Smuggling and Fairlight

By Haydon Luke

There is a long association between the Sussex coast and smuggling and the are few locations along that coast more closely bound up with that activity than Fairlight. The association stretches right back to the very start of smuggling in the 14th century and continues to the very end of the trade in contraband in the 19th century.

I have written a detailed account of that history elsewhere but what follows is a contemporary account of the inquest into the last fatalities of the smuggling era which just happened to occur in Fairlight Glen on 5th January 1831. The account appeared in many newspapers of the period including The Times but they all seem to be derived from this report in the Hastings Iris, then a popular local newspaper. It is worth reproducing in full to get a sense of how the event was seen in its own times.

[Gover’s Cottage and Covehurst Cottage, both mentioned in the account, are the same place.]


(from the Hastings Iris)

We regret that we have to state, that a desperate affray took place on Wednesday morning, between 3 and 4 o’clock, on the beach, in front of Gover’s cottage, about 2 miles to the eastward of Hastings, when two men were killed on the part of the smugglers, and one of the blockade so severely beaten that his life is despaired of, having his arm broken in two places, and five or six cuts in his head. Another man stationed near to him was very much knocked about, but was able to give his evidence at the inquest.

The coroner’s inquest on the bodies of William Crittenden, of Hastings, and George Harrod, of Guestling, was held on Thursday last, at 12 o’clock, at Mr Thomas Harrod’s, the Fishponds’ Farm house, Fairlight, before Mr TC Bellingham, the coroner for the rape of Hastings. The first person examined was Samuel Dicker, a labouring man in the employment of Mr Milward, and living in one of his cottages at Fairlight. He was going up the road to the new barn on Wednesday morning, between 7 and 8 o’clock, in company with a man named Taylor, when they saw the body of William Crittenden lying in the turnip field. It was on its right side: his Guernsey jacket and shirt were pulled off as far as their being buttoned at the wrist would allow. He Samuel Dicker, loosened the shirt and jacket at the wrist, and took them off, and lay them over the body. He had been shot, and was quite dead. They carried him into the barn, and he had watched the body ever since. He appeared to have moved in the field, and tried to get his clothes off. There were no marks about the ground to show that anyone had been with him.

John Head examined. – Is a carpenter, lives at the Fishponds’ Farm house. About 9 o’clock on Wednesday morning he saw the body of George Harrod, lying about 10 rods above the Gover’s cottage; knew him well; he was lying on his back, quite dead; there was no one near the body when he first saw it; Henry Harrod and Henry Moggeridge, were with him; went back to the barn, when Thomas Harrod, the bailiff on the farm, desired him to take a wattle and fetch the body up to the barn. Had seen Crittenden’s body at the barn before this. Harrod had a dark green frock on; blood was running from him at the time he was taken to the barn, and the body is now in the same state as when it was taken there.

Samuel Irvine, surgeon, RN, described the gunshot wounds which the two men had received, which had caused their deaths.

William Rixon, ex-seaman, belonging to the Hyperion, was on duty on the beach about 3 o’clock in the morning of Wednesday last, near Gover’s cottage. A sloop showed a light about 2 miles from the shore, to the southward and westward. In about 10 minutes afterwards a boat left her, which was making for the shore. As soon as she came near, could see three men pulling, and one man in the stern, steering. He went up under the cliff, and saw 30 or 40 men with sticks nine or ten feet long; they looked like soldiers with muskets. So soon as he hailed them, another party, which he had not seen before, ran to attack the two men who were on duty near him. The first party which he had seen threatened his life, and said, if he did not fire, they would not hurt him, but if he fired, they would cut his throat. He immediately fired his musket for assistance: did not recollect which way he fired; he might have fired in the direction in which the men stood. They sprang on him; about a dozen handled him, struck him on the side of the head with their sticks, which forced to the ground, and stunned him, after which he was senseless for some time; and as he was recovering, they struck again. Some of his comrades came to his assistance. After the men had left him, he found he had been dragged a considerable way up the cliff. They had torn his clothes in trying to disarm him. He then went down to the boat, and stood by her until his officer came down and seized her. The smugglers took the pistols and musket from him. The musket had since been found, the pistols have not. They were all loaded with ball cartridge. The duty imposed on him in case of the attempt to land contraband goods, was to resist to the utmost of his power. He fired as a signal for assistance. The men were on the cliff rather above him. He fired once before he was knocked down; but afterwards discharged four or five pieces signals for assistance. The men went down to the boat to take the goods out. He could hear them run down and up the beach as the people laid on him. There were 93 tubs in the boat. The fire-guns he fired after he recovered were for assistance in case the smugglers should come back again.

