The Aldington Gang

In 1827 the Governor Ready carried smugglers from Kent’s Aldington Gang to Van Diemen’s Land.

Among the smugglers were two of my GGGG Grandfathers, Thomas Gilham and Richard Higgins.  Richard’s brother-in-law, Samuel Bailey, was also on board, as was the Gang’s former leader, George Ransley.

Their wives and children remained behind, supported by friends, relatives, the Parish, or perhaps the hidden proceeds from the gang’s activities.  In 1829, Frances Gilham, Rhoda Higgins and Elizabeth Ransley arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with their children and other families of Aldington Gang convicts.  Their ship, the Harmony, arrived in Hobart Town on 15 January 1829.  More families of gang members arrived aboard the Mellish a year later.

Some Background

The Aldington Gang, also known as the South Kents or Blues (from the colour of the smocks or clothing they usually wore), was probably the last major gang of smugglers in Kent. Centred on the hamlet of Aldington, it operated along the coast between Rye and Deal, making good use of the Romney Marsh for transporting smuggled goods inland. The gang probably formed sometime prior to 1820, when men returning from the Napoleonic Wars turned to smuggling as a way of making money in an otherwise depressed employment market.

The core of the gang comprised some twenty or so close associates who were deployed as fighting parties to protect those carrying tubs of contraband goods from the boats across the beaches and into the marshes. They were armed with firearms and long ash staves or ‘batts’ and they received twenty shillings each a night for their dangerous work. The rest of the gang, upwards of eighty locals, received about seven shillings a night to carry the tubs from the beach to carts waiting inshore. Two of my GGGG Grandfathers, Thomas Gilham and Richard Higgins, were amongst the close associates that made up the fighting parties.

Cephas Quested is thought by some to have been the gang’s leader in its early days, with George Ransley taking on that role from about 1822.

The first record of the gang is in November 1820 when the gang was part of a combined operation totaling some 250 – 300 men landing spirits, tobacco and salt from a French galley on the coast between Sandgate Castle and the Shorncliffe Battery.

In February 1821 a group of Blockade Men came across 200 smugglers at Camber Sands. The gang managed to unload their goods but were chased by the blockade force across the marsh to Brookland. Five men died and more than twenty were wounded in the ensuing ‘Battle of Brookland’. During the battle, Cephas Quested had approached a midshipman, mistaking him for a member of the gang, and handed him a musket telling him to ‘blow an officer’s brains out’. The midshipman took the musket, turned it on Quested and arrested him. Quested was hanged on 4 July 1821, having refused to betray his colleagues by turning King’s Evidence.

Soon after, George Ransley appears as the gang’s leader. At this time, the gang’s headquarters were at the Walnut Tree Inn (which continues to serve the local bitter to Aldington’s inhabitants today). Other favourite haunts were Ransley’s Bourne Tap, the Oak at Bonnington and The Palm Tree at Wigmore. Smuggled goods were secreted away in numerous storehouses, including the former Augustinian priory in Bilsington and the Tudor-built Ransley farm at High Halden.

The Walnut Tree Inn, Aldington

Ransley’s operations were well organised. Unloading of smuggled goods was carried out to a set drill. Descriptions of operations carried out at various times in 1826, reveal the usual modus operandi. Inns were prepared and victualed with cheese and ale to refresh the parties. Guards were bribed and local inhabitants warned of nearby soldiery. Contraband goods, usually in tubs, were carted through East Kent, sometimes during the day, to the Ashford area.

Ransley’s tub-carriers could unload a boat or strip a tub-rope of its tubs within minutes.  The batmen formed a half-circle round the beached boat, facing outwards with leveled muskets and leaving a small gap through which the hurrying tub-carriers passed up the beach to the marsh.  The batmen usually warned off the Blockade men before firing, but if the warning was ignored, firing ensued. Once the carriers were off the beach the batmen formed a classic rearguard to cover their escape into the marsh – marching, halting, turning about to fire a volley, reloading and again retiring.

Participants could earn as much in one night as a fortnight’s wages labouring. A surgeon, Dr Ralph Hougham, was on call from Dover to tend to the wounded and Ashford solicitors, Messrs Langham and Platt, were retained for legal representation. The families of those wounded or killed were supported financially (and so unlikely to prove disloyal).

In the early hours of 30 July 1826 the gang embarked on an operation which was ultimately to lead to its demise. Two lines of smugglers carried tubs of illicit spirits from a boat close to the Dover shore. The usual fighting party armed with long duck guns provided protection. On seeing the gang, a local seaman, Michael Pickett, fired his pistol in warning, alerting the Preventive Service Quarter Master, Richard Morgan, to the trouble. Coming to Pickett’s aid, Morgan was shot dead as the gang of smugglers disappeared into the night, leaving 33 tubs of foreign liquor behind.

