Commonwealth – Part One

In Hythe, the aftermath of the 1648 Kent rebellion was suspicion and mistrust.  The rebellion had flared into violence when the County Committee had tried to suppress a petition, signed by many, calling for the dismantling of the New Model Army and the reinstatement of the king. Now parliament was out to get anyone who had put their name to the petition, particularly if they were in any sort of public office. The Hythe jurats William Deedes, Laurence Weller and Austen Greenland and the town clerk, Thomas Curtis were all hauled before the Committee, suspected of involvement in insurrection, but were cleared and the Committee found the whole town to be blameless in the affair.

To add insult to injury, soldiers had been billeted in the town to fight the rebels under the command of Sir Michael Livesey, a ruthless parliamentarian soldier. Months later the victuallers who had put them up and fed them had still received no recompense and saw little hope of ever receiving it.

Sir Michael Livesey, Parliamentarian soldier and administrator
Sir Michael Livesey, Parliamentarian soldier and administrator

In 1653, the charges against the four jurats were revived. They appealed to their M.P., Tom Westrow, who put the Committee straight on the men’s allegiance to parliament.  This was more or less his last act for his constituents, as that year the Rump Parliament was dissolved. A new nominated assembly of one hundred and forty-four members took its place, named the Barebones parliament after a godly London leather seller, Praise-God Barebone, one of its members. Hythe was not represented on this assembly, but it did not last long, resigning its powers to Cromwell at the end of the year.

Cromwell was now Lord Protector. Despite the best efforts of the Rump to impose strict Puritan codes of behaviour on the country, Cromwell, believed that it was still in need of moral reform. He divided the country into twelve regions, each under the command of a Major-General. Their first duty of the Major-Generals was to maintain security by suppressing unlawful assemblies and disarming Royalist ‘malignants’.

Kent’s Major-General was Thomas Kelsey. Originally a London button-maker, he had risen to power through the New Model Army and had been Lieutenant of Dover Castle. The Major-Generals became the enforcers of righteousness and godliness. At the beginning of the civil war the Book of Sports had been burned and edicts were published to ensure that pleasure of any sort never again happened on a Sunday.  The edicts were re-issued with more vigour. ‘No persons shall hereafter exercise or keep maintain or be present at any wrestling, shooting, bowling, ringing of bells, masque, wake, feast, church-ale, dancing games, cock-fights, cock-running, horse races, bear baiting.’ Children under twelve heard cursing were to be publicly whipped. Convicted fornicators were to be sentenced to three months and adulterers were to be hanged.

Kent’s proximity to the continent and the exiled Charles II made it of particular interest to parliament and the Major-Generals. Time and again Hythe and the other Cinque ports were warned to look out for the comings and goings of ‘dangerous persons’ and to apprehend them. Kelsey also oversaw the administration of parliament’s Decimation Tax, designed to punish Royalist. One of these was Robert Spice of Old Romney, who also leased a house in Hythe.   No longer able to afford  live in Old Romney, he moved his family to Hythe to the appropriately named  Romney House, where they settled down. The house belonged to the corporation, but Spice, presumably broke, was not paying the rent.  Learning of this, the corporation dispatched the Chamberlain to take possession and to persuade Spice to pay up.  Even if they felt sorry for him, his was not a time when showing open compassion to Royalists was a sensible option.

In 1655, the same year that he appointed the Major-Generals, Cromwell, issued another proclamation prohibiting ‘Delinquents,’ that is anyone who had actively supported the king in any way, from holding office or having a vote in any election. In February of the following year, during one of Hythe corporation’s quarterly meetings, they were unexpectedly visited by Captain Laurence Knott of Sandgate Castle who, with several of his soldiers burst into the Common Hall, flourished this proclamation and proceeded to read it aloud.  He then insisted that despite having been cleared of any offence by the County Committee, most of the corporation were, in fact, Royalists who had signed the 1648 petition. They were therefore delinquents and should give up their places on the corporation. He refused to leave the building until they had done so.  John Grey, John Mercer, Laurence Weller and Ferdinando Bassett, the landlord of the ‘White Hart’ finally left, together with the town sergeant, John Browning.

Captain Knott was a Dover man, but did not let his local connections and sympathies get in the way of performing his duty to the Protector.  At the Restoration it was he who was imprisoned, in Dover Castle, not for his activities during the Commonwealth, but because of his dissenting religious views. Laurence Knott had become a Quaker.

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A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Four

Smugglers were not necessarily all from the normal criminal classes. In 1601 a Star Chamber case against Ambrose Warde, gentleman and later mayor of Hythe, revealed some details he would rather have kept private. The suit against him was brought by his brother-in-law, Lawrence Baker of New Romney who had married Hester, Warde’s sister. Baker, a man of small fortune and seemingly less sense, got his business and financial affairs inextricably muddled with those of Warde.  He borrowed three hundred pounds which he could not afford to repay, and when his creditors became unpleasant about it, insisted that the debt was his brother-in-law’s. Warde said it was not and Baker was thrown into gaol.  His wife and children apparently starving, Baker had to sell the silver buttons from his doublet to get them food. Warde (and this was his own family he was talking about) said that Baker could stay there ‘until the lice and mice ate him’ before he would pay a penny.

