John Harvey and the Hadleigh Gang
John Harvey, possibly Hadleigh's most notorious felon, stood trial for smuggling on 22nd June 1747. He was one of the leaders of the Hadleigh Gang and the owner of Pond Hall and a father of 4 sons and 2 daughters. Two witnesses had come forward and placed at the scene of one of the Gang's smuggling ventures; armed and dangerous.
On 30th June 1746, Harvey and around 80 people, some armed with guns, were involved in hiding 50 hundredweight of tea at Theberton on the Suffolk coast. Some years later it was reported that smuggled goods were hidden in the church, beneath the alter cloth.
The actual account of his trial places him at Sheverton, possibly near Eyke, rather than Theberton. One of the witnesses claimed that Harvey's share of the spoils was half a hundred and also some brandy.
Harvey's gang of around 50 to 60 men had teamed up with the Waite's Gang and they had been involved in an audacious daylight smuggling expedition which started at 7am and took up to 7 hours. With England at war with France and Spain, the Revenue men's cutters were being used to service the Fleet rather than to defend the East Coast from smugglers.
Harvey was well-known, his name was mentioned in the London Gazette as a known smuggler and he was ordered to surrender or face deportation. He was found guilty and sentenced to 7 year's transportation. He may have avoided the hangman's noose because of a technicality as he claimed that notices advertising a reward of £500 and requesting he surrender himself were not widely distributed.
In his absence, the Gang were as audacious as ever and the following year they raided the King's warehouse in Ipswich and stole their own goods back.
John Harvey returned and was back in business by 1755. Though it is reported that he paid a hatful of gold for his smuggling activities in that year.
Smuggling was an attractive proposition for many. "A member of Parliament observed that a young fellow in the country could not earn more than eighteen pence a day from a farmer but he could get a guinea a day while working for a smuggler; and be 'well entertained' too." (Jones)
The Hadleigh Gang's notoriety comes from an occasion in 1735, when they were involved in smuggling tea through the Sizewell Gap, some 40 miles from their base. They moved it inland and had begun the distribution process. Some of it was stored at a small house in Semer.
An informer alerted Customs Officers and together with a group of soldiers, they raided the house. The goods were stored at the George Inn in Hadleigh overnight, with an armed guard. The convoy was ambushed the next morning as it left the town and a dragoon was shot and killed. Others were wounded and three horses killed.
The smugglers rode off with the contraband. However, by this stage the gang members were well-known to the authorities. They had the names of 17 of the 20 men involved and two were arrested. John Willson and John Biggs were found guilty and hanged at the scene of their crime. This may have been on Gallows Hill.
In April 1745, the Hadleigh Gang worked with other armed gangs from Yarmouth and Norwich to land huge quantities of goods at Sizewell. They were also involved in landings at Kessingland, Felixbury (November 23rd) and Benacre (17th September 1745). Some of the landings took place in daylight.
In fact there are accounts of their involvement in smuggling escapades on May 20th and 27th, June 11th, July 2nd and 12th and November 10th. On each occasion there were between 40 and 120 horses present. There are even reports of 300 horses and 100 carts on Sizewell Beach.
The organisation required to carry out these operations is breathtaking. As well as liasing with other gangs around the region, communicating with the continent, arranging for distribution and warehouse, the goods would still have to be marketed to the public.
The Hadleigh Gang specialised in dry goods and whilst some of it went to London, Norwich was also an important outlet. They were known to use two cutters; Colby's (Cobby's) and Johnson's, to transport the goods.
Legend has it that there links between the attics and cellars of many houses on the High Street and that this network was used in 1748 when 30 members of the Gang stole 60 bags of tea from the customs house at Colchester and evaded their pursuers.
It is estimated that approximately 4/5ths of the tea drunk in England at the time had paid no duty. In 1784 William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending the smuggling trade.
However, the Gang was still operating in May 1784 when on it was recorded that they attempted to move 57 casks of brandy and gin across to Kettleborough. The Gang was spotted and contraband was ceased. However, the Gang ambushed the Customs Officers and a skirmish took place. The fight lasted over an hour and eventually the Gang slunk away having suffered many injuries.
"Such was the attraction of cut-price liquor and fancy goods, as well as a hundred and one items in daily use, that by the 18th century smuggling had become a very profitable, highly-organised business. Many gang leaders lived on the Continent so that they could deal direct with their regular suppliers. The goods were taken to certain Continental ports where they were loaded aboard ships specially built at those ports for the purpose. Large sums were invested in these trips and the goods were landed on the English coast in quantities under armed guard; these men, sharing in the profits, would fiercely resist any attempt to seize the contraband or capture the smuggles." (Jarvis)
Smuggling in East Anglia 1700-1840 - Stan Jarvis
Smugglers of the Suffolk Coast - Leonard P. Thompson