‘The Battle of Wingham’

One of the Stories in “Nefarious deeds of the Holkehurste Gang” concerns an violent altercation between the Hawkhurst Gang, led then by Arthur Gray, and the Wingham Gang. The events I dramatised happened in April 1746 in Wingham – a small Village between Canterbury and Sandwich, and was so violent an affray that the Supervisor of Customs at Canterbury, himself a man used to such things, said that he hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Historic Map of Wingham

Historic Map of Wingham

It all started off in Sandwich the previous night. A large group of smugglers had gathered , under the auspices of both Gangs, and agreed terms to unload two cutters with 20 ton of tea on to, it has been said, 350 waiting horses. The trouble started when one of the cutters was captured in the channel, and 9 1/2 ton was lost. (this boat was taken back to Margate).

Now the men had an agreement that no-one would leave until they all were ready, but, as the final horse was loaded, the Wingham men took off with the 11 1/2 tons of tea, leaving those loyal to Hawkhurst with nothing. Unsurprisingly, Gray’s men were none too impressed at this, and very quickly got organised. 92 men armed with pistols and broadswords descended on Wingham the following morning, and a fight started. This fight covered the whole of the village, and it was so bad that Villagers not part of the Gangs stood on the roads outside, warning travellers away from the place lest they be dragged into it.

Each captured man was made to give up their horse, with the goods on it, and had to sit down, like a captured prisoner of war. In the end, forty fully laden horses were captured by the Hawkhurst men, and the gang was demolished by the end of it. Indeed, it was reckoned that they were too fearful to turn the Hawkhurst men to the Customs. Despite this, only 7 men were wounded, two gravely.

Wingham Today

Wingham Today

Indeed, in terms of organisation and ruthlessness, the Hawkhurst men were so far ahead of the other Gangs in the area , even the name ‘Eastcountrymen’ (as they were often referred to) was spoken with respect and deference across the south east. Events like this merely served to enhance that reputation.


Inspiration – Why I writ wot I writ

So, why Smugglers and Why the Hawkhurst Gang?

Staymaker cover


Living in Hawkhurst – a village on the Kent/Sussex Border, roughly halfway between Maidstone and Hastings – for a decade, and being a bit of a history buff, I soon encountered the story of the Hawkhurst Gang. As I read more into it, I soon realised that the reality was more shocking than the romantic view of smuggling in a lot of fiction.

I have always fancied myself as a writer, but projects had remained as half plotted, half written ideas, until my best fiend Jo persuaded me to sign up to Nanowrimo in 2009. I dug out what I knew about the Gang, and wrote an Initial 50,000 word draft of Staymaker. After it was finished, I realised that it was far too short, and so I looked deeper into the subject, and realising that I needed to do much more research to improve both the history and the writing!

So I did. I got a lot of material out of the trial accounts of Kingsmill et al (a fantastic website called Old Bailey online has a lot of resource material in the form of actual trial transcripts), as well as three brilliant books on the subject*, and a number of Internet resources. Thus fleshed out, and woven back into a work of fiction, the editing began in earnest.
Most of the places in the book are still in existence today. The ‘Oak and Ivy’ Pub, on the Rye road was my local for many years (great beer and food by the way). Tom Kingsmill’s house, Highgate house, is now a public use building, and a playgroup meets there now. ‘The Mermaid’ in Rye is well known for its smuggling connection to the gang, but the Hawkhurst haunts less so. I wanted to make them known better (and since I started this project, a local history group unrelated to me) has tried to do just that.
This project has caused me to look more into the crime and punishment of the 1700-1750 period, and given my ideas for new projects, based on the villains of the period. It was a time with no formal police force (Indeed, the real Jake Pring was one of the first members of Fielding’s Bow Street Runners), so very different methods of solving crime were brought into play. It is that that interests me most – that and getting behind the romantic image of highwaymen such as “Blueskin’ and Turpin, ‘thief-takers’ like Wild, and, of course, smugglers such as Kingsmill and Ferial. I write what I like to read, which means gritty and violent novels to match the gritty and violent times.

Staymaker, and the short stories that act as a prequel of sorts are available here

  • * “Smuggling in Kent and Sussex” Mary Waugh
  • “Smuggling in the British Isles –  History” Richard Waugh
  • “Honest Thieves” F F Nicholls