There is a slim uncatalogued file in the King’s Lynn Archive which contains some 14 documents, dated to the 24th year of King George III’s reign labelled, “Customs Murder Suit”. George III reigned from 1760 to 1820. These documents include a small scrap of paper which is basically a list of expenses to claim, “expenses incurred in conveying Kemball and Gunton to Norwich Castle”, receipts, lists of guards, one interesting one referring to the Wells party and the men who were “all very near Green when shot”, who “took Gunton on the beach”, and “took Kimball lying under the wall”, a list of vital questions to be asked, an account of the fray, the examination of Sergeant Leishman and his identification of Gunton, the statement by Mr Rounds of Snettisham who carried out the post mortem and the indictment document.
Fascinating stuff, but what was it all about? The website for The Lodge, Hunstanton, refers to the story, and there is much to be found online about Norfolk smugglers. The fray in question took place on the night of 26-27th September 1784, when, according to The Norfolk Chronicle, a group of smugglers came across two groups of revenue officers and light dragoons, one from Wells, one from Lynn, who had taken possession of contraband from Dunkirk and were lying in wait for the smugglers to try and get it back.
The captain of the smugglers, and the lugger Vipel, was one Thomas Kimbell (or Kemball) of Thornham, and two of his seamen, Andrew Gunton and Thomas Williams, are also named.
The soldiers involved were from General Eliott’s Light Horse Dragoons. George Augustus Eliott, PC, KB, 1st Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar, had seen service in the Seven Years’ War, the Great Siege of Gibraltar, where he was Commander in Chief, and the American War of Independence. He first raised the 15th King’s Hussars in 1759; the regiment was merged with the 19th Royal Hussars into the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars, but was named after their general. Interestingly, the regiment was involved in 1819 in the Peterloo Massacre, when it was led by Lt Colonel Guy L’Estrange, another family name with local connections. During the fray, a revenue man, William Green, and a dragoon, William Webb, were shot dead.
Among the documents in the file, there is one which includes a directive to select one of the gang to be persuaded to turn king’s evidence, and a request for the baptism certificates of Green’s children, to arrange financial relief for his family.
The three smugglers named above were taken to Norwich Castle and tried for murder at the Thetford Assizes in March 1785.
They were acquitted, and a retrial was ordered, where they were once again acquitted. The prosecution came to the conclusion that no Norfolk jury was ever going to convict smugglers!
The gravestones of Webb and Green can be seen in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Old Hunstanton. The epitaphs read: “Here lie the mangled remains of poor William Green, an Honest Officer of Government, who in the faithful discharge of his duty was inhumanly murdered by a gang of smugglers in this parish September 27, 1784, aged 37 years.”
And: “William Webb, late of the 15th Light Dragoons, who was shot from his horse by a party of smugglers on 25 September 1784 aged 26 years. I am not dead but sleepeth here And when the Trumpet Sound I will appear. Four balls thro’ me pearced there was. Hard it was I’d no time to pray. This stone that here you Do see My Comrades Erected for the sake of me.”
There are some obvious mistakes in grammar and spelling, and, it seems, a doubt about the date. Spooky, but that date just happens to be my birthday!
Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Pete Widdows