AVAILABLE NOW FROM THE AMAZON KINDLE STORE . My début Novel “Staymaker – The Downfall of Thomas Kingsmill and the Hawkhurst Gang” set in the late 1740’s and based on the downfall of the Hawkhurst Gang of Smugglers. here below is a sneak preview of the opening chapter. More Here.
Rye September 15th 1747
Isaac looked out from the kitchen of the Mermaid inn and surveyed the bar. The room was heaving with people, mostly sailors filling the air with their different languages as they swapped stories and jokes. One or two Negroes were amongst the crews, their dark faces split into grins displaying their pearly white teeth, their silence frightening the boy. Through the pipe smoke that permeated the room, he could make out four men alone in the corner, their pistols laid on the table for all to see as a warning to leave them alone. He recognized two of them as regular visitors, not sailors, but from up in the country; smugglers so the word went, and certainly they had the look of men unafraid of trouble.
“Isaac, Isaac. Stop daydreaming and get out of the way.” Lizzie, the landlady, dragged him out of his reverie as she bustled through from the bar her arms full of empty plates. He looked up and followed her back into the kitchen. She had taken him on after his mother, a dockside whore, had died of the pox a few months earlier, but she was simply too busy to look after him these days. She was running out of ideas of what to do with him, the parish church was supposed to look after orphans, but she had made a deathbed promise to his mother that she would look after him, and she knew she could never break such a promise. She looked out at the bar, at the four men in the corner for a moment, before heading back into the kitchen, briefly noticing Isaac’s absence, but with breakfast in full flow, she had no time do do anything about it.
Tom Kingsmill briefly held the woman’s gaze, before turning back to the other three men at the table with him. He was still in charge of the Hawkhurst gang and; despite the setback five months earlier; he had seen their fortunes rise. The shearing season helped that, restrictions on the legal export of wool, a measure that had been in place since the 14th Century in various forms, meant good money for those who could smuggle packs of wool out of the country to Flanders. He had buried his brother, declaring that nothing more was to be said about the events, and threw himself into securing the best rates for both wool and their main smuggled import – Tea. Indeed, the past few months had seen the gang go from strength to strength, and for many, Goudhurst was but a distant memory.
He turned and looked at the three men that were with him. William Ferial, now his de facto deputy following George’s death. Together, the two men made an imposing sight, both tall; heavy set men, muscular rather than fat. Across the table were two of the leaders of the Chichester men; who they often now worked with; Jack “Diamond” Dymer, and William Carter. They were here to finalise plans for a joint operation, one of the largest and most audacious that had ever been landed, and already cracks were beginning to show in this uneasy alliance. The current silence between them betrayed just how paper thin their agreement was. Ferial and Kingsmill had ridden down from Stockwell, along with two other men, both of whom were now on a boat bound for Guernsey, with the money to buy in the tea, brandy and rum that was to form the mainstay of this cargo. A lot of people’s money was at stake here, both gangs had put some in, but this was dwarfed by the share put in by outside investors from both London, and to a greater extent, the West Country towns of Dorchester and Bristol. Indeed, it was one of these investors, a young publican from Waterloo, who was travelling to Guernsey with the gangs’ usual buyer, Richard Perrin, a role that Dymer usually took, and the source of his frustration.
“We don’t know the man,” he raged as he puffed on his pipe. “He could be anyone, a revenue plant, anything. Your man Pring had no right to impose him on us, not at this late stage.”
Kingsmill looked at him, and sighed. The publican had been brought in by Perrin, and he had agreed, trusting the man’s judgment. “Jackie,” he said, the exasperation showing in his voice. “Ritchie brought him in. I need all the experienced hands on the shore, bringing this load in. You at least I can trust if anything goes down. “He looked at Carter; letting the insult seep in. “I want nothing left to chance.”
Dymer calmed his companion with a stare, before rounding on Kingsmill. “This is it in a nutshell. We men of Chichester brought you in and now it is all about what YOU want, Somehow, I seem to have lost control of my own run here.” He paused a second, aware that heads had turned to look at them, and continued quieter, yet just as forceful. “And as for changing the landing site, well we had it all planned, Cuckmere is still the best and most secure place, I don’t see why you told Perrin to head for Christchurch.”
