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The Inside Story of Britain's Most Evil Gangsters
By Christopher Berry-Dee
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 Christopher Berry-Dee
All rights reserved.
Early British Gangs
'I am the porter that was barbarously slain in Fleet Street ... by the Mohocks and Hawkubites was I slain, then they laid violent hands upon me. They put their hook into my mouth, they divided my nostrils asunder, they sent me, as they thought, to my long home, but now I am returned again to foretell their destruction.'
REVEREND DIVINE IN THE PAMPHLET CALLED THE SPIRIT (C1715)
Gangs have been a fairly consistent feature of the urban landscape of Britain. In the 17th century, British gangs routinely vandalised urban areas, were territorial, and were involved in violent conflict with other gangs. From time immemorial, wherever there have been large populations of people, there have always been groups of ill-doers who prey on the law-abiding and innocent. In the memorable words of historian Christopher Hill: 'The 17th century lived in terror of the tramp.'
The Mohocks was such a gang that brought mayhem to the streets and alleyways of London during the early 18th century. Taking their name from the Mohawk native American Indian tribe, they attacked men and women, disfiguring their male victims and sexually assaulting the females.
The Mohawks (originally meaning 'man-eaters') were the native people of New York, but how a bunch of British thugs adopted their name in the 18th century is anyone's guess. Today, the Mohawk, or Mohican, is a hairstyle which consists of shaving either side of one's head, leaving a strip of long hair down the middle.
The gang was also known as the 'young bloods', which was later shortened to 'bloods'. This name is possibly the origin of the British sense of the adjective 'bloody', which was not considered particularly impolite until that time. However, while they entertained themselves by cutting off noses, hands and inflicting all manner of pain and suffering on others, they were claimed by many to be 'young gentlemen' because they didn't rob anyone. Matters came to a head in 1712, when a bounty of £100 –a huge sum in those days – was issued by the Royal Court for their capture.
On the Monday, 6 June 1712, Sir Mark Cole and three other gentlemen were tried at the Old Bailey for riot, assault and beating the watch (the forerunners of our police force). A paper of the day asserted that these were 'Mohocks', that they had attacked the watch in Devereux Street, slit two persons' noses, cut a woman in the arm with a penknife so as to disable her for life, rolled a woman in a tub down Snow Hill, misused other women in a barbarous manner by setting them on their heads, and overset several coaches and chairs with short clubs, loaded with lead at both ends, expressly made for the purpose.
In their defence, the prisoners denied that they were Mohocks, alleging that they were 'Scourers' and had gone out, with a magistrate's sanction, to scour the streets, arrest Mohocks and other offenders, and deliver them up to justice. On the night in question, they had attacked a notorious gambling-house, and taken 13 men out of it. While engaged in this meritorious activity, they learned that the Mohocks were in Devereux Street, and on proceeding there found three men desperately wounded, lying on the ground; they were then attacked by the watch, and felt bound to defend themselves. As an instance of the gross misconduct of the watch, it was further alleged that they, the watch, had on the same night actually presumed to arrest a peer of the realm, Lord Hitchinbroke, and had latterly adopted the practice of doing their rounds by night accompanied by savage dogs. The jury, however, in spite of this defence, returned a verdict of guilty. The judge fined the culprits the sum of three shillings and fourpence each.
Among other gangs – notably the Muns, the Tityré Tus, the Hectors, the Scourers and the Nickers – were the Hawkubites, who actually preceeded the Mohocks by several years, beating up women, children, watchmen and old men in London's streets after dark during the reign of Queen Anne. Reverend Divine's pamphlet of around 1715 clearly expresses the threat from such a gang:
'From Mohock and from Hawkubite,
Good Lord, deliver me!
Who wander through the streets at night,
They slash our sons with bloody knives,
And on our daughters fall;
And if they murder not our wives,
We have good luck withal.
Coaches and chairs they overturn,
Nay, carts most easily;
Therefore from Gog and Magog,
Good Lord, deliver me!'
Kent has always proved to be a fertile breeding ground for gangsters, and was the home of a notorious gang who started out as soldiers, having returned home penniless after the Napoleonic Wars. They started smuggling around 1817, and perhaps well before that date. The route was across the English Channel between Boulogne and the beach at Sandgate. Similar landings were at Deal and St Margaret's Bay, north of Dover.
Known as The Aldington Gang, they roamed the Romney Marshes, and their headquarters and drop-off for their contraband was The Walnut Tree Inn, which still stands today.