The Customs Chief quickly offered a large reward of £500 and a free pardon. Sympathetic or frightened, the locals were clearly reluctant to offer clues to the authorities. Eventually, two members of the gang, John Bushell and Edward Horne, were caught and induced to inform on their colleagues.

Following further investigation, arrests were made on Tuesday 17 October 1826 when 120 Preventive Service men marched into Aldington to surround Ransley’s house and the homes of other gang members.  Seeing the strength of the opposition, Ransley surrendered without resistance and he and six others, including Thomas Gilham, were handcuffed together and marched to Fort Moncrief where they embarked on a naval vessel to Deptford, forestalling any rescue attempt. A fortnight later more gang members were arrested and taken to London.

On 12 January 1827, charges were heard at the Maidstone Assize Court. The first, against Ransley, Gilham and nine others, was for Morgan’s murder. All pleaded ‘Not guilty’. However, a number of members were convicted for crimes under the Revenue laws. Initially condemned to death, their sentences were commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.

[Updated 10 June 2012]

The links below take you to posts on my blog about the Aldington Gang.

Some reported incidents

8 November 1820
11 February 1821
11 March 1826
16 March 1826
11 May 1826
10 June 1826
9 July 1826
30 July 1826
6 August 1826
31 August 1826

Convictions

Investigation and Arrest
Committal proceedings
Trial
Sentenced to transportation
Remained in Kent

Gang members

George Ransley
Samuel Bailey
John Bailey
Robert Bailey
John Bushell
Thomas Dennard
Charles Giles
Thomas Gilham
Richard Higgins
James Hogben
Edward Horne
Edward Pantry
Paul Pierce
James Quested
James Smeed
Thomas Wheeler
Richard Wire
William Wire

Note

The header image at the top of this page is taken from an old postcard of Clap Hill, Aldington.

39 thoughts on “The Aldington Gang

  1. My Great Great Grandmother was Lavinia Jane Ransley who was the daughter of Edward Ransley (George Ransley’s son) and Elizabeth Higgins (Richard Foord Higgins daughter)

  2. Hi Robin, thank you for leaving a comment. I would be interested to know more about this couple. I have four children listed: Jane Lavinia, Rhoda, Joseph Richard and Frances Elizabeth. You probably already have this report on Elizabeth’s death: 1859 ‘NOTES FROM OATLANDS.’, The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859), 5 February, p. 3, viewed 14 July, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2466656

  3. mygrandfather thomas robert everard ransley married margaret louisa clark married at “holleydene tasmania

  4. Nice blog and great information. My grandparents who use to live in Aldington (originally in the second rock cottage) as you go down forge hill, always told me that we had an ancestor who was in the ‘Aldington Gang’ and fought the Hawkhurst gang, or fought the Ransley gang, my memory is not so good now. Anyway they also told me that our family had a shop that was either attached or adjacent to the Walnut Tree and that it sold lemonade etc. One thing I do know for certain is that there use to be a forge down Forge Hill owned by the family, because my mother has a picture of two relatives standing next to an early upright steam engine. The other strange piece of information that I was told as a child was that one of our ancestors was called ‘The Black Nye’ and eventually was hung for stealing sheep. But how true that is I do not know.

  5. My GG Granddad was brother to Thomas Dennard.I live not far from Aldington today,

    Funny how thing s work out my daughter works for HMRC and lives in Dover where Morgan was shot.

  6. Hi Lynne. Sadly Stephen was killed in a horse and cart accident in Ruckinge in1849 .His wife was expecting a baby at that time ( my great- grandmother) and by 1851 they are in the work house. My great grandmother lost her husband when he was drowned in a boating accident off Folkestone leaving her with 7 children and one on the way my granddad was only 7months old. Then when he grew up he lost his first wife and daughter in a bombing raid on Folkestone during the first world war.

  7. Hi Lynne, Thank you for your research on the Aldington Gang. Charles Giles was my GGG Grandfather, his daughter Mary my GG Grandmother. I have recently started researching my father’s family and your stories are very interesting.

