Smuggling in Kent

The Aldington Gang a.k.a. 'The Blues' (1820 - 1826)



This was probably the last 'major' gang that existed in Kent and it is believed that they were known as 'The Blues' from the colour of the smocks or clothing that they usually wore.


The first reference to the Aldington Gang was in November, 1820 at Sandgate where they were one of three groups of men, part of a combined total of 250 required to unload a galley that had been rowed across from France. However, it is believed that they were active well before this date and were responsible for incidents in Deal, St. Margaret's Bay and on The Romney Marshes. Their leader at that time was Cephas Quested until his capture in 1821 at the 'Battle of Brookland'. The "Battle" took place in February when some 200 members of the Gang were discovered by a group of blockade men at Camber Sands. Although the Gang successfully completed the unloading of the goods, they were harried right across the Marshes until they reached Brookland where the Gang turned on the blockade force. Five men were killed in the fighting and there were more than twenty wounded. Cephas Quested in the confusion of the Battle turned to a man close by him, handed him a musket and instructed him to 'blow an Officer's brains out'. Unfortunately for Quested, in the confusion of the fight, the man that he had turned to was a Midshipman of the blockade force who immediately turned the gun on Quested and arrested him. One other smuggler that was arrested was a Richard Wraight but he was acquited after claiming that he had only become involved by accident. After being sentenced, Quested was taken to Newgate and hung for his activities.



Brookland High Street, 2000

P.E. Blanche




The next leader of the Gang was George Ransley. He started his working life as a farm boy and then a waggoner at Court Lodge Farm. However, he had many smuggling connections, including the family of his wife, Elizabeth Bailey, who were known for being involved in the Trade. Ransley was known for his excellent organisational abilities but stories differ about the man. Some said he was a giant of over six feet, others said he was hardly more than five feet tall, some said he was a likeable rogue, others lived in absolute fear of him. Whatever was the truth, there was no doubt that he could be as ruthless as the situation demanded. The main headquarters of the Gang at this time was The Walnut Tree Inn in Aldington and Ransley lived at a house called The Bourne Tap, from where he frequently sold spirits that he had landed. Another location regularly frequented by the Gang at this time was an Augustine Priory, which was actually used as a farm house, at Bilsington which they would use as a store house. Stories were circulated about there being a ghost which manifested itself as a severed head in the old building which served well to keep the curious away.


The Walnut Tree Inn at Aldington was often used by the Gang when they waited for others of their group to bring in goods from across the Marshes. A lamp was hung in the rear if the Inn when the way was clear for them. There is a story that as a result of a fight between the Gang members one night, one of their number was murdered and the body disposed of down a well at the side of the Inn. It is also said that on some nights the sounds of scuffling and a body being dragged outside can still be heard. I have also heard a similar story being told about the Black Robin (in Kent a Black Robin was a Highwayman) at Kingston near Barham where a similar murder occured as the result of a fight between smugglers and that sounds of that fracas can also be heard during the night. However, I did recently question the present landlady about the landlord at around the time of the murder, Edmund File, who was a relative of mine, and she knew nothing of him. Therefore I'm not sure how much truth there is in this second story although it is quite conceivable that Ransley would use this Tavern as well because he was known to frequent The Palm Tree further along the Elham Valley road at Wingmore. Also, smugglers were known to visit Horsehead Farm which was close by and also owned by some more of my relatives.





Although the Gang had a brutal reputation, and rightly so, they were not, at times, without a warped sense of humour. There is a story that they found and captured a blockade officer and after binding his legs and blindfolding him, left him dangling from the top of a cliff. Eventually, the officer could keep his grip on the edge of the cliff no longer only to find that the "cliff" was less than a foot higher than he was.


The success of the smuggling gangs was very dependent upon the goodwill of the local people. Slowly, this Gang began to lose this special relationship as they gradually extended their ruthless behaviour beyond that of the authorities and the blockade forces and turned on the rural communities. Some of the members of the Gang started resorting to breaking into to local residences and the problems were substantially compounded when a member of the blockade forces at Dover, a Richard Morgan, was shot and killed. Morgan, who was a quartermaster with the blockade, was well liked in Dover and spotted the Gang trying to run a cargo ashore on Dover Beach. After firing a warning shot the Gang turned on him, resulting in his death and the wounding of a seaman who was with him. A reward was offered for information after this incident which was claimed by several people and as a consequence, in October, 1826 the blockade forces together with two Bow Street Runners raided The Bourne Tap and captured George Ransley and seven other members of the Gang. Eventually a total of nineteen men were captured and stood trial at Maidstone Assizes in January, 1827. They were all found guilty of charges that carried the death penalty but their lawyer, a local gentleman from Maidstone, managed to get their sentences commuted to transportation.