Lieutenant G.T. Smythe, – was stationed at Fairlight. It was nearly 4 o’clock in the morning of the 5th, and he had just entered the watchhouse, when he heard that a gun was fired at Gover’s cottage. He went immediately in the direction of Fairlight place. There was continual firing on the beach until he got to Fairlight place. He went down the western side of the road to the Gover’s cottage. He found the boat on her broadside on the beach, full of tubs, two of the men standing by her. He seized the boat, which he found to contain 93 tubs of foreign spirits, which was deposited in the custom-house Hastings the same day. On the beach he found Rixon and the other two men stationed near him. One of them, Frederick Devorce, was nearly killed. He is so very bad, that it would have been impossible to bring him to the inquest. He could not been removed from the beach until the latter part of the day, he was so seriously hurt. The contest between his men and the smugglers had taken place before he got to the beach. As he was returning he saw Harrod lying in the road just above the cottage. He sent some men to move him to a place where he might have assistance. Two men came from the eastward, and two from the westward, to the assistance of his three men on the beach. A pistol went off as he was going up the fields, but he understood it was accidental.

Lieutenant Frederick Hire, stationed at the Haddocks watchhouse on the 5th, between 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning, on the alarm being given, went to the Fishponds’ gate, he saw 10 or 12 men. Two of his men called to them to stand. He was accompanied by five or six men. They fired in the air, when the smugglers dropped their tubs and ran away. He was armed, but did not fire. He soon lost sight of the smugglers. Returning through the wood, they found 16 tubs of foreign spirits, which were on the same day deposited in the custom-house at Hastings.

William Bocock, seaman of the Hyperion, was on duty on the beach, near Gover’s cottage, about 3 o’clock on the morning of the 5th; a sloop, about two miles to the southern and westward, put up a light, and a boat soon afterwards came from her, making for the shore. He said to William Rixon, “Here is a boat coming in;” which we took to be a galley. She came pretty close to the shore, and lay on her oars. A man came to relieve me, named Devorce, Rixon slewed round, and went nearer to a party of men in the cliff. We then were 20 or 30 yards asunder. The party sung out, “Don’t fire, and we will not hurt you.” Another said, “If you do fire, we will cut your throats;” or something to that effect. They then came down off the cliff towards us with great bats in their hands as thick as my arm, and Rixon fired his musket. He (Bocock) then fired also, but could not see Rixon for the people who were around him, but fired amongst them. Could not tell who he hit, neither did he see what they did to Rixon. The party followed him, and three or four of them knocked him down at the water’s edge with their bats. His arms and ammunition were taken from him, and thrown into the sea, when the men called out of the boat to come in, which she did. He did not know what happened afterwards, as he was insensible from the blows which he received. He had fired one pistol, and his musket. They were loaded with a ball each. He did not fire at all, until Rixon was knocked down, and the men with bats were coming down on him. Did not know whether his shot took effect or not.

The Coroner then addressed the jury. He said one thing was certain from the evidence adduced, that the men came by their deaths by gunshot wounds, but by whom inflicted was not made out by the evidence; the act of Parliament was so strongly worded, that the men on duty, to prevent smuggling, were justified in firing even if they were not attacked, if they did so in discharge of their duty, to prevent contraband goods being run. He had merely stated these particulars for the guidance of the jury. His own opinion as to the proper verdict – and it was only opinion they (the jury) had to decide -was, that the men died from gun-shot wounds inflicted by some person or persons unknown.

The Jury, after being closeted for about a quarter of an hour, brought in their verdict that “William Crittenden and Joseph Harrod died from gun-shot wounds inflicted by some person or persons unknown; – but that it was justifiable homicide on the part of those who shot them.”

Contemporary engraving of the location of the incident described.

By Haydon Luke

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