Grimly appropriate setting for tale of Chichester murders

Chichester Community Theatre company will be making a major contribution to this year's Priory Park 100 anniversary celebrations.

Roger Redfarn           Pic by Rosey Purchase
Roger Redfarn Pic by Rosey Purchase

They will be offering a gruesome tale of smuggling, murder, trial and execution – staged in the building, the Guidhall, in which the trial actually took place.

The Hawkhurst Gang comes from Chichester playwright Greg Mosse. As director Roger Redfarn explains, the piece is set in and around Chichester in the late 1740s, telling the story of the notorious smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang who were tried and condemned for kidnap, torture and murder in the Guildhall in Priory Park in Chichester.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

“The story is all factual. The smugglers had a vast amount of tea that they had imported taken away from them and put in the customs in Poole, but they managed to break the tea out. You have got to remember that a lot of the population were in favour of smuggling because they could get them their tea and alcohol very cheap, and the Hawkhurst Gang came back boasting that they had got their stuff back.

“One of the smugglers saw someone in the crowd and gave him five pounds of tea, worth a lot more than five pounds in money. A few days later the King announced that there would be a reward if anyone could help them catch the Hawkhurst Gang, and this chap, Daniel Chater, decided to take the King’s evidence. An officer came from Southampton to escort him here to Chichester to talk to the chief justice. They stopped off at Rowlands Castle where the woman that ran the pub in the village and her brother and the others in the village were all sympathetic to the smugglers, and they locked the two men, Daniel Chater and the officer William Galley, in the woodshed and trapped them. Both Daniel Chater and William Galley met with violent deaths. They were both violently murdered and earth put on them. The second act of the play is the trial for murder which took place in the Guildhall in Chichester…

“We are recommending that the play is not suitable for anybody under the age of 12, but what is clever about it is that it is pure Greek tragedy. You don’t see the violence. You hear about the violence.

“The whole of this area along the coast at that time was awash with smugglers. You have to remember that in that period England was having a lot of wars abroad and was desperate for money for the armies, so they had to maintain taxes to pay for them so things like alcohol and tea and silks and animals fleeces were very very high. But once there was violence, then the sympathy for the smugglers started melting away…

Inevitably, the court scenes will be quite static. As Roger says, this is where the skill of the actors will come into play: “It will be very important to keep the story telling going, to keep it very clear and exciting. The smugglers were all executed. That’s not giving the game away. It is obvious that they were going to be punished, but we have got to keep it exciting.”

Performances are in The Guildhall, Priory Park, Chichester, on Wednesday, September 26 and Thursday September, 27 at 7.30pm and Saturday September 29 September and 3pm and 7.30pm. Tickets: £12. There will also also be performances at the Weald & Downland Living Museum, Singleton PO18 0EU on Saturday, October 6 at 3pm and 7pm and Sunday, October 7, 3pm Tickets: £12. Booking for Priory Park through the Novium; for the Weald & Downland at the museum.