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.