Five and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk
Laces for a lady, papers for a spy,
So watch the wall my darling, while the gentlemen go by.
When Rudyard Kipling wrote those words in 1906, he was thinking of Sussex. Living at Burwash, he was right on the edge of smuggling country. Rye was not far away, known as a meeting point for the cutthroat Hawkhurst Gang some 150 years previously. The rest of Sussex was familiar to him as he had lived in Rottingdean from 1897 until his move to Burwash in 1902.
Sussex smuggled well, it had always smuggled; it had smuggled hard and it smuggled very profitably! Many an old Sussex family owed their wealth to their smuggling forebears.
Smugglers, or “free traders” (also known as owlers), were the latter day Robin Hoods. Taking from the faceless wealthy who would not miss it and benefitting hard working, struggling folk who would barely exist on their meagre earnings were it not for the free trade.
In the 1700’s when the Hawkhurst Gang reigned supreme, they stretched their tendrils around East and West Sussex, parts of Surrey, through into Poole Dorset. They could not have maintained this power without the direct assistance and involvement of Sussex folk.
Seaford, Crowlink and Birling Gap, provided safe landings for smugglers from Alfriston and Jevington, where “Jevington Jig”, a famous rogue, once rushed from the inn, dressed as a woman faking hysteria, when it was surrounded by excise men. Only his heavy boots peeking from underneath his petticoats gave him away. The Geneva smuggled from there became so famous that “Genuine Crowlink” Gin could command a higher price. The Market Cross Inn at Alfriston, now known as Ye Old Smugglers, was a former butcher’s shop and home to Stanton Collins, a successful free trader whose home had 21 rooms and six staircases in which to hide the contraband.
In Hastings, one Jemmy Roper once made the mistake of landing early before his reception party were there to unload. The local excise man cursed him for a fool as it meant he would have to seize the cargo. In the end a friendly agreement was reached whereby the lawman took ten tubs and let the gang melt away with the rest before firing his pistol to summon help. Sadly Hastings was also home to the Ruxley gang – a desperate bunch of violent thugs who brutally and sadistically killed a Dutch privateer who had been hired by the Government to patrol the coast.
Selsey Bill, Pagham Harbour, Langstone and Emsworth were all notorious smuggler haunts. Nowadays many of these harbours are silted up and unnavigable; but in 1830 the owlers lured revenue officers to Sidlesham with a decoy light so that they could land 700 tubs at Pagham. The Rectors at Selsey claimed a tithe on all kegs landed there and a tunnel led from the church to the landing.
By the mid nineteenth century, the golden age of smuggling was over with most of the gangs transported or dispersed; yet today it ls drugs or people that are smuggled, which benefits no one.
Now on a moonless night, with the gentle sound of the lapping waves, one can imagine the silent line of ponies with their contraband slowly snaking their way along the cliffs by the light of their dark lanterns.
“Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie, So watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by!”
Author of “Traders of the Fifth Continent. Tales of smugglers and rascals on the Romney Marshes”. WattKnott Publishing ISBN 9780993297700