SMUGGLING has been something of a tradition in Sussex.

In the 1700s gangs were rife across the county and sometimes whole villages took part in plundering.

They even enjoyed some popularity, providing well-paid, reliable work.

With no established police force and the Coastguard weak as a kitten, smugglers enjoyed a bountiful period on Sussex’s shores.

No gang was more infamous than the Hawkhurst Gang.

Named after their home village on the Kent-Sussex border, they would often sit in The Mermaid Inn in Rye with loaded weapons on the table.

From 1740 they operated freely across the county, preying on customs officials transporting seized goods.

On one occasion in 1744, they unloaded contraband from three ships docked in Pevensey on to 500 pack horses, the authorities powerless or simply too afraid to stop them.

Many had reason to fear the Hawkhurst Gang.

The Argus: The gang often frequented the Mermaid Inn. Photo: Richard RogersonThe gang often frequented the Mermaid Inn. Photo: Richard Rogerson

In 1748 the body of Richard Hawkins, a farm worker in the village of Walberton near Littlehampton, was recovered from a lake in Parham Park near Storrington.

He had been interrogated and beaten to death by the gang after they accused him of stealing two bags of their tea.

But in 1747, the gang bit off more than they could chew with a venture that finally forced the government to take action.

They were tipped off that a Customs service ship had captured a smuggling vessel carrying £500 of cargo – about £115,000 in today’s money.

The booty had been stored at a poorly guarded Customs house in Poole, Dorset. So on October 7 the gang, led by Thomas “Staymaker” Kingsmill, met in Charlton Forest near Chichester and began their long ride to the bounty.

A local gang which partnered with the Hawkhursts was spooked by the sight of a Royal Navy gunboat in the harbour and pulled out, but the Sussex smugglers decided to continue. It ended up being an easy trip.

The Argus: The Poole heist went off without a hitch. Photo: Gary RadfordThe Poole heist went off without a hitch. Photo: Gary Radford

At 2am they broke in and made off with more than 1,500kg of tea. The heist went off without a hitch. It was all too much for the Government, who soon offered a large reward of £500 to whoever could catch the smugglers. For months the gang evaded capture, but eventually the thread began to unravel.

Daniel Chater, a shoemaker in the Hampshire village of Fordingbridge, had recognised one of the smugglers named John Diamond, who had been arrested in Chichester.

The Customs service called him as a witness and asked him to travel to East Marden near Chichester to testify, along with a revenue officer called William Galley.

The duo got lost and stopped at the White Hart Inn near the Hampshire-Sussex border. Unfortunately for them, it was a smugglers’ pub.

Two gang members, William Jackson and William Carter, drank with the witnesses until they fell asleep. When the smugglers found court documents in their clothes, the torture began.

Marching them towards Rake village near Chichester, they whipped them until they could not move before tying them to their horses. When Mr Galley fell, the smugglers believed he had broken his neck and decided to bury him.

The Argus: Poor William Galley was buried 'before he was quite dead'Poor William Galley was buried 'before he was quite dead'

When the old man’s body was eventually uncovered, his hands were clasped over his face, leading officials to believe he had been buried alive.

Mr Chater was chained to a shed in the nearby village of Trotton for several days. The smugglers then resolved to throw him down a well and drop stones on him.

The cruel murders sparked outrage and the dominoes began to fall. In 1748 the London Gazette issued a list of men wanted for the Poole heist.

At least 75 members of the gang were either hanged or transported to a prison colony. Another 14 were hanged in chains, their bodies displayed.

Most notoriously, in January 1748 seven smugglers were put on trial in Chichester. They included Jackson and Carter, the men who had so cruelly tortured Mr Galley and Mr Chater. All seven were sentenced to hanging.

The next year, a stone was erected in Broyle Road, Chichester, “as a memorial to posterity and a warning to this and succeeding generations”.