Built during the reign of Richard II (1377–99), the inn started life as no more than a timber-framed, wattle-and-daub hut with a thatched roof. In the mid-15th century, a small bedroom was added at a higher level – reached by ladder – and, by the turn of the 16th century, a number of improvements had been carried out and the main dwelling was enlarged. Ale was brewed there in the 17th century and a licence to sell ales and ciders was granted. High up on the southern side of the pub is a small window, through which the gang would shine a signal to their confederates on Aldington Knoll. The ghost of George Ransley, a bygone smuggler, is reputed to haunt the inn and many strange happenings have been reported.
The Aldington Gang was probably the last major gang to have existed in Kent. It is believed that they were also known as The Blues on account of the colour of the clothing they wore and the blue flares used for signalling.
In February 1821, 250 highly organised men took part in unloading a galley laden with spirits, tobacco and salt. Three groups of smugglers had gathered; one to unload and transport the cargo, and two groups of 'batmen'. Batmen stood guard when a run was taking place to fight off anyone who tried to interfere, and they drew their name from the long clubs, or bats, they carried. They were spotted by a few local blockade men, as the main blockade force of Customs & Excise had been lured away by the smugglers.
The incident became known as the 'Battle of Brookland'. It took place between Camber and Dungeness where the smuggling party was spotted by the Watch House at Camber and a fight took place over Walland Marsh. Although the gang were successful in unloading the goods, they were harried right across the marshes until they reached Brookland, where the smugglers turned and fought back. It was a bloody business. Five men were killed in the fighting, twenty or so more were wounded. In the confusion of the battle, the gang's leader, Cephas Quested, turned to a man close by, handed him a musket and ordered him to 'blow an officer's brains out'.
Unfortunately for Quested, who was out of his mind on drink, he handed the weapon to a Customs & Excise midshipman who immediately turned the gun on Quested and arrested him. After being sentenced, Quested was taken to Newgate and hanged for his activities on Wednesday, 4 July 1821.
Another leader of this gang was a George Ransley. Ransley was certainly known for his organisational abilities, and some say he was a giant of a man, standing well over 6ft in his socks. Others argue that he was hardly more than 5ft. Some say he was a likeable rogue; others lived in absolute fear of him. No one will ever really know the truth, but there was no doubt that he could be as ruthless as he needed to be to achieve his ends.
Ransley was born in 1792 at Ruckinge, a small village founded in Saxon times, which lies on the northern edge of Romney Marsh. He started work as a ploughman, then a carter, all admirable work when he wasn't servicing his wife, Elizabeth, which was pretty frequently by all accounts. They had ten children. However, the Ransleys were not quite the law-abiding citizens they claimed to be. The local churchyard contains a simple grave to mark the last resting place of two of George's brothers, convicted of highway robbery in 1800. They were hanged from a gibbet on nearby Penenden Heath.
For his part in the scheme of things, the story goes that George found a stash of spirits hidden by smugglers and, with the proceeds of the sale, bought his house The Bourne Tap from where he frequently sold the spirits he later landed. Another place frequented by the gang at this time was an Augustine priory in Bilsington – still standing today – which was actually used as a store house.
Ransley took over the gang of smugglers after the Battle of Brookland. He employed a doctor, with an allowance paid to a man's family if he was ill. It was a policy that avoided the capture of injured men by the Revenue's forces and helped to ensure loyalty.
The success of smuggling, or any gang-related business, is dependent upon the good will of the local people, and the gang started to lose this special relationship as they extended their ruthless activities beyond that of the publicly acceptable crime of smuggling and turned on rural communities. In fact, several of the gang became burglars, and this, in turn, drew the attention of the Bow Street Runners – the nearest thing to a police force at the time.
In July 1826, the gang was caught on the beach at Dover and a midshipman, Richard Morgan, who was a quartermaster with the blockade, was killed. He was much liked in Dover, and he had spotted the gang trying to run the cargo ashore. After firing a warning shot, the gang turned on him, resulting in his death and the wounding of a seaman who was with him.
The shooting shocked the local community. It was a foolish act which brought about the downfall of George Ransley. A reward was offered for information and several people eventually claimed a part of it.
In October 1826, Ransley and seven others were arrested at Aldington by the Bow Street Runners on suspicion of murder but, as the killing took place in the dark, there were no positive eyewitnesses as to who had squeezed the trigger. Eventually, a total of 19 men were captured and stood trial at Maidstone Assizes in January 1827. They were all found guilty of charges that carried the death penalty, but their lawyer, described as a 'local gentleman from Maidstone', managed to get their sentences commuted to transportation. George Ransley was shipped out to Tasmania, where his knowledge of farming stood him in good stead. As a reward for good behaviour, his wife and ten children were allowed to sail out and join him. After being granted a pardon, he started farming 500 acres at River Plenty, Hobart. At the then ripe old age of 77, he passed away at New Norfolk on 25 October 1856. His wife, Elizabeth, survived him by just a few years, dying aged 76. A fascinating insight into this former smuggler's family tree can be found at: http://sharjarv.tripod.com/gedfiles/gen01344.html.
