The Hawkhurst Gang’s last stand…

The team from Corker Outdoor, Award sponsor Jason Varney (Thomson, Snell & Passmore) & Eamonn Holmes

Blacktooth, Nasty Face, Staymaker, Pain, Poison, Shepherd, Red Mist, Trip, The Kentish Giant – characters out of a Disney Production or a kid’s comic perhaps?

These were in fact aliases of 18th century smugglers who for sure would have given small children nightmares at that time! Especially those that lived in Goudhurst almost 300 years ago…

The Hawkhurst Gang’s exploits became legendary and were virtually unchallenged for almost 15 years from around 1735. They became established as one of the more infamous Gangs of Smugglers through the South.

“They feared neither Customs Officers nor Soldiery, they respected neither God nor Man, and into the course of attaining their aims they stopped at no atrocity nor brooked any interference from anyone”, so it was written at the time.

The Smuggling Gangs of the 18th Century emerged from the preceding centuries of sufferance with severe customs duties being imposed on Imported Commodities to pay for a series of expensive wars.

Two key protagonists emerged at this time: Thomas Kingsmill and William Sturt who as young men played significant roles in shaping the social history of the South East in the mid-18th Century.

They were both natives of Goudhurst, a similar age, but chose very different career paths.

Thomas Kingsmill, born in 1720, became a prominent member of the Hawkhurst Gang who later became their leader.

William Sturt – born in 1717, his name is still recalled by local Historians as the Hero of Goudhurst, who stood up to Kingsmill and the Hawkhurst Gang by organising the Goudhurst Militia and defeated the Gang at the Battle of Goudhurst on the 20th April 1747.

In a beautiful tranquil spot in the glorious Weald of Kent you can discover Goudhurst with its church and churchyard which was the location of the ferocious pitched battle that took place on the 20th April 1747. It really is quite hard to imagine…

Thomas Kingsmill was now leader of The Hawkhurst Gang at just 27 years of age.

His arrogance and determination to prove to his fellow Gang members that he was worthy of the role became a real opportunity to now test himself as Captain. He threatened to ride into Goudhurst, kill the residents and burn the place down. He named the day: April 20. It was 1747 and that arrogance was going to be his downfall.

The day arrived and sure enough Kingsmill and the Gang galloped into sight of the Goudhurst Church, stripped to the waist, faces painted, head bands in place and armed to the teeth with carbines, pistols and swords. Their familiar battle cry piercing the springlike air.

Kingsmill left the main group and standing high in his stirrups made a blood thirsty speech – brandishing his sword, he then re-joined the Gang.

Sturt was well prepared. The women and children of the village had already been sent away as a precaution.

Sturt had trained his men well, trenches had already been dug, barricades erected, and manned snipers were stationed on the Church tower. They gathered as many firearms as possible and made up cartridges and cast many balls for muskets.

The Gang opened the attack, 50 horsemen dismounted and aimed their fire at the Church tower and windows. But the Militia fought back with volleys of musket fire from many directions, with long range weapons and being under cover proved to work the defeat of the Gang.

The gang quickly broke up and fled in all directions once they realised that they had completely underestimated the skill that Sturt had brought with him to defend Goudhurst.

When the smoke cleared – three of the smugglers were lying dead in the churchyard.

Things weren’t good for Kingsmill.

He knew he couldn’t return to Goudhurst, his Gang had been depleted, he had also lost his brother in the process.

It was in April 1749 that Kingsmill and his fellow smuggling friend Fairall were eventually found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging at the gallows in Tyburn.

After the hanging in front of a sizable crowd, their bodies were put into iron chains, then transported in plain wooden boxes back to Kent. At least 75 of the gang members were hanged or transported at that time and as many as 14 gibbets could be seen dotted across the Kent and Sussex skyline.

Kingsmill’s body was hoisted up into an iron Gibbet in Goudhurst and left to rot in full display for all to see as the black crows and magpies squabbled and squaked over the carcass. Fairall’s body was taken to Horsmonden and was also gibbeted.

So, next time you are in Goudhurst, reflect on this incredible period in our social history and wonder how William Sturt must have felt when looking up to the gibbet with Kingsmill’s rotting body on display, holding his young son’s hand, proudly knowing that he directly contributed to Kingsmill’s eventual downfall and put an end to the Hawkhurst Gang’s Reign of Terror!

If you are interested in hearing a studio production audio story about The Hawkhurst Gang and The Battle of Goudhurst please email




The gibbet was an iron cage into which the hung smugglers were placed wrapped in iron chains and left to rot. The gibbet with Kingsmill’s body was at Goudhurst Gore, still showing as a place name near Goudhurst and the gibbet holding William Fairhall was at Horsmonden, with Gibbet Lane still named.


  • Spyways is the name of a house in Goudhurst High Street, used by the smugglers as a look out post for Dragoons and Customs Officers and was also the village jail.


  • Smugley Farm exists in Goudhurst; Tubs Lake between Hawkhurst and Cranbrook was a staging post for contraband on its way to London.


  • Section of Goudhurst’s Oak Church Door from 1747 has been framed showing lead shot embedded in it from the Battle of Goudhurst.


  • You can still find musket balls in the earth close to the hedge rows around the playing field near the church – evidence of The Battle

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