Some riding officers gained prominent reputations for their enthusiastic pursuit of smugglers but as we have seen elsewhere, free traders also made use of the information these men could provide in planning the movements of contraband. Insider information was everything. Placing key members of a smuggling network into positions like that of the riding officer not only ensured reliable and valuable intelligence on the work of the customs service but allowed free traders to plot strategies and movements of contraband. But there were other men like Mr John Gill who seem to have been both ambitious and successful in his pursuit of gangs and opportunistic smugglers.
Riding Officers were appointed centrally and were ranked as senior or junior officers depending on their length of service and success. They often worked alone, but would occasionally collaborate with other riding officers, dragoons and local militia for safety and protection.
They were allocated specific areas of the coast to report on contraband, usually areas where there were no family ties. Occasionally, though, we hear about reports on how organisations like the Seasalter Company of Smugglers managed to contradict this and appoint family members to their locations. (See: Jonas King: A most untrustworthy, despised and highly valued man.)
Senior Riding Officers gained status by proving themselves determined and energetic in pursuing and intercepting the free traders. In particular, one man appears to have got a good measure of newspaper publicity for his work along the Kent coast, a certain Mr Gill.
“We hear from Folkstone, that on Friday the 5th inst. was seized near Hythe, by Mr Gill, Riding Officer at Folkstone, thirty casks of foreign Geneva. And on Sunday the 7th of this inst. was seized near Dymchurch, by Mr. Ratcliff, Surveyor at Folkstone, thirty-eight casks of Geneva and Rum; a which goods were deposited in his Majesty’s Warehouse at Folkestone.” (Kentish Gazette – Tuesday 09 January 1770)
“We hear from Hythe, that on Wednesday last was seized on Hythe beach, by Mr. Gill, Riding-officer, at Folkstone, twenty-seven casks of foreign Geneva and Rum, which goods were deposited in his Majesty’s warehouse there.” (Kentish Gazette Sat 16 Mar 1771)
“On Saturday last was seized between Folkstone and Hythe, by Mr Gill, Riding Officer, fifty two half anchors of foreign brandy, and thirteen bags of hyson, green, and bohea tea, which goods were deposited on his Majesty’s warehouse in Folkstone.” (Kentish Gazette – Wednesday 08 March 1775)
Most of the accounts are short, focusing on the goods seized and the quantities but occasionally a longer account appears giving some detail of the encounters and how dangerous these could be.
“We hear from Dover that on Sunday last was seized, in a wood near Swinfield Minnis in this county, by J. Gill riding-officer and three dragoons, near a ton weight of hyson, green, and bohea tea, valued at £700. Soon after they had got the tea out of the wood into a field, and the officer (for the better securing the seizure) had dispatched one soldier to Folkstone for more of the party, they were surrounded by thirty or forty smugglers, all on horseback, who came for the tea, and seeing it in the possession of only one officer and two soldiers, the smugglers insisted on part of the goods; but the officers told them, that as he had seized them for the King and himself, he would lose his life before they should have any of the goods; then drawing a pistol, swore he would maintain the whole seizure, and shoot the first man that offered to take a bag of the goods. The soldiers being of the same resolution, after wrangling about an hour, the smugglers thought proper to go off in a peaceable manner, and without loss of blood. The goods were afterwards deposited in his Majesty’s Warehouse in Dover.” (Kentish Gazette – Saturday 29 January 1774)
“On Wednesday the 10th inst. was seized near Sangate Castle, by Mr Gill, riding officer, and a party of dragoons, fifty four half anchors of foreign Geneva, which goods were afterwards deposited in his Majesty’s warehouse in Folkestone. Yesterday morning about two o-clock the riding officers, attended by some dragoons, went in search of run goods in a wood beyond Sturry, when one of the smugglers gave one of the dragoons a severe blow on the head; whereupon the dragoon discharged his pistol, and shot the smuggler’s horse through the neck, and, with his sword, wounded the smuggler very much; after which the dragoons took some goods and went in search of more. The wounded man came immediately to Canterbury in order to get his wounds dressed.” (Kentish Gazette – Saturday 03 August 1776)
Mr Gill appears to have had a long and distinguished career as a riding officer. Because of his dedication he would have been given supervision over more junior officers having proved his loyalty to the crown. But his life would have been a hard one. He would have lived an isolated life, mistrusted by most local people and always on his guard against violent free traders.