There is always an edge of romanticism attached to tales of smuggling gangs from days of yore and, although an extremely brutal gang with a brutal reputation to match, the Aldington Gang were not, it is claimed, without a sense of humour. One Revenue officer who was blindfolded and had his legs bound was told he was to be thrown over a cliff. He managed to cling on to tufts of grass as he fell and hung with his legs dangling in the air for some time. It was not until his blindfold slipped that he realised that his feet were a matter of inches above the ground. The 'cliff' was only 7ft high! And there is a story that, as a result of a fight between gang members one night, one of the gang was murdered and the body disposed of down a well at the side of an inn. It is said on some nights the sounds of scuffling and a body being dragged outside can still be heard – but maybe that's just the drink talking.
* * *
The Nottingham suburb of Bestwood conjures up a potpourri of images – the medieval history of Bestwood Park, the industrial history of the quaintly named Papplewick Pumping Station, the ancient colliery, as well as the sometimes troubled housing estate at Bestwood.
And Bestwood has a real story to tell. Its principal characters include Charles II and his somewhat empty-headed actress lover, Nell Gwynne; the founder of the Raleigh cycle company, Sir Frank Bowden; and richly embroidered CV of borough engineer, the splendidly named Marriott Ogle Tarbotton, whose remarkable achievements include building Nottingham's aforesaid Papplewick Pumping Station.
Ogle stands out as a man who laboured day and night with fevered enthusiasm on the tricky subject of the disposal of human waste, to the extent that he designed and built the city's first sewerage system. It was a matter that so consumed him that he passed away, exhausted, aged 52, within weeks of its completion.
And who could forget, of course, our legendary Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Supposed residents of nearby Sherwood Forest, they allegedly stole from the rich to give to the poor, yet Mr Hood and his band of followers turned out not quite to be what the myth would have us believe – they were true rascals indeed!
Despite the world renown of Nottinghamshire's most idolised gang leader, one cannot find a single reference to Robin Hood – a.k.a. Robin of Loxley – in any criminal records, past or present. We don't know where he was born or where he is buried, suggesting that he may never have been born at all. We don't know what he looked like – tall, short, fat or thin – the colour of his eyes, his hair, or whether he was straight or gay. Hollywood would have us believe that he wore a daringly short, rather close-fitting waisted Lincoln green jacket and skin-tight tights, as well as a rakish cap, sporting a 2-metre ostrich plume tucked into the headband, and footwear that any self-respecting Shakespearian actor would die for – dun-coloured suede booties, or thigh-high, black leather boots.
In consequence, there remains an enormous amount that we can't verify about Mr Hood. We don't know how many people he robbed, nor how many people he and his band of followers killed. We don't even know his real name. His life, according to many notable authorities, bore a striking similarity to accounts of the life of one Fulk FitzWarin, a Norman nobleman who was disinherited and became an outlaw and an enemy of the tight-fisted King John of England, who argued with the Pope, disputed with his own barons, and died from dysentery, most likely brought upon from a surfeit of poisoned ale, peaches and plums.
In the oldest of legends, Robin's enemy, due to his role as a bandit, was the Sheriff of Nottingham. But in later versions (if any one of them are based on a shred of fact) the sheriff is despotic and gravely abuses his position, appropriating land, levying excessive taxation, and persecuting the poor – not unlike some senior local government officials today.
In some versions, Robin is a yeoman. In later versions, he is described as the nobleman, Earl of Loxley, who, like the venerable Fulk above, was unjustly deprived of his lands.
In other stories, Robin had served in the Crusades – although no one has defined precisely, somewhat conveniently, which specific Crusade this was – and, upon returning to England, he discovered that everything he owned had been pillaged by the dastardly sheriff.
If this was the case, it's not hard to see that Robin might be excused his dastardly conduct – he'd given up his day job, borrowed a substantial amount of money to buy a first-rate steed, floated across the English Channel in nothing short of a large coffin, and ridden 1,000 miles deep into the Byzantine Empire to fight a war that for centuries seemed to have no beginning and, at that time, no foreseeable end. Exhausted, Robin would have ridden all the way back to France, re-negotiated the dangerous English Channel to Dover, then dragged his emaciated horse 251 miles north to his Nottingham wattle-walled cottage. Upon his arrival, he would have found his home empty, having been pillaged by pals of the local sheriff.
Excerpted from Gangland UK by Christopher Berry-Dee. Copyright © 2008 Christopher Berry-Dee. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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