Kingsmill shot a warning glance at the rest of the drinkers in the inn, and they turned back to their drinks, ignoring again the men in the corner. Turning to Dymer, he casually picked up his pistol, fiddling with it threateningly as he spoke. “The goods will land in Christchurch Bay, and then be taken to Fordingbridge to be dispersed.” Casually he pointed his pistol in Dymer’s direction. “If you Chichester men had learned to control your tongues, this wouldn’t be necessary. News of this has spread into the wrong ears,” Dymer and Carter looked at each other in disbelief. “It seems that someone has run their mouth off about this, and the news has reached the revenue. To be sure they will be waiting for us on the beach,”
“Not one of our lot” Carter Interjected, “Where was this? And who told you?”
“I heard this from Perrin, and I do not doubt his word. Now, look at the advantage. From Fordingbridge, your West Country buyers can take their goods away easier; Jacob can move his to Stockwell away from our usual route. I also have word that Strut is placing Pickets around Lamberhurst, there to intercept…” He got no further before Dymer interrupted him.
“Strut… again with this man; five months since this man killed your brother, and yet he still walks around interfering and here’s you, too craven to do anything about him. When we have this run done, us men of Chichester will help you burn that man and his poxy village to the ground,”
Ferial looked at Kingsmill, waiting for him to respond to the insult, but the other Hawkhurst man stayed silent. Truth was, though he had sworn revenge on Strut he had lacked the opportunity and the manpower to make good that threat. He had instead concentrated on building back his reputation with more ambitious cargoes, ensuring that those that worked alongside him got their share, thus building the gang’s confidence back up. He lowered his pistol, and sighed heavily. “Aye” he said at last. “Strut has it coming, and maybe when this load is safely stowed, we’ll do just that. Maybe I have been too craven to take him to task, George remains unavenged; that much is true. But, for all Goudhurst’s sneering, who is it that has seen their fortunes grow over the past few months? I’ll tell you who hasn’t – Strut. His family farm sheep on the hills. Every year, we took their packs of wool, and sold them to the Dutchman for a tidy penny. This year? This year they were forced to sell them for whatever the buyers in Tonbridge would pay. Our bellies will be full this winter, theirs’ less so. Think on that before you criticise me. There are more ways to ruin a man than burn his house; that much I learned from Mr Gray at least.
Suddenly the door to the inn burst open, causing the drinkers’ attention to turn away from the smugglers and on to the new arrivals. Two men were wrestling with a young boy, dragging him through the bar before throwing him to the ground. “Lizzie, LIZZIE” one of the men shouted, the other keeping the lad’s arm in a vice like grip.
Lizzie came out of the Kitchen, drying her hands, “Who wants me, shouting and hollering like that?” she called out, before recognising the crying boy on the floor. It was Isaac. “Oh Isaac, what have you done now?” She asked, desperation creeping into her voice. This wasn’t the first time that he had been brought back from the docks, usually with complaints about him trying to board a ship. One look in the Men’s eyes however, and she knew it was more serious this time. “Well, what’s he done?” she asked the men again sighing in anticipation.
“The boy is a stowaway and a thief,” the older of the two men replied. His weather-beaten face showed a man who had been a sailor all his life, “I caught him on my ship, in the galley stealing food. I want the judge involved. I’ll see him hang for this.” Isaac started to cry as Lizzie just slumped to a chair, muttering to herself.
The commotion had not gone unnoticed by Kingsmill and his companions. At the mention of taking the boy to the Judge, he shot up from his seat, and strode across to the sailors, his anger bubbling to the surface. “Well, what is going on here, that you would hand such a wee boy over to be hung?” he demanded.
“Not that it is any of your business, but the boy is a nuisance and a thief. Everyone who works on the docks knows it, but no one does anything about it. Well, I am going to,” the sailor replied.
“Oh, is that so” Kingsmill replied, beckoning to his companions, who stood up and joined him, pistols out. “Well I say that no-one takes a wee lad to the gallows.”
“Oh, and who declared you Judge and Jury eh?” the sailor asked. A deadly hush fell around the bar, most of the customers knew Kingsmill by sight and reputation, and none of them would dare cross him like this.” Undeterred, the sailor carried on. “Bairn or not, this one will hang.” Isaac started to cry, as Lizzie looked a Kingsmill, her eyes pleading him to stop this from happening.