George Ransley was sent to Van Dieman's Land, now Tasmania where his knowledge of farming was a great benefit to him. As reward for good behaviour his wife and ten children were allowed to sail out and join him, and eventually, after being granted a pardon, he started farming 500 acres at River Plenty, Hobart. Apparently he lived there peacefully and it is said was extremely well liked. He died in 1856.


Additional information can be found here.


Sir Edward Knatchbull,

9th Bart., 1781 - 1849

(From a portrait by T. Phillips)



Government Officials.


Hellard, Lt.Samuel, RN - the officer who led the 100 strong force that eventually captured Ransley and the senior members of the Gang in 1826.

Knatchbull, Sir Edward - Local magistrate. The Knatchbull family plot is in the Churchyard at Mersham. It has to be wondered perhaps whether Sir Edward had any associations with the smugglers. It did seem from some of his decisions that I have read about that he may have had sympathies. Certainly in some instances men were transported that would readily have hung if brought before other magistrates. (1821)

Morgan, Richard - a Quartermaster with the blockade forces who was shot and killed by "the Blues" on the beach in Dover on 30 July, 1826.



Hogben, (first name unknown) - member of the Gang who was shot in the thigh by the Blockade near Folkestone in April 1820.

Quested, Cephas - Leader of the Aldington Gand until 1821 when he was caught and hung. Although ordered to be hung in chains at Brookland, through the intervention of Sir Edward Knatchbull he was quietly taken to Aldington and buried there. (Hung - 4 July, 1821)

Ransley, George - the leader of the Gang from 1822 after Cephas Quested had been captured. He was well liked in the Aldington area but was eventually captured in 1826 and sent to Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). Here he eventually started farming 500 acres at River Plenty, Hobart and his wife and ten children sailed out to join him. (b. c.1770 - d.1856)

Wraight, Richard - arrested at the Battle of Brookland but acquited by claiming he had only become involved by accident. Probably his only accident was being arrested! (1821)



Bailey, Elizabeth - the maiden name of the wife of George Ransley. Also, originally from Aldington.

Hougham, Doctor Ralph - a resident of "Pear Tree House" at Brookland was called upon to tend injuries on both sides at the time of the Battle of Brookland.


Barham, Richard Harris - b. Dec. 6, 1788 in Canterbury. Was bequeathed the Manor of Tappington at the age of 6 by his Father. Married Caroline, daughter of Captain Smart of the Royal Engineers in 1814. Vicar of Warehorne and Snargate approx. 1818. Died at the age of 57 on the morning of June 17, 1845.

Reverend Richard Harris Barham, the author of a collection of poems called "The Ingoldsby Legends" was perhaps one of the more notable acquaintances of the Aldington Gang. Barham would often meet the Gang when he was making his way home late at night. He never came to any harm but then, when the gang was using his Church at Snargate to store contraband, the Gang had a vested interested in his welfare. In fact, the Reverend claimed that he could find his way directly to the Church from the aroma of tobacco.


One of the poems written by Barham and included in "The Ingoldsby Legends" was the story of Smuggler Bill and Riding Officer Anthony Gill in The Smuggler's Leap (which is supposedly a chalk pit at Acol and is close to the end of the runway at Manston - now called Kent International! - Airport). No doubt, Barham's own meetings with the smugglers of Aldington added much colour to the thrilling verse actually based on local legend.



O'er Monkton Mead, and through Minster Level,

We'll baffle him yet, be he gauger or devil!

For Manston Cave, away! away!

Now speed thee, now speed thee, my good dapple-grey,

It shall never be said that Smuggler Bill

Was run down like a hare by Exciseman Gill!

Another quote from Barham tends to place the whole area and mystique of the Marshes in a category that cannot be appreciated until you've actually spent time on out on the beaches, fields and laneways in the dead of Winter or when the clammy Autumn mists grope at your very soul

Where ever you go in Kent there is always something relating to smuggling and/or smugglers.


Here's the full story...

The Hawkhurst Gang (1735 - 1749)



The Hawkhurst Gang named after their home village of Hawkhurst was first mentioned in 1735 as the Holkhourst Genge, and were one of the most famous gang of smugglers to inhabit our area. It is believed that their influence spread from Dorset to the Kent coast. The gang were able to control the area until their leaders were executed in 1748 and 1749.


Their main base was at the Oak and Ivy Inn on the Sandhurst road in Hawkhurst , they also enjoyed frequenting the town of Rye , where at the Mermaid Inn they "would sit and drink with loaded pistols on the table".


There are many legends about the tunnels the Hawkhurst Gang built from the Oak and Ivy. It is believed that tunnels went to Tubs Lake on the Cranbrook road (named after the tubs of brandy found floating on the water), to the Royal Oak in the village centre, Four Throws on the Sandhurst road, and to the building where the Tudor Court Hotel now stands.


