The Murder of Richard Hawkins of Yapton

It wasn’t so very long ago that the name ‘Yapton’ conjured up images of smuggling. The phrase ‘Do you come from Yapton?’ was often directed at anyone who entered a room or building and left the door open. The phrase is even stencilled on the saloon bar door of The Murrell public house in Barnham.  The reference is believed to be associated with the custom of villagers leaving their doors open at night to allow smugglers to evade the "King's Men", or to leave contraband as payment for their silence. Because of the poverty that existed in the 18th and early 19th centuries it is highly possible that many villagers were not averse to turning a blind eye or even assisting the smugglers. They could probably earn in a night as much as they could in a week of toil in the fields. There are local tales of a vicar giving a sermon highlighting the wrongs of smuggling while under the pulpit from which he was preaching was a stash of contraband. Another story relates to a cache of smuggled goods stored in a tomb in the churchyard.

Heavy import duties charged by the Government made the activity of smuggling very lucrative for gangs to take the risk of bringing in luxury goods such as spirits, silk, tobacco and tea through the ‘back-door’. The shallow sandy beaches such as Middleton, Clymping and Ferring were ideal for these midnight ventures.

One of the most notorious gangs operating along the south coast was the Hawkhurst Gang, named after the village in Kent where they originated from. They were a vicious breed of men and would not hesitate to commit murder should they deem it necessary.

It was in January 1748 that their evil actions were experienced in Yapton. In a barn belonging to a Mr. Boniface, Richard Hawkins, a farm labourer was threshing corn. Unbeknown to him, members of the Hawkhurst gang had hidden 12 bags of tea in the building. Two members of the gang, Jeremiah ‘Butler’ Curtiss and John ‘Smoker’ Mills, came to collect the smuggled goods and found that two bags were missing. They assumed that Hawkins had taken them. After they had discovered his whereabouts, they held him at gunpoint, sat him in the saddle of Mills’ horse and rode to an alehouse on Slindon Common by the name of The Dog and Partridge. Here, according to accounts of the inquest and subsequent trial, he was taken into the back room where other members of the gang were waiting. A "Smugglers Court" was held with Mills, Curtiss, Thomas Winter and a fourth smuggler by the name of Robb, alias ‘Little Fat Back’ being the Judge and Jury. Hawkins was tortured, punched, kicked and whipped by them. In an attempt to stop further beatings Hawkins implicated his father-in-law, John Cockrel Senior of Walberton, and his brother-in-law also named John Cockrel, a Yapton alehouse keeper. While two of the smugglers left to find the father and brother-in-law and take them prisoner, Hawkins died of his injuries. The two smugglers, on their return, released their prisoners after swearing them to secrecy, and took the body of Hawkins and carted it to Parham Park owned by Sir Cecil Bishop, weighted it down with rocks and immersed in a lake where it lay undiscovered for 9 months.

The Dog and Partridge Inn, Slindon

Following an investigation and a pardon being given by the Crown to a smuggler who had nothing to do with the murder but supplied incriminating evidence, John Mills and John Reynolds, Master of the Dog and Partridge, were arrested. They were tried at East Grinstead Assizes. Unfortunately, Curtiss, by this time, had escaped arrest by fleeing to France. Reynolds was found not guilty of murder but was tried later, along with his wife for withholding information. John Mills, aged 30, was found guilty of murder and hung from a gibbet on Slindon Common near to the Dog and Partridge. Afterwards his body was hung in chains from the same gibbet as an example to other would be murderers.

The irony of the tale is that on a further search of the barn, the missing bags of tea were found.

Hanging in Chains

This article has been compiled from several different sources published at the time and since the event. All give subtly different accounts from which I have attempted to portray as near accurate sequence of events as possible.

Allen Misselbrook
February 2019

(Originally published in Sussex Local Magazine, Arundel, April 2019)

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