In 1827 the Governor Ready carried smugglers from Kent’s Aldington Gang to Van Diemen’s Land.
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.
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.
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
The header image at the top of this page is taken from an old postcard of Clap Hill, Aldington.