In August, I was persuaded to drive along the local lanes of Seasalter marshes towards Blean at some unearthly hour in the morning. We were on our way to a car boot sale and as we followed an old smuggling road, Seasalter Lane, the mist was lying low across the marshes.
You can imagine how a string of smugglers’ ponies would surprise a casual traveler at that time in the morning as men and horses stole their way along narrow roads and tracks towards Ashford or Canterbury.
These smuggling strings would appear and disappear as the mists moved across the flat landscape. They traveled at speed, stopping for no one. One hundred and fifty ponies was a good size load, and apart from the ‘tubmen’ (the men who carried the casks or managed the horses), there was usually an escort of ‘batsmen’ armed with a variety of weapons — usually a stout oak club, a flail, or pistols — who guarded the shipment.
Some of these parties wore disguises – sackcloth masks over their heads decorated with luminous paint. Some gangs even painted the horses to ‘spook’ curious locals. Superstition can be a persuasive ally in warding off the curious.
There are various stories about how contraband was hidden in this area. Many an anker of fine wine, port or brandy would be dropped into ditches and left for collection later, after the Revenue men and dragoons had gone.
Haystacks also made good hiding places. They would suddenly grow in size and a few days later, shrink back to their original size. Only a wind in the right direction carrying the unmistakable smell of cherry tobacco, gave away the reason.
Rarely did the Seasalter Company physically engage with the authorities.
Unlike other smuggling gangs, there are no reports of violence concerning the Seasalter Company. They were always well-informed about when to move cargo having the right people in the right places at the right time. Perhaps, and more important, they had the ears and eyes of the preventive services.
Actually, they were the ears and eyes: Family members and acquaintances took up key positions as coast-waiters, tide surveyors, tide-waiters, and customs supervisors. What Dr Isaac Rutton and William Baldock, architects behind the Seasalter Company, developed was an intricate intelligence system and the ability to ensure authorities were always looking in another direction.
William Baldock’s brother was appointed to be the local riding officer and coast-waiter. The vicar of Seasalter the Reverend Thomas Patten – he gave himself the title of ‘Bishop of Whitstable’ – had family connections and kept a keen eye on the Seasalter marshes as well as his flock. There is little doubt that he supplemented his meagre stipend with a sideline in smuggling.
The Seasalter Company also employed a sophisticated signalling system using mills, farmhouses, and houses stretching from Canterbury to Whitstable. It’s said that smugglers in Whitstable or Seasalter knew about any detachment of dragoons coming their way before the dragoons had even left the boundaries of Canterbury City.
It’s mainly through secondary accounts rather than primary evidence that we understand how advanced this particular ‘Company of Gentlemen Smugglers’ really was.
A letter written by Thomas Ketcherell (Supervisor of the Eastern Division of Kent) was sent to John Collier, the Surveyor General of the Riding Officers from 1733 to 1756. Part of it reads:
Dear Sir, I beg to acquaint you that on the 7th instant a gang of about one hundred and fifty smugglers landed their cargo between Reculver and Birchington
The party appears to have split up with 63 men and eighty to ninety horses travelling towards Faversham. The rest went over Grove Ferry headed for Canterbury.
The fact that the cargo was split says a lot about the sophisticated distribution network of North Kent smuggling groups. There was evidently a plan to use two different destinations: Canterbury might well have served destinations in the South East, Faversham was a traditional route for contraband bound for London.
A lot of research focuses on two distribution routes for the Seasalter Company but it seems to miss a key point about their operations: The Company held a mixed portfolio of farms, marshland and forestland in the area. They could afford to take their time after contraband had landed and were under little pressure to distribute the goods immediately. This was a very different model of smuggling to other bands of smugglers.
Shrinking haystacks might have been a feature of the Seasalter landscape during the 17th and 18th centuries, but more impressive was the ability for 150 horses, and 200 men, to suddenly vanish into the early morning fog.