Baker then apparently mislaid whatever brains God had given him. He was persuaded to make over all his property, which should have gone to his son, John, to Warde, who said he would give him an allowance of twenty shillings a week. Warde immediately reneged on this. Baker wanted some recompense and in bringing his case to court he brought with him a host of character witnesses ready to dish the dirt on Warde.

In the first place, it was revealed that Warde was a murderer. He had stabbed to death a man called Philpott, but had acquired a royal pardon for ‘a great sum of money’. Furthermore, it was alleged that he was using his father’s position as Captain of nearby Sandgate Castle to facilitate an extensive smuggling operation. He used the barn at the castle to store ‘great quantities’ of wool, leather, tallow, corn, and most seriously munitions, which were shipped illegally overseas. He had beaten and severely injured one of the officers at the castle who threatened to betray him and threatened a fisherman, who became suspicious of his night-time activity, with the press gang.

Warde naturally denied this detailed allegation, and the fisherman who reported his activity and threats later unaccountably withdrew his statement. He had been mistaken, he said. No charges were brought.

The customs men were not above suspicion, either. In 1622 John Browning, the cousin of the Thomas Browning (gentleman, let it not be forgotten) whom we met earlier, was accused of offering to smuggle some wool to France for Simon Head of Alkham. He told Head that he could get him six shillings a quarter, which is what he had got when he smuggled and sold his own wool. Browning was, at the time, the Customs Searcher for Hythe. The matter came to light when a Biddenden man offered Head four shillings and tenpence a quarter, and Mrs Head told him that they had received a better offer from Browning.  When the matter was investigated, the usual wall of silence descended.  Mrs Head denied saying anything of the sort, and her husband backed her up.  Three witnesses to the conversation heard only the discussion about prices and nothing about Browning. The case was dropped.

When they did try to enforce the law, things could get nasty for the customs men. William Sneath was the Collector for Customs for Hythe in 1657, and one night, seeing a sloop approaching the shore at Shornecliffe (just along the coast eastward from Hythe), he suspected smuggling. It was not a usual landing place. He tried to seize the goods ‘for the Commonwealth’ but was set upon by the recipients, about twelve men armed with staves. They had come ready for trouble.  His assistant, Josias Swaffer was also injured, as was another assistant, Edward Carter, who tried to fire the small gun he used for fowling, the only weapon he had, but who was knocked down and beaten.  The mayor of Hythe, James Arthur, who was also a physician, was called out at midnight to patch them up.

The problem did not go away. In 1662, the son of the mayor of Hythe was arrested at Sandwich  for ‘extraordinary insolence and violence used against the Customs Officers’  James Basset was the gamekeeper at the country house of  Viscount Strangford, Hythe’s M.P. He was accompanied by the estate’s gardener and three known smugglers. Perhaps it was a youthful prank – he was only twenty three, and the case against him was circumstantial. At any rate, he survived the escapade, perhaps with some influential intervention.

Thirteen years later, it was the mayor himself who was implicated in criminality. When a smuggler was killed by a customs official early in 1685, Julius Deedes, Hythe mayor, falsified evidence against the officer at the inquest. Knowing that he was liable to be arrested, he took advantage of a providential parliamentary election in Hythe and secured a seat. He secured with it parliamentary privilege against charges. The electorate was made up of the mayor and corporation of Hythe, and Deedes not only voted for himself in the election, but as mayor was also the returning officer. His plan backfired when his election was declared invalid, he was forced to resign as mayor, and most humiliatingly of all, the lord high steward of England vetoed his nomination as one of the canopy bearers at the coronation of James II.

Deedes bounced back and was re-elected to parliament in 1689 and allowed to take part in the coronation of William and Mary, but his new-found respectability was short-lived. In May1692, fourteen of his employees were arrested for a serious assault with staves on Customs officers who had seized sixteen bags of wool from a barn belonging to Deedes, which they said were destined to be smuggled. The Customs Board said that it had been a legal seizure, based on ‘reasonable suspicion’. Deedes said the Customs men were acting illegally, as they had no constable with them as the law required, which was a little disingenuous of him as the said constable, Birch, was one of the men assaulting the customs officers and was in his pay. Deedes himself, at the time of the attack, was conveniently at home, twelve miles away, but Birch had incriminated him by showing his written order to some men at Lydd.

The situation looked bleak for Deedes, but he was saved once again from prosecution, this time by dying, in September 1692. He was something of a blot on the escutcheon of an otherwise unimpeachably respectable family.