  8. First of Lynne what a wonderful website. Have just started doing research on my husbands mothers site. My husbands gg grandfather was Charles giles and gg grandmother Emma stratten. Their daughter was Elizabeth Emma Giles she married. Robert Dawson. But so interesting reading your pages. Thank you again

  9. Does anyone have any information on James or Cephas Quested Please ? I am interested to know what became of James Quested after transportation to Hobart and any physical description of him and/ or Cephas. Thank you

    • Hi Lyn, there were a number of people named James Quested. This is the information I have on the James Quested who was transported to VDL with the other Aldington Gang smugglers in 1827:

      James Quested was baptised on 22 April 1791 at Swingfield Church, making him 36 at the time of his transportation to Van Diemens Land in 1827. Convict records state that James was 5′ 7″ with brown hair and grey eyes. He had lived at Hawkinge where he owned 14 acres of land and worked for a time in the service of Mr J Bridges. He had also worked as a sawyer.

      James’ cart was used to carry the smugglers’ guns and ammunition to the area chosen for runs at Deal, Walmer and Dover.

      On 5 September 1818 James married Jane Seath at St James the Apostle church in Dover.

      Aboard the Governor Ready, James worked for the surgeon Thomas B Wilson and was subsequently assigned to Dr Francis Desailly at Jericho. For a time James’ family lived at Wootton. By September 1828, when James applied to have his family join him, his wife, Jane and their five children were living at Canterbury, Horton. They sailed aboard the Mellish, arriving at Hobart on 22 September 1830.

      James was granted 200 acres that he had been working for some time at Pembroke. In 1853 he was appointed as Messenger to the Government Printing Office. According to Gwenda Oxley’s research James also resided at Muddy Plains (Sandford), then Cherry Tree (Pawlena) and finally at Brushy Plains (Runnymede). James Quested had two sons, one became a schoolmaster and the other a schooner captain.

      James Quested died on 29 October 1877. He is thought to have been a cousin of the Aldington Gang’s Cephas Quested.

  10. Lynne,
    What a gold mine of a site, thank you. My genealogy search says Cephas Quested had a brother named James Quested b. 1787. Any information on that James or Cephas would be wonderful. I am a direct descendant of their sister Charlotte b. 1807. She is buried in Wisconsin, USA about 12 miles from my house.
    Martha Van Pelt

    • Hi Martha, I really need to spend some time writing up my notes on Cephas Quested, but here are few to begin with:

      Cephas Quested, baptised 28 December 1789 at Canterbury, son of Samuel Quested (c 1768-1828) and Elizabeth Millen (c 1755-1818); died 4 July 1821 at Newgate Prison, London.

      Some accounts of the Aldington Gang’s activities suggest that Cephas Quested was its leader until he was arrested and hung following the Battle of Brookland in 1821. However, Commander Shore’s writings suggest Quested was rather stupid, often drunk, and probably not the gang’s leader. According to some accounts Quested was an evil man. However, Charles Igglesden in his Saunter through Kent, credits him with consideration for local country folk and a deep love for his own family.

      Cephas Quested was christened in Canterbury on 28 December 1789. He married Martha Gardiner on 12 May 1809 at Dover, and the couple had ten children, but lost at least four in infancy.

      Many rumours and traditions have grown up around Quested. After much sifting of material and numerous conversations with Aldington’s older residents in the early 20th Century, Shore’s conclusion is that:

      Cephas Quested was a native of Aldington, and earned his living as a labouring man; and in common with most of his class, in those days, he sought to increase his earnings by throwing in his lot with the smugglers. Ignorant and utterly uneducated, he had a turn for adventure which drew him on to his destruction. For, being a man of resolution and daring, he becme one of the ‘fighting party’. In this capacity he had the misfortune to mistake a foe for a friend, and to find himself, in due course, committed for trial on the capital charge of murder.

      Another old resident commented that:

      Quested was a rough-like drinking-sort-of-man. I’ve often seen him come home drunk at six o’clock in the morning. Indeed, he was a regular drinking fellow. One time I was out working in a wook where tubs had been laid, near Aldington, along with some other chaps, when Quested and a man called Gardiner tapped one of the tubs and drank till they laid down. They lay out all night; it was a cold and frosty night too; and when my uncle went to work next morning he found them still lying there. Gardiner, being a weakly sort of chap, was dead; but Quested, who was a strong, hearty fellow, seemed none the worse; he was just like iron, or he wouldn’t have stood it! When my uncle lifted up Gardiner’s head, and said he was dead, Quested called out, ‘Well, he died of what he loved.’

      Another recalls that Quested was:

      … a great, strong blustering fellow, rather a ‘rough-un’…. He was never at any place of worship, unless it was for a christening; and then there was a spot of trouble to get him there.

      Following the Battle of Brookland, Quested was committed for trial at the Old Bailey sessions on 17 April 1821. Quested was 30 years old when he was indicted for assmebling with several other persons armed with firearms, at Lydd, in the county of Kent, and carrying away goods liable to pay duty. Quested was immediately found guilty, although fellow prisoner, Richard Wraight was acquitted.