In 1822 a cave used as a smugglers store with empty liquor bottles in one corner was discovered in Sopers Lane, Hawkhurst. It is recorded that on the island in the pond across the road, "having caught one of their comrades giving information to Revenue Officers, the gang pegged the smuggler to the ground by means of straps, with his head barely out of the water". When he was discovered by the locals the following morning, he was only just alive, but on recovering decided to flee.


In 1740, at Silver Hill between Hurst Green and Robertsbridge a Revenue Officer Thomas Carswell was shot and killed while trying to apprehend some of the smugglers. One of the guilty smugglers George Chapman was gibbetted in his home village Hurst Green on the village green.


In 1744, it is recorded that three large cutters unloaded contraband at Pevensey, and 500 pack horses carried the goods inland. This shows the freedom that the smugglers enjoyed, as 500 pack horses would have been difficult to conceal.


In 1748 one of the gang brought a large cargo of brandy, tea and rum over from France in his cutter. A Customs cutter captured and seized two tons of tea, thirty nine casks of brandy and rum and some coffee. The goods were stored in the customs house in Poole Dorset. Some of the smugglers escaped and contacted the gang, who attacked the Customs House, and rescued their contraband. The Customs Service were very displeased with this attack and offered a large reward.


Several months later one member of the gang Diamond was arrested and gaoled at Chichester. Another member of the gang Chater offered an alibi for Diamond. Unfortunately, while Chater was with a customs office named Galley, he was seen in a pub by a local informer, who told the gang. The gang thought that Chater was informing on them, and so provided drink to the couple, who became drunk, and sleepy. They were woken by being whipped, tied to a horse, and whipped until both were nearly dead. The gang thought they had killed the customs officer Galley, and buried him (alive as it turned out). They kept Chater chained up in a shed for a few more days then decided that they would all kill him, by tying a string to the trigger of a gun, with all of them pulling. However to intimidate other informers a more brutal method was decided upon, Chater was attacked with a knife, then thrown head first down a thirty foot well, and large stones thrown down on him until he was dead.


Until these two murders the Hawkhurst Gang was looked on as benefactors by the local population but they turned the tide against the smugglers, and the leader Arthur Gray from Hawkhurst was executed for the murder of Thomas Carswell in 1748.


A new leader Thomas Kingsmill from Goudhurst took over after Arthur Gray was captured in 1747, but the gang was not the same after a local militia at Goudhurst defeated them in a pitched battle in the village.  





Villages Referenced


Goudhurst  (Smugglers, Iron and Forests)  

Groombridge  (Home of the Groombridge Gang)  

Hawkhurst  (A Notorious Gang of Smugglers)  

Hooe  (The Haunt of Smugglers)  

Hurst Green  (The Youngest Highwayman on record)  

Mayfield  (Saint Dunstan and the Devil)  

Ninfield  (Last of the Iron Stocks)  

Pembury  (The ghost of Hawkwell)  

Robertsbridge  (The Home of Modern Cricket)  

Rye  (On the Island)

The Groombridge Gang (1733 - 1741)



The Groombridge Gang of smugglers appeared to have been formed in 1733 and was led by Robert Moreton and John Bowra. Much of their goods were landed at Lydd , Fairlight Bulverhythe and Pevensey and secreted in the Ashdown Forest to avoid discovery before being transported to London .


They were quite dominant in the area, and worked with the Hawkhurst Gang and the Hooe Company .


One of their leaders John Bowra was arrested for smuggling tea in 1737, then disappeared. Robert Moreton continued to lead the gang until 1749 when an informer Jerome Knapp shopped the gang to the authorities and they were held at Rochester until their trial.


8 members of the gang came from Groombridge , with others from Rotherfield Hartfield Penshurst and Westerham .


Other members of the gang were Moreton's servant Cat, Thomas Gurr (Stick in the mud) , Collison , Pizon , Isaac Pope (Towser) , John Kitchen (Flushing Jack) , Thomas Ward (Bulverhythe Tom) and William Weston .

The Mayfield Gang (1710 - 1721)



1710's brought major smuggling into the area with the Mayfield Gang and their leader Gabriel Tomkins, a bricklayer from Tunbrige Wells, bringing relatively non violent owling (Wool smuggling).


The gang consisted of local farmers and others , who smuggled their own wool abroad, and brought in brandy and silks by return. They usually made well organised trips to the coast with 20 - 30 armed men. They were not cruel, and usually tied up people who crossed them, but released them later, rather than killing them as per the later Hawkhurst Gang and Groombridge Gang .


The gang originally used the beaches from Lydd to Fairlight to export their goods, but from 1717 they also used the beaches from Hastings to Seaford .


The Woolpack Inns are named after the owlers who used them as shipping points for the packs of wool Brookland and Warehorne have one as have other villages in the area.


In 1721 Gabriel was chased from Burwash to Nutley and arrested , the gang without its leader broke up. The Mayfield Gang had wide support from the local population as they only used violence if it was used against them, and the profits they made went into the local community.


Other members of the gang were Jacob Walter and Thomas Bigg