Whitstable Smugglers and the Burning Bush.

Smuggling did go on at Whitstable and is now looked back on as a romanticised part of our history. I’ve often been told by residents as I pass their homes with a group on a history walk that their house was once occupied by smugglers. The reality is that those in that ‘industry’ didn’t engage in heavy duty smuggling on their own door step, but further along the coast where the chances of being discovered were reduced. Along Island Wall where boats were often landed there was some smuggling of a low level, with spirits and perfume.

The Authorities were more interested in the Smuggling gangs that upped the ante on both sides of the law, who worked the coast at night and were more difficult to catch. The following is an account, passed down through the years of such a group working along the coast off Dog Lane (Now Joy Lane) and on to Seasalter.

The lights go down in the matchless cinema framed by nature and the picture seen by the inner eye is projected on the screen whose background is the narrow belt of dark woodland down on the foreshore of the whispering sea.

Mysterious figures flit to and fro on this magic screen, bold, daring, reckless men, some of the smugglers who lived and died well over a century ago. Smugglers from Reculver, Herne bay, and other places along the coast have come by sailing boat, but most of them hail from Whitstable and the near neighbourhood, and these have made the short journey from their homes on foot.

The spot where they assemble is a thickly wooded hollow, their usual meeting place, picturesquely named the Burning Bush, at the back of the old “Rose in Bloom” public house in Seasalter parish. At that time the land went much further out to sea than it does now and the Burning Bush was part of a wide stretch of tree and scrub-covered marsh known as Lily Bank.

The licensee of the old tavern was a man named Hunt. He was a very tall man and his wife, “Granny” Hunt to everyone who knew her, was a short, wiry, little woman. She lived to a ripe, old age, as also did her daughter, who remembered by many people, died about ten years ago in her 92nd year.

The smugglers who met at the Burning Bush to discuss plans for future operations were no doubt good customers at the “Rose and Bloom”, the walls of whose bar-rooms were pasted over with the current copies of the newspapers of the day, page by page, from which the news was read aloud by someone better educated than most those who made up his audience.

The old “Rose in Bloom” was a popular house of call, too popular for on a certain Sunday morning it was raided by police and preventative officers, and, everybody on the premises hauled off to jail and heavily fined by the justices before whom they were put on trial.

Where the public house was now stands the house, “Tree Tops”, part of which is out to use as a tea room by the proprietress, Mrs. W.M. Rice, who has many interesting relics of the past to show her visitors. The windows of one room are believed to have come from the old church at Seasalter. The fireplace of another room was made by iron used in the construction of the bridge over the Severn – the first iron bridge in the world. Both these rooms were part of the original “Rose in Bloom,” where deep cellars, filled with all kinds of liquor on which duty might, or might not have been paid, have long since been blocked up and rendered useless.

The smugglers who frequented the ancient tavern must have joined in singing a chorus which ran :- “Up at the ‘Rose in Bloom.’

They all got thick too soon,

They felt so queer they wanted beer,

For which they had to pay so dear

Up at the ‘Rose in Bloom.”

These “free traders” of the sea had a rough sense of humour. It was from their meeting place at the Burning Bush that an anonymous letter was once sent to a Whitstable preventative officer informing him that on a certain night smuggles would be running a big cargo of contraband across the flats to “Ye Old Sportsman”. On the night in question a strong force of preventative officers turned out to deal with the “rum runners” and uphold the majesty of the law. To reach the spot where they had been informed the contraband would be found they had to cross a dyke by a wooden bridge. It broke in half under their weight, for it had been sawn through in the middle, and they were precipitated into the deep, muddy stream. Drenched to the skin, they struggled out and pushed on to “Ye Old Sportsman,” And there, against the wall of the building, they found a row of spirit kegs waiting for them. But when opened the kegs disclosed no rich prize of liquor but only water! The battle of wits between the opposing forces was a never ending one. Smuggled goods, brought ashore on dark nights from the sailing craft engaged in the unlawful traffic, were safely hidden away pending their profitable disposal. It was the usual thing for the men on board a smuggling vessel to remain off-shore until they received the pre-arranged signal that the coast was clear and it was safe for them to land the cargo. The signal was generally a light flashed from some window, or rooftop. Projecting from under the roof of the “Two Brewers” public house, at the back of the premises, there is a rusty, old iron bar from which hung a lantern whose light often flashed a welcome message to smugglers out at sea – and in the thick wall of an upper room in the same building there is a cunningly contrived “hidey-hole” that was once used as a receptacle for contraband cargoes of spirits and cigars on which no duties were ever paid to the revenue commissioners. But such secret hiding places were common enough in the Whitstable of a hundred years ago.

It’s unlikely that I would ever have a picture to illustrate this as by its nature is extremely covert, but you can imagine one where the furtive figures move out from their hiding place to unload the goods from boats on the beach, then secreting the booty at selected places along the marshes, to be collected, “when the coast was clear.” It was a way of life for some and quite lucrative, but the penalties if caught were very severe. – More about that in a future article.