Smugglers, Pirates and Scandals: Hidden Stories of Rye in East Sussex

Photographs: Darshit Nakrani

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again - and they'll be gone next day!

 - A Smuggler's Song by Rudyard Kipling

Walking through Rye’s cobblestone streets it is hard to imagine the world of smugglers and pirates that Kipling once found here. Gone are the days when locals were warned to shut their eyes, ears and doors. So are the sounds of pistols firing and slamming of glasses in pubs. What remains of this Sussex town are notorious tales that would evoke the wanderlust in you.

Rye in East Sussex: The Smuggling Capital of England

From a humble fishing village, Rye became one of the Cinque Ports along England’s South coast. By the 18th century, the town was notorious as the smuggling capital of England. The harbour and the nearby low-lying uninhabited Romney Marsh were hotbeds for gangs to operate unnoticed at night. Many of them were violent and had earned a reputation for killing anyone who took any interest in their affairs. When not going about their daily business, they would be found carousing and smoking pipes in local pubs, with loaded pistols on the table.

The Olde Bell on the Mint and nearby Mermaid Inn were a regular haunt for the infamous Hawkhurst Gang in the 1730s and 40s. Rumour has it that secret tunnels, used by them for smuggling goods to the port, still lurk beneath these historic buildings.

Pirates of Rye

It’s not just smugglers who left their mark on Rye. Pirates also made their presence known in the notorious town. Stories abound of fearsome buccaneers who terrorized unsuspecting ships and plundered their loot. Did they bury their ill-gotten gains somewhere in the town? Or like smuggling gangs, found ways to sell goods on Rye Harbour. Who knows! Maybe you’ll stumble upon a buried treasure map or looted antiques while exploring the town’s narrow alleyways.

The Mistaken Murder or A Scandal?

If Rye’s notoriety can be found in local pubs and harbour, those juicy bits of gossip that kept this small town buzzing with excitement can be uncovered in its streets. There are stories of ghosts haunting the Inns for revenge, or maybe one last glass of rum? However, none of them are as scandalous as “The Mistaken Murder.”   

On 17th March 1742, a banquet was organised for Mayor James Lamb, on board a ship docked at Rye Harbour. John Breads, a local butcher, who had sworn revenge on the mayor for fining him, found this a perfect occasion to settle the scores. He knew the route the mayor would take on his way home and waited in the darkness with a knife. However, the mayor was ill and had sent his brother-in-law, Allen Grebell with his official coat to attend the banquet. It was Grebell, who was stabbed in the darkness of the night. Heavily drunk, he staggered on his way home and was found dead the next morning by the fireplace in his living room. 

According to another version, the Hawkhurst Gang was involved in the murder. And the mayor had his brother-in-law murdered to cover up a scandal. Whether it was a mistaken murder or a coverup for scandal, many versions exist.

Modern-day Rye, Sussex

Visitors to modern-day Rye are greeted by a town where Seagulls and Pigeons have taken over the world of smugglers and pirates. Waves of tourists coming for a day trip from London crowd the town’s narrow cobbled streets, while the rivers themselves have shied away from the town’s past, leaving behind trails of memories. If you come to here with a list of things to do in Rye, you won’t experience, the town that Kipling saw, but rather a town where these fragments reveal themselves only if you decide to look for them.    

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