“I’m Thomas Kingsmill,” he stated, the sailor’s blank look showed that he was very new to this part of the world, “The Staymaker. Make a friend of me, and you make a friend for life. But you have made an enemy of me today.” He pointed his pistol at the man. “Now, the boy stays here,” he said this last very slowly. “You turn around, leave this Inn, and hope to God that I never see you or your friend here again.” The men, looking at the sight of the four armed smugglers let go of Isaac, and made to leave. “Oh, and by the way, don’t even think about bringing any militia here, they all know my word goes around here, and I have declared that the boy will not be hung, not today, not ever. Now” he turned to the serving girls “Bring us out a few brandies, I think Lizzie and the boy could use one.” The men slunk out of the bar as the drinks were poured.
After Lizzie had drunk her brandy down in one gulp, she looked up at Kingsmill. “Thanks Tom. I just don’t know what I am going to do with him. He has been like this since his mother died – that is her filling his head with nonsense about his father being a sailor.”
“It’s not nonsense,” Isaac protested, “he was a sailor, and I’m going to find him” he ran into the kitchen, crying.
“See what I have to put up with Tom?” she asked. “It’s not fair, that wee one having lost his mammy with no father to take him in neither.” She smoothed her apron as if to disguise her still shaking hands. “My mind is made up, he is going to the Church today. They can look after him; put some discipline in his life, I sure as hell can’t.”
“The Church’s care?” Kingsmill scoffed. “You know what will happen; within a year he will be sold on, apprenticed they call it, some sweep no doubt will need a wee one like that. What will his life be, a few years before the soot gets him, or he grows too big, then what? No Lizzie, you mustn’t.”
“Well, what else am I to do Tom? Come on, you know who’s son his is; your father was always here, with his mother afore he died.” At this Kingsmill got up and walked away. “That makes him your brother,” she called after him. “You, who so cares that the wee one won’t hang, or won’t end up as a sweep’s boy; do you care enough to take him in? It’s not as if you and Sarah can’t afford another mouth.”
Kingsmill stopped and turned to face Lizzie. He had heard the rumours, that his father had sired a bastard by a dockside whore, but hadn’t really paid it much heed. Now that he thought about Isaac, he saw much of his father in him, his face and his attitude. He sighed loudly. He knew he could afford the extra mouth, but his wife and their new born son were still unwell and he doubted whether she had the strength to cope with the lad’s errant ways. There was a solution – Connie. He had taken to seeking her comfort these past few months; he knew she would welcome another boy to keep her own son company.
“All right,” he said, quietly. “I’ve lost two brothers over the past few years, If, as you say, he is family, I’ll take him back with me. My father always said you never turn your back on your family.” He walked back across to Lizzie. “Have him pack, I’ll take him now.
“You’re a good man Tom, don’t let anyone say different.” Lizzie replied as she called through to one of her girls to gather the few belongings that Isaac had. She then walked back and poured herself another Brandy, draining it quickly. This news, she was not keen on imparting, but knew she had to. “Tom,” she called out.
Kingsmill turned back to her. “What now?” he replied, somewhat annoyed about being disturbed again.
“Arthur … he did not fall at Culloden as we thought,” she said softly.
At the mention of his eldest brother’s name, Kingsmill drew up a chair and sat beside her. He had seen neither hide nor hair of him for a decade, not since he took a horse and rode off to the army never to return. The rumour had spread that he had died in action a year earlier at the battle that had wiped the Jacobites from the country. Tom mourned him in silence ever since. “Arthur, alive?” he asked incredulously. “Well, why hasn’t he come home?” The news seemed to raise his spirits.
“I…I’d best not say Tom.” Lizzie replied, afraid of the man’s reaction if she told the truth. One glance at Kingsmill’s face, however, and she changed her mind rapidly. “He came in here two nights ago,” she said with a sigh. “Look, I will not be responsible to set brother against brother. It is wrong – Cain and Abel remember that?” she protested.
“I prefer the prodigal son,” Kingsmill replied, “Now out with it, or are we going to swap Bible stories like preachers in the pulpit? Where is my brother?” he demanded.
“Well, so be it.” Lizzie replied. “But don’t say I caused this.” Kingsmill nodded. “He has joined the Revenue Tom. He means to stop you.” At this, Kingsmill’s face fell, and he sat in stunned silence for a long time, the news that has so lifted his spirits now plunged him back into anger.
“He walks his path, I walk mine,” was all Kingsmill replied as he walked back to the other three men solemnly.