      Quested was held in gaol for a considerable period after sentence of death was passed, providing him with plenty of opportunity to turn King’s Evidence. However, he remained loyal to his gang and was executed on 4 July 1821.

      In the period between sentence and execution, Cephas’ wife, Martha (nee Gardiner), visited him each week. She told that he was offered a pardon if he’d ‘split’ on the others, to which he replied ‘I’ve done wrong, and I’m ready to suffer for it, but I won’t bring harm on others.’ An entirely uneducated man, Quested learn to say the Lord’s Prayer while in prison, commenting to his wife that he’d never have learnt it if he hadn’t been there. The last time he saw Martha, he seemed quite prepared to meet his fate, saying ‘We eat and drink today, Pat, and tomorrow we die.’

      After the execution, Martha retrieved the body and took it back to Aldington where all the neighbours viewed it before burial in the Aldington churchyard on 8 July 1821. There is no stone to mark the spot and others have been buried in the same spot since then.

      Quested’s cottage was still standing early last century. Shore described it as characteristic of 19th century Kentish homes, with rich red bricks, toned and mellowed with age, and a lichen covered roof.

      • Hello from the USA!
        I have been working on my Quested ancestors for some time but have just recently found this wonderful site. Thanks for such wonderful information.
        Cephas Quested was my 4x great grandfather. (Cephas- Edward-John). John Quested married Emily Frances Chittenden and immigrated to the U.S.and as far as I can tell they never returned to England. John and Emily’s daughter was my great grandmother. I have been fortunate to visit Kent, the Walnut Pub, and the Maidstone Library. I hope to return and do more research. Thanks again for this web site and for sharing the information! Ann

      • Lovely to hear from you Ann. I hope we can share more information over time. The Walnut Tree pub is great isn’t it? Cheers, Lynne

  11. Thank you so much for the details. My family’s thought is that Charlotte Quested, the sister who married John Crump and immigrated to America in 1821, was the smart or lucky one!
    Martha

  12. What an interesting site. My GGG grandmother was an Elizabeth Quested born 1800 in Stowting. I have been told that she was a sister of Cephas Quested but I have my doubts. I believe Cephas had a sister Elizabeth but I don’t think it is the same one. Elizabeth married Mark Lilley but there is no father mentioned on the marriage entry in 1820. I am having trouble at present trying to trace the records of Baptisms for Stowting to ascertain her parents. I believe the parents for Cephas were Samuel and Elizabeth but I think the parents of my Elizabeth may be James and Elizabeth. I am trying to find out if Samuel and James may have been brothers thereby making my Elizabeth and Cephas cousins.
    Linda

  13. Hi,

    I hope you are well. I have just starting researching my family and i have just come across a few relatives that were in the smuggler gang or married to one of the smugglers. I am connected to the gang through marriage etc through the Bailey’s, Richard Higgins, James Quested. I am interested in any info about my relatives as i am just starting out in my research. I have a few rascals 🙂 in my family.

    Thank you.

    From Michelle Scott
    ( Tasmania)

    • Thanks Michelle, I appreciate you contacting me. Please have a look at my Ancestry tree. I’d love to know where you fit in. Very happy to share any other information that I have that may be of interest to you. Regards, Lynne

  14. Hi Lynne,

    It was lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your email. At the moment i have only confirmed a link through the Quested side. There are so many Bailey’s that arrived here in Tassie that it is confusing but something that has been passed down through my family is that the Bailey’s in our families had originated from convicts so i have been going on that. My family is strange because once we get back far enough on both sides of the family we are descended from the same people, a bit of marrying relations going on i think, distant cousins. On the Quested side of things. I am descended from Elizabeth Caroline Rowlands who was my great grandmother. Her daughter Sylvia Elizabeth Mona Wiggins was my grandmother, she married William Arthur Scott my grandfather and my father is Peter Lance Scott, her son. I am therefore related through Jane Quested, Jame’s daughter who married John Rowlands.

    It is believed that i am related to the Bailey’s in the gang somehow and therefore Richard Foord Higgins through marriage but i am unsure about this line as yet. My grandfather William Arthur Scott told me before he died years ago that a number of his relatives through marriage were involved with, as he called it unsavoury deeds in England and that is why they came to Tassie. He didn’t give any other details so i am trying to work out how we are related to the Bailey’s now. We are related on the Scott side to a Sarah Bailey as she married William Scott, my grandfather’s uncle i think. I am trying to find out if this is where the connection is.

