The last stand of the Hawkhurst Gang…

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It may not be as famous as the Battle of Hastings or Bosworth Field, but April 20 marks the 275th anniversary of the Weald’s medieval skirmish, the Battle of Goudhurst.

Blacktooth, Nasty Face, Staymaker, Pain, Poison, Shepherd, Red Mist, Trip, The Kentish Giant – characters from a Disney production or a children’s comic perhaps?

They were in fact pseudonyms of 18th century smugglers which would certainly have given nightmares to small children at that time! Especially those who lived in Goudhurst almost 300 years ago…

The exploits of the Hawkhurst Gang became legendary and went virtually unchallenged for nearly 15 years from around 1735. They have established themselves as one of the most infamous smuggling gangs across the South.

“They feared neither customs officers nor soldiers, they respected neither God nor man, and in pursuing their aims they stopped at no atrocity nor tolerated any interference from anyone,” was he wrote at the time.

The smuggling gangs of the 18th century emerged from earlier centuries of suffering with stiff tariffs imposed on imported goods to pay for a series of costly wars.

Two key protagonists emerged at this time: Thomas Kingsmill and William Sturt who, as young men, played an important role in shaping the social history of the South East in the mid-eighteenth century.

They were both natives of Goudhurst, a similar age, but chose very different career paths.

Thomas Kingsmill, born in 1720, became a prominent member of the Hawkhurst Gang who later became their leader.

William Sturt – born in 1717, his name is still remembered by local historians as the hero of Goudhurst, who stood up to Kingsmill and the Hawkhurst gang by organizing the Goudhurst militia and defeated the gang at the Battle of Goudhurst on the 20th April 1747.

In a beautiful, tranquil location in the glorious Weald of Kent, you can discover Goudhurst with its church and graveyard which was the site of the fierce pitched battle that took place on 20th April 1747. It really is hard to imagine…

Thomas Kingsmill was now the leader of the Hawkhurst Gang at just 27 years old.

His arrogance and determination to prove to his fellow Gang members that he was worthy of the role became a real opportunity to test himself now as a captain. He threatened to go up to Goudhurst, kill the inhabitants and burn the place down. He named the day: April 20. It was 1747 and this arrogance would be his downfall.

The day arrived and, sure enough, Kingsmill and the gang galloped into view of Goudhurst Church, shirtless, faces painted, blindfolds in place and armed to the teeth with rifles, pistols and swords. Their familiar war cry piercing the spring air.

Kingsmill left the main group and, standing tall in his stirrups, gave a bloodthirsty speech – brandishing his sword he then joined the gang.

Sturt was well prepared. The women and children of the village had already been dismissed as a precaution.

Sturt had trained his men well, trenches had already been dug, barricades erected, and manned snipers were stationed on the church tower. They collected as many guns as possible, made cartridges and threw many balls for the muskets.

The gang opened the attack, 50 horsemen dismounted and aimed their fire at the steeple and windows of the church. But the militia retaliated with volleys of musket fire from many directions, long-range weapons, and being in cover proved effective in defeating the gang.

The gang quickly split up and fled in all directions once they realized they had completely underestimated the skill Sturt had brought with him to defend Goudhurst.

When the smoke cleared, three of the smugglers were lying dead in the cemetery.

Things weren’t going well for Kingsmill.

He knew he couldn’t return to Goudhurst, his gang had been exhausted, he had also lost his brother in the process.

It was in April 1749 that Kingsmill and his ferryman friend Fairall were finally found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on the gallows at Tyburn.

After hanging in front of a large crowd, their bodies were put in iron chains and then transported in plain wooden crates to Kent. At least 75 of the gang members were hanged or carried away at the time and up to 14 gibbets could be seen dotted across the Kent and Sussex skyline.

Kingsmill’s body was hoisted into an iron gibbet at Goudhurst and left to rot on full display for all to see as black crows and magpies argued and cried over the carcass. Fairall’s body was taken to Horsmonden and also gibbeted.

So next time you’re in Goudhurst reflect on this incredible time in our social history and ask yourself how William Sturt must have felt looking at the gallows with the decomposing body of Kingsmill on display, holding the hand of his young son, proudly knowing that he contributed to the eventual downfall of Kingsmill and ended the Hawkhurst Gang’s reign of terror!

If you would like to hear a studio production audio story about The Hawkhurst Gang and The Battle of Goudhurst, please email [email protected]

CURRENT EVIDENCE FROM THE DAYS OF SMUGGLING

The gibbet was an iron cage in which hanged smugglers were placed wrapped in iron chains and left to rot. The gallows with Kingsmill’s body was at Goudhurst Gore, still displayed as a place name near Goudhurst and the gallows holding William Fairhall was at Horsmonden, with Gibbet Lane still named.

  • Spyways is the name of a house in Goudhurst High Street, used by smugglers as a lookout post for dragoons and customs officers and was also the village jail.
  • Smugley Farm exists in Goudhurst; Tubs Lake between Hawkhurst and Cranbrook was a staging post for contraband en route to London.
  • A section of the Goudhurst oak church door from 1747 has been framed showing lead shot embedded in it from the Battle of Goudhurst.
  • You can still find musket balls in the dirt near the rows of hedges around the playground near the church – evidence of the battle
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