Not so long ago, I was in a pub not far from Lewes having a quiet drink, when one chap down the bar developed a fierce twitch.
His head kept swinging around, and with a leer, would nod vigorously towards the door.
I ignored him, which made me the most fortunate of men, because as he left, a car raced up, lights flashing, horns tooting and sirens wailing.
Out stepped two or three, or maybe even more copper jacks and having handcuffed the unfortunate twitcher, bundled him into the vehicle and drove off.
The incident caused less than a stir in the bar. But I heard one man mutter. ‘Bloody Daft Eddie. He’s always trying to flog something that’s been stolen, and he always gets caught. He’ll never learn.”
I hadn’t been in the least interested in purchasing anything from Daft Eddie, but it is the sort of moral dilemma that we can sometimes face in our social lives, when thinking only of the loved one waiting at home, and the joy a bejewelled watch would bring, or even a bottle of five star Brandy, costing less than half the selling price in a local booze store.
Smuggling it’s called.
And in 1747 in the Lewes area, the infamous Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers ranged over most of Sussex, not only smuggling but murdering and savaging those who got in their way, customs officers, soldiers, magistrates, or priests.
They were deadly and wreaked havoc everywhere they went as they smuggled their way to wealth from Rye to Chichester.
A Hastings man, John Cook had become a member of the Hawkhurst gang and by his own admission did a lot of dirty deeds, including beatings and wounding on behalf of the smugglers.
He was a bit of ‘no good’, as they say.
Unfortunately for a fisherman named Richard Ashcroft, Cook was hanging around Eastbourne on a day that Ashcroft paid a visit to the town.
The two seemed to have vaguely known each other and a drinking session ensued.
Cook was there, however on business. Nasty business. He was joining a group of thirty other smugglers, to bring ashore a whole cargo of smuggled goods and carry them off to a gang’s safe haven.
Unfortunately, the excise officers got wind of the crime and pounced as the villains carried their stolen goods along a country lane.
Five customs men took on the 30 smugglers and apprehended five of them. The rest got away in the dark.
Among the five was Ashcroft, aged 47, father of seven and husband to a pregnant wife.
According to Ashcroft, he’d been returning home to Bishopstone and through his new pal Cook, hitched a ride aboard one of the smugglers horses.
It was ironic then, that Ashcroft took his last ride with Cook from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn Gallows, where both were hanged by the neck until dead.
The legal officials at Newgate seemed to have had a bit of a guilty conscience about seeing Ashcroft off on his last journey, in a cart guarded by a small force of soldiers. The man from Bishopstone was destined to be the morning’s entertainment as the crowds gathered to watch the prisoners take the drop, their wriggling bodies amusing the crowd, as they thrashed around in their death throes on a bright spring morning.
Such was entertainment for the masses before enlightened industrialists decided that a 3pm kick off for punting a leather sphere around an oblong piece of grass would do well enough instead.
Ashcroft was born and raised in Bishopstone, by parents who were from Lewes.
He turned to farming in his early years, a pastime in the 18th century which bore no great revenue. Indeed, it was hard work for almost no return.
And so he turned his hand to fishing and inevitably came across the Hawkhurst Smugglers.
He and his wife got into the odd bit of bother from time to time, but witnesses say that he was generally a quiet man, going about his business without fuss or bother.
Certainly, he obviously couldn’t afford a television set, because his main pastime seemed to be bringing yet another infant into the world: seven in all at the time of his death.
There were tragic consequences to this combination of fertility and passion. On the day he went to the gallows, his wife died in childbirth, leaving her progeny to the not always tender mercies of the parish authorities.
Reports of his hanging and that of Cook showed they met their fate with a calm acceptance of the inevitable and expressions of regret that they had been naughty boys, skipping mass and overindulging in drink.
Perhaps the most telling and even poignant acceptance of their fate, though was neither really accepted that they were committing a hanging offence by smuggling.
And indeed, the Hawkhurst Gang rampaged through Sussex because as a whole, the public were sympathetic to their activities, both because they were bloodying the nose of the state and also were offering a nice little chaw of baccy or a bottle or two of brandy, quietly purchased in the local inns and taverns for much less than the going price in the stores. But the list of crimes that invited capital punishment could be very slender by today’s standards and while murder and killing were among the 369 hanging crimes between 1745 and 1754, so were shoplifting, sheep stealing and Uttering or forgery.
The establishment made a nice little earner from these executions.
Without any feeling of guilt, the court chaplains, known as Ordinaries, meticulously recorded the lives of the convicted criminals from the time they committed their crimes, through conversations the Ordinaries had with them in jail to their final trip to the gallows.
They then published their accounts in detail, of how men and women met their fate, what had brought them to the Old Bailey and the unfortunate lives they had led prior to their convictions.
A ravenous public, denied match of the day paid between a ‘thruppeny’ bit and a ‘tanner’ (one p -two and a half p) to read about the lives, loves and neck stretching of various types of criminals, from the quiet and anonymous Ashcroft (3d ) to the hanging of Sixteen String Jack, notorious Highwayman John Rann (6d) in 1774. Rann was linked to Lewes through one of his mistresses, Letitia, who later married Sir John Lade, one of the Prince Regent’s gambling crowd, who lived on Lewes High Street.
These ‘penny dreadfuls’ could bring up to £200 a year to their authors, about £8000 in today’s currency.
So a man who struggled all his life not even able to make two pennies rub together, enriched a gentleman of the cloth by becoming embroiled with a cut throat gang of smugglers, with whom he had little to do, according to those who knew him and talked to him while he was in Newgate Prison.
It is a sorry tale, and as a man who quietly enjoys a magnum of champagne and two dozen oysters in the back bar of a pub, I thank my lucky stars I never dealt with Daft Eddie and whatever cheap goods he was flogging in that local pub.
The story of Richard Ashcroft is enough to put me off those sorts of nefarious deals for life.
I must admit, however, on one occasion, returning from non-EU country Kosovo, loaded with bottles of their delicious wine Varanac, I snuck through customs leaving a trail of nectar, dripping from a bottle, alas broken in my suitcase during the flight. I was grateful I wasn’t stopped but now I thank the Lord with all my might that I got through free and clear. I hadn’t realised that if anyone had noticed, I might have gone to the gallows for smuggling. Oh, my goodness what a neck stretching thought.