KEVIN GORDON - Constant sea battles with smugglers during 1700s

Ships do battle off the Cuckmere coast
Ships do battle off the Cuckmere coast

Last week I paid a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The museum has much to offer and was very quiet at this time of the year.

One painting caught my eye, it shows an engagement between a smuggling ship and a government brig.

The artist of this seascape was Thomas Butterworth and it was painted in the late 1700s. The text under the painting identifies the location of the view as ‘Beachy Head’ Sussex but I don’t think it is correct – to me the action is taking place at Cuckmere Haven with the first of the Seven Sisters rising on the right and the lights of the Cuckmere Coastguard Station just visible on the left.

Cuckmere Haven and Seaford Bay were the scene of many encounters between customs officers and smugglers.

On July 1, 1784, there was a three-hour battle in the area when a government ship ‘The Flirt’ exchanged fire with a smuggling ship ‘The British Lion’. The Flirt fired over 400 shots at the smugglers who fired back using nails, bolts and horseshoes in order to rip through the sails of the customs ship.

I wonder if this is the action depicted in the painting? It is quite clear that the two ships are firing at each other.

Bloody skirmishes between the smugglers and government men were not unusual and could be fatal to both sides.

On January 24, 1833, a pitched battle between excisemen and over 400 smugglers took place after a smuggling boat landed on the beach at Holywell in Eastbourne at 2am. A government man, George Pett, was killed and three others seriously injured.

One officer reported that he had been shot at about 20 times and had heard one smuggler shout “Follow them up – murder them!” Pett was the Chief-Boatman at the Eastbourne Coastguard Station and was buried at Eastbourne Church in the presence of over 100 coast-guardsmen.

All that was recovered was the boat and four barrels of spirit. On February 8, a £1,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of the culprit with a free-pardon being offered to anyone but the murderer. It was never claimed.

Later that year on November 18, a vigilant coastguard stationed at one of the Martello Towers at Pevensey witnessed a smugglers boat come ashore at 4am.

He discharged his gun in order to wake his colleagues and then witnessed dozens of men rush to the shore in order to unload the ship (it was laden with spirits and tea). The scene was protected by armed ‘minders’ who kept up a constant barrage of gunfire. Having emptied the ship, the gang of smugglers proceeded inland with their contraband pursued by the Coast Guard. On more than one occasion the groups exchanged gunfire as the fight moved inland, the running battle lasting for over two hours.

By the morning three armed smugglers had died and 68 tubs (barrels) of spirits, a large amount of tea and five smugglers had been captured. On December 17, four men (one man had died in custody) were found guilty at Lewes Assizes. They were James Page, William Chatfield, William Marchant and Charles Sands. The charge was that they, “with firearms unlawfully and feloniously aided and assisted in carrying away certain goods liable to duties which had not been paid”. They were sentenced to transportation for life.

Unfortunately although I try to be a serious historian, I cannot think of smugglers and pirates without the image of Captain Pugwash and his arch enemy Cut-Throat Jake appearing in my minds eye.

Not many people realise that the bumbling but kind-hearted Captain was from Sussex! His creator John Ryan was from Rye and you can see images of Pugwash at the splendid Ypres Tower Museum in the Town. Ryan’s animation captured the hearts and imagination of children in the 1960s. He died in Sussex just five years ago but his creations will be remembered for many years.