Battle of Goudhurst
April is the anniversary month of Goudhurst's most famous event, when locals defeated the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers – but has history been a bit too kind to the so-called good guys?
Battle of Goudhurst: heroes or villains?
April is the anniversary month of Goudhurst’s most famous event, when locals defeated the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers – but has history been a bit too kind to the so-called good guys?
About this time of year the thoughts of the people of Goudhurst turn to battle. April is the anniversary month of the village’s most famous event in 1747, when locals formed a band of militia and defeated the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of Smugglers. This year, however, the people of Goudhurst may have to reassess their perceptions of the event. The historic confrontation received only scant attention at the time (see In the News), and it wasn’t until later that a full-length ‘narrative’ appeared in the Maidstone Journal written by one Thomas Baker.
The problem is that it was written much later – in 1847 in fact, to mark the centenary of the battle. Which perhaps explains why it is such a curious mixture of fact and prurient fantasy (see Myth and Rumour). Nonetheless, for nearly 200 years it’s been the main source of knowledge about the battle.
Baker’s story has it that, in the 1740s, the villagers of Goudhurst are so terrorised by the Hawkhurst Gang that many are about to move out altogether. Enter our hero, former soldier William Sturt, who persuades them not only to stay but to form a local militia to defend themselves.
On hearing this, the Gang threatens to attack the village and “broil and eat the hearts” of defenders. So on or around the 21 April a number ride into town, past the Goudhurst Inn, and start shooting it up.
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But Sturt has strategically placed his men as snipers in upstairs windows and the church tower. They return fire and the Gang is routed. Its leader’s brother George Kingsmill and another smuggler named Wollit are killed. Three cheers for the good guys!
But it may not have been quite like that. As locals with a keen interest in the history of smuggling , we were researching the subject for a series of supper talks we were planning for pubs around Kent and Sussex.
In the process, we uncovered uncomfortable evidence that William Sturt and the Goudhurst militia might not have been quite the paragons of virtue everyone thought (Ed’s note: I don’t believe there’s any connection with my ex-husband’s Sturt family!).
In 1747 John Collier of Hastings was effectively head of the Customs Service in Kent. Much of what we know about smuggling at the time comes from his voluminous correspondence.
But one letter seems to have been overlooked by historians. It’s from an employee, a ‘Mr Wood of the Customs House’ and he asks whether Surveyor General Collier supports the activities of the “inhabitants of Goudhurst” who have taken up arms and “frequently rummage all Houses and Places” suspected of harbouring smugglers and are “extremely Vigilant in endeavouring to apprehend the Smugglers”.
In his reply Collier concedes: “Some complaints have been made of their behaviour which is not on the whole to be Strictly Justified.” Effectively Wood is informing Collier that villagers are acting as vigilantes and bounty hunters, and Collier agrees many have gone too far.
These events have to be seen in the context of the 1736 Indemnity Act and the 1746 Smuggling Act. They offered huge rewards of up to £500 for the arrest and conviction of wanted smugglers. If any incentive was needed for country people, earning just shillings, a week to inform on smugglers this was it.
And supporting our theory we’ve come across a petition to the treasury from members of the Goudhurst Militia claiming £150 reward for the killing of “Kingsmere” and “Woollett” (18th-century spelling was pretty ad hoc!) at the battle.
We think all this should make people reconsider those events 266 years ago. But changing local attitudes to Sturt’s militia may be tricky. In popular mythology the Battle of Goudhurst represents the triumph of good over evil. Getting our revisionist theories accepted may be an uphill battle.
IN THE NEWS
“Yesterday, about Five o’Clock in the afternoon, 15 Smugglers went to Goodhurst, all arm’d with Pistols, &c. and swore they would fire the town. The people having Notice of it, got all armed and received their first Fire, but none were hurt; they fir’d at the Smugglers and shot two through their Heads, whereupon the others made off.” Kentish Post report 22April 1747
MYTH AND RUMOUR
It is well known that a hundred years ago the farmers wives and daughters used personally to attend the weekly markets at villages with their butter, cheese, eggs and pork …In many instances the smugglers have laid hands on them – stripped and bound them in a state of nudity to adjacent posts or trees and then pelted them with their own butter and eggs leaving them in a most pitiful state”
Thomas Baker Maidstone Journal report, 1847
HAWKHURST GANG HISTORY
• First reference to the "Holkhourst Genge" letter to John Collier 1735
• By 1740 gang could “assemble 500 mounted and armed men within an hour” for smuggling runs.
• Raided Customs House in Poole and recovered two tons of “their” confiscated tea 1747
• Tortured and murdered William Galley and Daniel Chater to stop them testifying.
• Leaders and 26 members executed1749
FIND OUT MORE
Hawkhurst Smugglers Trail from Hastings to Goudhurst, www.visithawkhurst.org.uk/smugglers/
History of local smuggling and the Hawkhurst Gang The Smuggling Life of Gabriel Tomkins, firstname.lastname@example.org
Smugglers Tales evening at Goudhurst Inn, 18 April 2013, 01580 212605 or email@example.com