    Thanks heaps again for getting in touch. How do you find your family pedigree chart?

    Take care.

    From Michelle Scott

    • Hi Lyn.
      It has been interesting reading your information on this page. My connection to the Quested family is a strange one. I had been looking for the Paternal parent of my Great Grand mother, Melinda Sarah Ann Priest for many years. I knew her mother was Mary Ann Priest b 1856 Hobart Tasmania. After corresponding with another researcher of the same family, I was given a copy of her birth certificate. The father’s name was James Quested. James Quested born 14-1-1854 Tasmania died 8-6-1946 Balmain New South Wales. Their brief relationship must have been like ships in the night. Melinda Priest/Quested matured and married my Great Grand father William Frederick Hack. I have contacted a Quested family member in Nsw and they have no knowledge of this Child.
      Cheers.
      Glenn Woods

      • Hi Glenn, thanks for sharing this. How fascinating. I do hope another ready can add some more to this story. Cheers, Lynne

  15. Hi, I have discovered the Quested name in my family only quite recently. My 4x great grandmother was a Sarah QUESTED who married a Thomas Buddle in 1785, in Sutton-by-Dover. I have not been able to find anything much about her, a suggested birth date 1771. Interesting that I live in Australia, but my mother is the one related to Sarah, and didn’t come here until 1930. LOL! I have read the paper online of the single surname study of the name QUESTED. How interesting to find a dark thread in a family that was (up to now) fairly boring!

    Cheers,

    Wendy

  16. Hi Lynne – great information this is my connection –
    George Charles Ransley Capt. (1785 – 1856) is my 3rd Great grandfather

    Matilda Blanche Ransley (1809 – 1868) daughter of George is my 2nd great grandmother-was married to Charles Christopher Fenton
    their son – George Ransley Fenton (1832-1906) married Janet Hallier Rayner their son

    Edward Walterloo Fenton (1882 – 1955) is my grandfather

    Albert George(Bob) Fenton (1923 – 1988) is my father
    son of Edward Walterloo Fenton
    Judie Flaurette Fenton (me)
    I have been enjoying every little bit of information about an amazing family – cheers and thanks for all you have done.. judie

  17. Hello Lynn,
    Greetings from the USA. We have communicated in the past and thanks to your research, we are all lucky to enjoy information about our smuggler ancestry. Richard and William Wire were brothers of my 3x gr-grandmother Elizabeth Wire. Your blog is terrific! I hope I can connect with other Wire cousins. My tree is as follows–Eliz. Wire/Charles Terry, Eliz. Terry/John Knight Culver, John Thomas Culver/Eliz. Pack, Bertha Culver married Carl Barge and my father is Robert Barge. Bertha Culver emigrated to the US in 1912, and the rest, as they say, is ‘my’ history.
    Hope to hear from any Wire cousins and to discover if we have Tasmania and/or Australian family.

    Elizabeth Vandam
    Minneapolis

  18. Hi Lynne,
    this is fantastic information. Richard Foord Higgins is my 3rd great grand father – I connect through my grandmother Thelma Higgins – later Thelma Bennett. I have only recently begun researching my family history in earnest and would love to learn more about the Higgins and Baileys. Down an online research rabbit hole recently, I ended up buying a work of fiction about the gang called The Devil’s Dozen. Haven’t got round to reading it – just scanned for references to Richard.
    Best regards,
    Katrina Byers

    • Hi Katrina, very happy to share further information. Check out my Ancestry tree and send me an email – I’ll see whether I have anything more on your line. Enjoy your research – it’s great fun, just wish Zi had a bit more time to do it!

  19. Hi Lynne, I have just come across Richard Foord Higgins through my family tree on My Heritage. He is my GGGGGG Grandfather on my mothers side so I am very excited to come across the information on your website. Seeing people by name is one thing but to actually read about their history and background is another thing altogether. Great information, thank you.

  20. My name is Lisa aldington.I’ve found your page very interesting its nice to know where my name originated.thankyou for taking the time to put this information for people like me 🙂

  21. Lynne
    Thank you for the information on the Questeds that is included here. I am descended from the James Quested who was convicted and sent to Van Diemen’s Land for life. He is my GGG Grandfather and his daughter Jane married my GG Grandfather John Rowland. I have been trying to decipher James’ last will and testament today and it is interesting reading. At the time the will was written he was living at Melville Street, Hobart Town and his friend James Page and son-in-law John were the executors and trustees of the estate. I have only just begun to research this one of many convict ancestors in my family and have found it really interesting to find that he was involved in smuggling. Lots more to learn yet but you have made the journey more interesting with your information.
    Thank you

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