EASTBOURNE NOSTALGIA: Tales of murders, smugglers ... and the headless horseman

The Star Inn at Normans Bay in days gone by ... it was the scene of a long-forgotten battle between smugglers and blockade men
The Star Inn at Normans Bay in days gone by ... it was the scene of a long-forgotten battle between smugglers and blockade men

Gangs, stabbings and pitched battles with the law enforcers and a ghostly headless horseman. No, its not Sleepy Hollow but everyday reality on the Pevensey Levels at the start of the 19th Century, especially if you crossed the path of the Little Common Smugglers Gang, a ruthless crew led by George Gilham, writes Robert Stevens.

This was a vicious group of smugglers which ran two ships, the Long Boat and the Princess Charlotte from Normans Bay.

These men were dangerous, violent criminals. They had already murdered a blockade man, William Welch.

He had been bribed to ignore a boat landing, but turned up with a party to try to seize the ship and men and for his trouble was beaten and drowned and his body left to wash up on a Bexhill beach.

The next time you pass by the Star Inn, remember in 1822 it was the site of a long forgotten battle between the smugglers and the blockade men.

The smugglers were waiting for the Princess Charlotte to land loaded with illicit cargo, when their group outside the pub was ambushed by a number of armed revenue men.

There was a pitched battle between the two - knives and wooden bats. Shots rang out and one smuggler fell dead as a musket ball made its mark.

The ship never landed and no-one either found out who the mysterious lady in a coach with six horses was who galloped off as the battle began.

It’s hardly a surprise on dark misty nights on the marsh you are supposed to be able to hear the canter of a horse’s feet and if you wait long enough he will gallop across the road, a ghostly horse and a long dead rider without a head.

A story invented by the smugglers to stop the unwary trying to find out what they were up to? Perhaps the smugglers were more brazen than inventing ghost stories.

At nearby Pevensey, the eastern end of the Chancel of St Nicolas Church was divided off and according to tradition was the depository of smuggled goods safely stashed away from prying eyes.

Meanwhile just down the road in Westham, a vicar of St Mary’s was busy working one night alone in the church when he was disturbed by an unholy racket of hammering on the doors.

He raced down the aisle to see the heavy doors moving under the pounding fist trying to get in.

Grabbing the lock the noise vanished, he carefully edged the door open and peered round – it was just a still night, not a noise.

Who was the mysterious caller?

Some suggest it might have been a ghostly smuggler seeing if the coast was clear, or maybe someone was trying to warn the blockade men sitting in a service centuries ago danger was approaching.

Smuggling was definitely not done by the romantic anti-heroes of popular fiction.

These were hardened and brutal criminals who as well as supplying tobacco and barrels of gin and brandy, may well have left spirits of an altogether different kind.

Remember that when you cross the marshes at night and hear a horse cantering down the road behind you.

• For more information on ghost walks in Sussex, visit the website at www.sussexguidedwalks.co.uk

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