On Friday, July 14, the Lynn News reported on a ‘sea fun day’ held at True’s Yard Museum, at which tales were told of smugglers and scallywags.
No doubt the newly created ‘Time and Tide’ area in the Esplanade Gardens at Hunstanton will soon be hosting similar events.
On Monday, July 17, comedian Bill Bailey discovered that smuggling in north Norfolk was really no laughing matter.
Bill met me at the grave of a young soldier who was murdered by smugglers in the early hours of September 26 1784.
William Webb had joined the Light Dragoons at Colchester when he was 18, no doubt imagining he might be called upon to fight for his country in some foreign land.
Instead, most of his service was spent helping Customs and Excise officers disrupt the activities of well organised and ruthless smuggling gangs in England.
He was killed when his party was ambushed by members of a smuggling gang led by the notorious William Kemball, who was attempting to recover contraband seized just hours before by Excise men.
The ambush failed, but not before Webb had been hit by four musket balls and died almost instantly.
William Green, a Customs officer and former soldier, was shot once in the abdomen, and died the following day with his wife and five children at his bedside.
These tragic events took place in Old Hunstanton, but the aftermath confirms that support for smuggling was widespread in those days, fuelled by fierce opposition to excise duty.
Kemball and another smuggler called Gunton faced trial three times in different locations, but no jury would convict them for murdering Webb and Green.
Peter Bullard, a member of Kemball’s gang, was found guilty at Norwich Assizes in July 1785, not for murder or smuggling, but for the theft of a brown mare, valued at £5, from Martin Greenacre at Ingoldisthorpe.
Stealing was just one offence out of nearly two hundred for which death by public hanging was the penalty.
Bullard told those who came to witness his execution that Kemball had fired the first shot at the ambush and ordered the rest of his gang to fire, with threats against their own lives if they refused.
As a footnote Neil Holmes deserves credit for his excellent book, published in 2008 by Larks Press, entitled “The Lawless Coast” - Smuggling, Anarchy and Murder in North Norfolk in the 1780s.
This well researched and very readable paperback should be available from all good book shops and a copy is kept in the Heritage Centre archives.
One of Neil’s excellent illustrations on a tile in the ‘Time and Tide’ area would raise interest in this lawless period of our local history. Perhaps there are plans to include one on a tile or an interpretation board…