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The Hawkhurst Gang

by Portia Tremlett

Printing plate showing the smugglers throwing stones onto Daniel Chater down the well, on display at the Novium Museum

By Portia Tremlett, Public Programme Engagement Officer

The Hawkhurst smugglers were perhaps the most famous gang of smugglers operating along the South Coast from Dorset to Kent during the 18th Century.  The infamous story of the gang's ultimate demise begins in September 1747 when the boat "Three Brothers", carrying a consignment of tea, brandy and other contraband was intercepted by customs. The crew escaped but the goods where seized and taken to Poole customs house.  On the night of October 6th the gang resolved to reclaim their goods and quickly set to work breaking open the doors and seizing some 2 tons of tea, but were unable to transport the casks of spirits.

Dividing up the tea amongst them they set off in convoy for Brook in the New Forest. On route one smuggler named John Diamond spotted Daniel Chater, whom he knew from having worked together previously. He greeted him and gave him some tea.  Diamond was later arrested and held in Chichester gaol as a suspect in the Poole raid, and Chater was quickly regarded as a key witness in any trial.  William Galley a minor customs official was dispatched to escort Chater to Chichester to identify Diamond. 

They set out together on Valentine's Day 1748 making it as far as the White Hart Inn, in Rowland's Castle. Unfortunately it was run by a family with strong links to the Hawkhurst gang and the landlady soon became suspicious of the pair, delaying their departure while she sent a message to local smugglers William Jackson and William Carter. They soon arrived and plied the two with drink causing them to pass out. After a brief discussion, Jackson woke the victims by raking them across their faces. The unlucky pair were then driven outside by lashes from horse-whips and placed double upon a horse with their feet tied together under the animal's belly.

The lashings continued as the horse was led along the five mile trek, on several occasions the two slid underneath the horse, and received kicks to the head. Eventually Galley could take it no more and fell, lifeless from the saddle.  The group continued until they reached Rake where the smugglers carried Galleys body into the woods and buried it. 

For the smugglers this still left the problem of Chater. For three days he remained chained up in a turf house while the gang decided what to do.  After a secret meeting the smugglers decided to kill him and dump his body down Harris's well.  Upon arriving at the well, an abortive attempt was made to hang Chater, but the rope proved too short, so instead they threw him down the 30ft drop, and hurled large stones and fence posts down upon him.

The two victims were soon missed, but an investigation was unable to find anything, until an anonymous letter arrived leading them to Galleys body. A second soon followed naming William Steel as one of the perpetrators. Upon his arrest Steel named all the others involved; another man who played a minor role in the affair also turned himself in and gave evidence, and very soon the whole group had been rounded up.  All in all, seven men appeared before the Assize court in the Guildhall, and all seven were convicted and sentenced to be hanged the following day on the Broyle just north of Chichester.  Jackson managed to escape execution as he died in custody the night before the sentence was to be carried out. The remaining six were all executed as planned and the bodies of the five principal offenders were displayed in gallows around the district as a warning.