choose not to go into details.However, I am have been fortunate enough to have access to the Old Bailey, London court documents concerning the trials of some of the Hawkhurst gang and it is to this it takes me to the Port of Shoreham.  Shoreham, Kent. Revenue Officers Quaff, Bolton, Jones and James (sounds like a roll call at Trumpton) received intelligence that some members of the Hawkhurst gang were skulking about a house. A warrant of arrest was issued to the four officers, the smugglers were arrested and put in gaol.   

"..his Master (Gray) cut a soldier terribly with his hanger (meat hanger) near Bourne (Eastbourne), Sussex, and farther but for him, and also, that he got something to dress the Man's wounds as well as he could." - Confessions and dying words before execution, John Cook, Smuggler & Head Servant to Arthur Gray, 29th of July, 1747.

According to Old Bailey records, Arthur Gray, Jeremiah Curtis and John Cook received the news. They showed up in Shoreham at daylight  in force with carbines, flintlocks and blunderbusses drawn. They fired to intimidate the locals and then they found the four revenue officers drinking in a tavern. The Officers were dragged out of the Tavern and tied up. Quaff made his escape. The three officers remaining were taken, destination Hawkhurst.

Five miles from Shoreham, the gang freed Jones on condition that He would not bother them or their brethren again. Meanwhile, they carried Bolton and James the thirty one mile journey to Hawkhurst tied up.They were stripped naked and tied them to two different trees. They were then whipped within a inch of their lives. The Officers begged to be killed, but the gang were not satisfied with their sadistic torture. They then set up a fire for each of them whilst tied to the trees, both men were scorched almost to death for hours. From, the court records Gray then shoved the Blunderbuss into James' face, Cook thought He was going to shoot him dead. Cook intervened and stopped it, but the court papers then suggest Gray's mistress not wife, scorched James' face with a candle as a final act of sadistic torture. Bolton and James, most likely to be dead were cut from the tress and placed upon a boat in the English channel and were never seen again !

John Cook, went onto to say that the gang on a another occasion went with intent to sexualy assault some gypsy women in a field, however the gypsy men prevented this when the alarm was raised by cries of help from the gypsy women. This incident has never been featured in any of the literature I have read. However, I feel it is important that this incident is recorded. I'll let you conclude why the incident has failed to be omitted.

John Cook, 28 and a labourer at Hastings beach port, Head Servant to Gray and Smuggler was executed on the 29th of July 1747 at Tyburn. The reasons for Cook's confession were likely to be for two reasons one to escape execution and if executed to escape being hung in chains. Cook if executed would probably wish for a christian burial and being left in chains his body would be left for years to rot and for birds to consume his corpse. Arthur Gray, aged 34, Butcher with a net worth of £10000 (just under £2 million according to the inflation calculator at the Bank of England website in today's money) was executed at Tyburn on the 11th of May 1748 and hung in chains on the A10 at Stamford Hill London as a warning to all who were contemplating smuggling.

With Gray gone, the Hawkhurst gang entered a new era with a vacancy for a new Don. Thomas Kingsmill as under Don was ready to fill the  vacancy. With a new Don new challenges had to be faced. The local village of Cranbrook, Kent had formed a militia to protect its self, they had already had a success in capturing Arthur Gray's Consigliere William Gray who was captured by the Cranbrook Association and who died in Gaol. The village of Goudhurst, was no different and they formed a militia. Kingsmill, first challenge to his authority was Goudhurst and so as Gray rotted at Stamford Hill, the Battle of Goudhurst begun.

Credit :



The America Ground Hastings, Steve Peak


Credit to Tim the Butcher for clarification on the Hanger/Meat hanger.

Hawkhurst, Joseph Dragovich, 2023.

A special thank you to Ani Bee for getting in touch by email and sending me  research notes. The Bank of England

Smugglers Britain, John Platt.

Smuggling in Kent & Sussex 1700-1840, Mary Waugh. Corin Spink Photography


  1. Many thanks for your research and tge information you have obtained. It was a very interesting read.

    1. It's always encouraging to get a comment after writing a piece. We are lucky to have this history around us and if We don't talk about it could be lost. Thank you for your very kind words.

    2. Again, a wonderful read! Looking forward to future episodes.

  2. Khalid, thank you for your support. It spur me a long when I get reviews left. Thank you.

  3. Fabulous read! Thank you for all the research.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Ur was such an insight getting hold of the court papers and the transcripts, it bought new facts to the table and details in helping tell the story.

  4. plus it was Shoreham in Kent not Sussex were they grabbed Boulton and the others


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