Thomas Maynard - Sussex Smuggler

One dark night early in the 1820s, a local smuggler named Maynard was attempting to land 24 tubs of spirits at Pevensey Bay, close to Martello Tower 59. There was a boat with contraband, a little out to sea; there was a company of ‘tubmen’ waiting near the shore. On the beach, beside the Martello stood a sentinel appointed by the Coast Blockade.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the government was determined to control the Sussex coast, and had at its disposal some useful wartime surplus: this included warships and men as well as a chain of Martello Towers. The Coast Blockade was instituted in 1817, deploying shore-based sentinels controlled from a Royal Navy vessel in the Channel.  Sentinels from the Coastal Blockade were moved around, often at short notice, to prevent them colluding with the smugglers. Men were accepted for this work on condition that they had no relatives in the local area.

The Sussex smugglers were highly motivated and sometimes desperate: the end of the war brought an agricultural depression, and smuggling could be very profitable. They devised ingenious methods of bringing their goods ashore and were happy to employ violence. There were pitched battles between customs men and smugglers. Smuggling had long been a common activity, and the smugglers had deep roots in the local community. They had a strong sense of tribal loyalty: after a pitched battle, they would not abandon the wounded.

That dark night on Pevensey beach, Maynard approached the sentinel, and offered him a five-pound note.  The sentinel - who was in fact an officer, and less open to corruption  - pretended to take the bribe. Maynard struck some sparks from his flint. At this signal, the  boat came in to the shore, and the company of smugglers swarmed down to the beach. Each of the tubmen lifted a pair of tubs. But at this point the officer pulled out a hidden pistol and fired it close to Maynard’s head, then pulled out a sword. Most the smugglers ran, but the officer and one of his assistants overpowered Maynard and another of the gang. The two smugglers were arrested and were due to be tried the next day. (The 'five-pound note', incidentally, was worthless.)The next morning, Maynard was in court in Pevensey.

Justice was still in the hands of the old Pevensey Corporation and its magistrates, known as Jurats.  They were typically local men with mud on their boots and little interest in national laws. Two of them - a blacksmith and a grazier – presided at Maynard's hearing. Neither of these – according to a senior Blockademan – “seemed quite able to read the Act Parliament, far less to comprehend how it could be possible to send a man on board ship for five years, merely for smuggling a few tubs at Christmas time.” The Jurats  were horrified to see that the accused was Maynard, a man they knew well. They were prepared to find him not guilty.

The Blockade officers responded by finding their own magistrate, a Mr Thomas of Ratton. He was a county magistrate and hence could override the Pevensey Jurats. He had no hesitation in finding Maynard guilty. (His son, Inigo Thomas was also an enthusiastic supporter of the law: he even joined the East-Bourn Prosecuting Society, a voluntary group dedicated to punishing disorder among agricultural labourers.)

Maynard was locked up. But in those days Pevensey gaol was a “mere rickety shed”. We are told that when the Jurats locked up a serious criminal – someone who stole one of their sheep, for example – they appointed special constables to guard the gaol. In the case of smuggling, they might be less vigilant. Maynard was not long in the gaol before one of his friends passed a saw in through the bars.  The smuggler was later spotted– on the same day – dancing at a fair in Hooe.  He was, however, surrounded by his supporters and no arrest could be made.

A Coast Blockade officer, who recalled the smuggler as being ‘Joe’ Maynard, wrote a memoir about these events in the late 1830s. There is no other record of a ‘Joe’ Maynard, and the story most likely refers to Thomas Maynard from  Ninfield, a wheelwright or jobbing carpenter. He definitely was found guilty at Pevensey of “smuggling activity” on  April 21st 1821. The authorities immediately locked him in Pevensey gaol, but he  escaped very quickly, and a reward was offered for his recapture.  

Maynard had only been placed in the Pevensey gaol as a temporary measure, awaiting transport to the county court.  He was still on the run when the trial was due, and was given a sentence “by default” – three months in Horsham gaol for the crime of “bribing a Customs officer.”

Seven years later, in January 1828, the smugglers of the  Little Common Gang staged a pitched battle with the Customs men at the ‘battle of Sidley Green’, near Bexhill, where two men were killed. One of the dead was a customs man, whose brains were beaten out. The authorities were determined to catch the gang, offering a huge reward.

Eight of this gang were sent to the Spring Assizes in  Horsham, in the company of three men who had been accused of a ‘like offence’ at Eastbourne on 23rd January. One of these three was Thomas Maynard. The incidents in Eastbourne and Sidley Green had, presumably, common personnel or at least involved members of the same families. The senior figure at Sidley Green was a James Foord  - like Maynard, from Ninfield. The authorities clearly regarded the participants in the two affrays as part of a job-lot.

The offences this time were much more serious than bribing a customs man, and the prisoners were moved from Horsham for trial at the Old Bailey. The charge against Thomas Maynard was that he

and divers other evildisposed persons to the number of three and more (to wit) to the number of seventy, whose names are as yet unknown, heretofore (to wit) on the 23d day of January , at Eastbourne , in the County of Sussex.....being then and there armed with fire-arms and other ofensive weapons (to wit) with guns, blunderbusses, pistols, bludgeons, bats, clubs, staves, and hedgestakes, unlawfully and feloniously did assemble themselves, and were then and there unlawfully and feloniously assembled in order to be aiding and assisting in the illegal landing, running, and carrying away of certain uncustomed goods, and goods liable to pay certain duties of Customs, which had not then been paid or secured, that is to say, two hundred gallons of foreign brandy, and two hundred gallons of foreign Geneva ; against the Statute.

Maynard, Foord and the rest were all sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted; rather than being hanged, they were deported to Australia. On 19th August 1829, Maynard was one of 179 convicts on board the Claudine, headed for New South Wales. On the way out, we know, Maynard had to be treated for rheumatism. We also know that he was still alive when he reached Australia.  What happened to him in Australia is a mystery.

References include United Services Magazine Vol 31, 1839, "Working of the Coast Blockade Service, with Anecdotes of Smuggling"; this is by an anonymous Ex-Blockademan, and provides us with the story of "Joe" Maynard's arrest.

See also and a rootsweb discussion of sidley green here.

Picture from The Battle and Breeze, George Vickers 1864

A  J Starr




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