In December, 1744, the Hawkhurst Gang arrived in Shoreham, West Kent, firing their weapons into the air and sending the whole town ducking for cover. But this wasn’t just a social call, they wanted someone, a snitch that had landed one of their leaders in jail. The informant, a former member of the gang named James “Club James” Floyd, and his customs handlers tried to hide in a pub, but the smugglers forced them out by threatening to burn it to the ground. Taking them bound to Hawkhurst, the gang tortured them for days, and while the customs men eventually escaped, Club James died at the hands of his former fellows, pinned to the low water mark and slowly drowned by the tide.
1740s Kent was the center of Britain’s gangland, crawling with violent smugglers shipping illegal tea into London. But one gang in particular would become so large, powerful, and violent that it would briefly plunge the county into civil war.
The Hawkhurst Gang started like most of the era’s smuggling gangs: a band of largely lower-class men making extra money avoiding the high import taxes that comprised most of the British government’s income at the time. But the Hawkhurst Gang would grow into a violent mafia, fueled by London’s insatiable appetite for illegal tea. Hawkhurst’s position on the road between the smuggling coasts near Hastings and London, made it the perfect base for funneling tons of illegal tea into the capital. By 1745, the gang had de facto control over parts of the Kent/Sussex border, operating from a network of european agents, cutters, and safehouses. They began branching into other areas of crime like running protection rackets in nearby Goudhurst.
There was little the government was willing to do about the swelling mafia south of London. Revenue officers were under-resourced, and there was strong political opposition to using significant military force for law enforcement duties. Meanwhile, the gang was able to muster hundreds of armed men in bodies that resembled a private army. As it became clear to everyone that law enforcement was ineffective, the gang’s abuses on nearby communities became unrestrained.
A band of smugglers drank deeply at a pub, then trashed the place when they were asked to pay. In another village, a smuggler, impatient for his wine order, rode his horse into a pub to collect it, shooting randomly into houses as he and his posse left town. They were no longer just a smuggling gang, they were a violent tea cartel that ruled their territory through fear.
By 1746, the villages around Hawkhurst began to form anti-smuggling militias, driven by a hatred of the gang, and a new government financial incentive. Earlier in the year, the government issued a 500 pound bounty for any smuggler that refused to turn themselves into law enforcement, several years pay for the average person. Ticehurst and Goudhurst also formed militias and began searching for the gang leaders with bounties on their heads. Cranbrook formed an “association”, complete with official badges that would not be out of place in a western (one of these badges can still be seen at the Cranbrook Museum).
The gang, in a rage, tried to destroy the Goudhurst militia, threatening to raze the town to the ground if they didn’t disband. Fifteen smugglers rode up to the village in broad daylight. The militia was waiting for them, in what would be Kent’s O.K. Corrale. Shots echoed through the village in a fierce firefight.
When the smoke cleared, two smugglers lay dead, with the rest fleeing in fear. It was the beginning of the end for the gang, an end that would finally come after numerous murders, manhunts, and trials.
The Hawkhurst Gang would be a sign of Kent’s 18th-century bad old days. One Hundred years later, Goudhurst would commemorate its victory over the gang in a public celebration.