“Near the Market Place is a large house which was the residence of Dr. Isaac Rutton, a physician of long and extensive practice in the town and neighbourhood, being the eldest son of Matthias Rutton, Esq., of Ashford by Sarah, daughter of Sir Nicolas Toke, of Godinton…
… On further enquiry, I find I am mistaken in speaking of the house as having belonged to Dr. Rutton. The Doctor’s residence was what is now the Ashford Bank, where his coat of arms may still be seen in one of the windows. – Edward Halstead “History of Kent”
Quite a few people have been searching for Dr Isaac Rutton over the centuries. He seems to have shunned the public gaze and when you attempt to connect him with smuggling he disappears into the background. Like those low-level early morning mists that envelope the marshlands of the North Kent landscape Rutton becomes vague and obscure the more you look. But there is no doubt he was the architect of a smuggling enterprise that proved successful for over one hundred years from 1740 to 1854.
The problems with finding Dr Rutton starts with his name. Under a family genealogy published in 1830 (‘Pedigrees of the Families of Kent’ by William Berry) we see that Berry also uses the name ‘Rutten’ as well as ‘Rutton’ which may suggest Huguenot descent.
William Boys appears to have constructed the first genealogy of the Rutton family in 1792. This was part of his ‘Collections for an History of Sandwich’. There are some unresolved issues with his findings but Boys shows us a well-established gentleman of Ashford with a family pedigree traced back as far as 1567.
‘It has not been established at what date and to whom these arms were granted. The earliest use yet found is on the gravestone of Mathias Rutton, Vicar at Boughton Monchelsea, Kent (c1613-1686)’.
Other references suggest the arms may have been granted by Henry VII.
Dr Isaac was the son of Matthias Rutton of Ashford, Kent, born in 1681 and died 1741. His mother was Sarah, a daughter of Nicholas Toke of Godington, and the couple were married in August 1709 at Rochester Cathedral.
With such a background you might have thought that the life and times of Dr Rutton would be well-documented but as the opening quote from Edward Halstead’s ‘History of Kent’ demonstrates, just when you think you have him, he eludes you.
Unlike that other later pioneer of the Seasalter Company, William Baldock, Dr Rutton doesn’t appear in public. He is not mentioned in many local events, political gatherings or meetings.
At least with William Baldock you build up the impression of a strong character who rises from humble hod carrier (others report him starting life as a cow herder) to become a pillar of Kent society. Using circumstantial news reports and evidence from transaction documents, we can profile Baldock as fiercely political, a successful Canterbury banker, brewer and builder – a man who finally retires to Petham with his racehorses, handing over the management of the Seasalter Company to his son.
In contrast Dr Rutton remains little more than an Ashford GP. Only through his land purchases and some key appointments do we begin to realise his ability to influence and organise a smuggling fraternity for ‘enterprising’ gentlemen. He designs the organisation in such a way that it will always remain one-step ahead of the authorities. This ability to disguise the activities and anticipate the movements of local militia, dragoons and customs officials will eventually help to create one of the richest men in Kent when William Baldock is given control of the Seasalter Company.
The handover to William Baldock is also a little puzzling. (It seems reasonable to argue that his sons were well-prepared by their father to take over the operations but like his own involvement they are kept in the background.) There is no strong family link between the two men but they evidently knew each other and we have at least one connection through a local solicitor and friend. It might be that the good Doctor recognised something of his own talents and abilities in William Baldock. Also, Baldock was by now a proven success with a set of unique skills and influences to build on the success of the Company as the times changed.
So, what can we construct about our enigmatic Ashford GP?
Isaac, as we have seen, is a key figure in the town of Ashford. His connection with the Toke family through his mother’s side meant he was born into such a life and his children are also carefully prepared to take up similar respected positions.
The start of his smuggling enterprise begins with purchasing the Seasalter Parsonage Farm in 1740. This renewable 21-year lease will remain at the centre of the organisation’s activity even though Rutton and Baldock never actually live there.
The Seasalter Company made use of the old byways south of the present main road (A229), and continued up Brogdale Road through White Hill. To ensure safe passage, Dr Rutton installs his eldest son first at White Hill and then at Chapel House, Ospringe (which stood above a spacious crypt). This son, Henry Loftie Rutton (1800-1864), is destined to become a successful Kent solicitor and probably managed agreements and contracts on behalf of the Seasalter Company.
His other son Mathias Rutton (1748-1818) studied at Oxford and was ordained by Archbishop Cornwallis. He became Curate of Selling in January 1778 and later at Sheldwich. He was inducted as Rector at Cooling (1783) and then at Badlesmere (1818). Mathias was almost certainly a useful pair of ecclesiastical eyes for Dr Isaac and would have had some influence in the Diocese as one of the Six Preachers of Canterbury and private chaplain to the Barons Sondes.
Here, then, is a sketchy and rather ‘circumstantial’ profile of the man who started the most successful smuggling organisation in North Kent but the portrait is created around associations rather than witnesses and reports.
Dr Rutton is successful because unlike other smuggling gangs in the South East, this one operated largely unnoticed for over 110 years and the scale on which it operated is unquestionable. It was not so much a ‘gang’ as a fraternity of like-minded enterprising gentlemen with strong family connections.
Some researchers have concluded that the Company succeeded because it had a special understanding with the local coast guard including the coast-waiters, riding officers, and customs men but it went further. They had direct family ties. This was pivotal to Dr Rutton’s ambitious plans. He is a classic example of how the gentry were not simply involved in the free-trade but the source and primary funding of smuggling during the 18th and 19th centuries. Our well-respected Ashford GP of long-standing would have grown up acquiring all the local knowledge needed about farmers, fishermen, routes, locations, safe houses.
Quite how much money he made with his enterprise is not recorded but we shouldn’t dismiss the scale he operated on or his involvement. To do that would have suited the good doctor’s modus operandi only too well because Dr Rutton was after all, a man serving his local community quietly and discretely.
If you have any information on Dr Isaac Rutton or his family, please do make contact. Particularly interested in any commercial contracts, land agreements, or manifests of cargo.