Margate before Sea bathing: 1300 to 1736

Anthony Lee

Chapter 5: Managing Margate

The Law, the Cinque Ports, and Dover

Local government in England has always been distinctly odd, a hotchpotch of overlapping authorities, developed over long periods of time, interspersed with more or less successful attempts to sort out the mess. Parliament had the ultimate authority but it was a remote institution; local government had more effect on the day to day lives of ordinary people. At the county level administration depended on the Justices of the Peace (the magistrates), men of power and influence responsible both for county justice and county government.1,2 Although they were amateurs in matters of law, this was counterbalanced by their local knowledge, ensuring that justice was largely a local matter, supporting victims in their wish for compensation.

In Kent there were two separate courts of Quarter Sessions where serious cases were tried by the Justices of the Peace, one for the eastern division of the county, usually held at Canterbury, and one for the western division, usually held at Maidstone. But there were large areas of the county which did not fall within the jurisdictions of either of these two divisions. The most important of these areas, or ‘liberties’, were the Cinque Ports, of which Margate was a part. The Cinque Ports, from the Norman French for ‘five ports,’ were first mentioned in a Royal Charter of 1155 and originally consisted of the five ports of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich; these five ports were known as the Head Ports.3-5 Rye and Winchelsea joined them as Head Ports in the thirteenth century in what then became ‘The Confederation of the Cinque Ports and the Two Ancient Towns of Rye and Winchelsea.’ This ramshackle confederation was created to provide ships to defend the Channel in time of war, each port agreeing to supply a specified number of ships and men for the sovereign’s service for fifteen days each year. In exchange, the ports were exempted from various taxes and tolls and enjoyed a variety of specific privileges. These were listed in the original charter: ‘Exemption from tax and tallage, Right of soc and sac, tol and team, blodwit and fledwit, pillory and tumbril, infrangentheof and outfrangentheof, mundbryce, waives and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.’ This might need some interpretation. Exemption from tax and tallage  refers to exemption from tax and tolls; right of soc and sac refers to the right of self-government; right of tol and team refers to permission to  levy tolls; the right of blodwit and fledwit refers to the right to punish people who had shed blood or had fled from justice; the right of pillory and tumbril refers to the right to punish people for minor offences; the right of  infrangentheof and outfrangentheof refers to the power to detain and execute felons; the right of mundbryce refers to the right to punish breaches of the peace; the right of waives and strays refers to the right to take ownership of lost and unclaimed goods after a year; and the right of flotsam and jetsam and ligan refers to the right of ownership of goods thrown overboard or of floating wreckage. The charter gave the Cinque Ports a considerable degree of independence in financial and legal matters.

Over the years many of the original members of the Cinque Ports went into decline.  Hastings was almost washed away by the sea in the thirteenth century and was raided and burnt by the French in 1339 and 1377. The town of New Romney was almost destroyed by the Great Storm of 1287 and the River Rother changed course, leaving the town, which had been at the mouth of the river, stranded inland. The declining fortunes of these ports made it difficult for the Cinque Ports to meet their obligation to provide ships for the King, and so between the twelfth and fourteen centuries a number of smaller ports were called upon to help share the burden, in exchange for a share of the privileges. These additional ports became Members (also called Limbs) of their local Head Port; in all likelihood they would have been more than willing to join the confederation, the privileges of membership being as great as they were. The arrangements made with the larger towns were confirmed by Royal Charter; these towns were known as corporate members of their local head port. The corporate members had their own officers and were independent of their head ports except in naval and financial matters. The corporate members of Dover were Folkestone and Faversham. Ports too small and insignificant to become corporate members of the confederation also joined, but in a less formal way and without a Royal Charter, becoming non-corporate members of the head ports, governed by their head port. The non-corporate members of Dover were Margate, Goresend, Birchington, Wood or Woodchurch and St Peter’s, all in the Isle of Thanet, and Kingsdowne and Ringswold; Ramsgate was a non-corporate member of Sandwich. It is not known exactly when Margate became a non-corporate member of Dover, but it must have been some time before 1229 as an ordinance of that year lists Margate as being a part of the port of Dover.6,7 As described in the Introduction, the inclusion of Margate as a non-corporate member of the port of Dover led to confusion about the legal position of the rest of the parish of St John’s, a problem solved by also making St John’s a non-corporate member.6,8

Membership of the Confederation of Cinque Ports, even as a non-corporate member, had a number of advantages for a small town like Margate (and the Parish of St John’s). It gave Margate a share in the local herring fishery, it meant that it was free from county tolls and taxes, and it enjoyed constitutional and judicial liberties that would normally only have been enjoyed by a wealthy corporation.4 Not least of the attractions for an area notorious for smuggling was freedom from control by the county magistrates; John Boys of Betshanger, writing in 1794, said that ‘the power of the magistrates is rendered of small effect; and many a sturdy rogue escapes the punishment he deserves’.9 All in all:4

whether the Member was a place that had been associated in the service of the Ports from its initiation; whether it had received a charter or was content to let its association rest on the old informal agreements; whether it had voluntarily sought membership as a solution to domestic problems, or had been persuaded by an over-burdened Head Port to accept service for privilege, — the arrangement was one of advantage to both parties, or it could not have been upheld.

Margate was the most important of the non-corporate members of Dover, but the lack of a Royal Charter created problems. In the fourteenth century, wishing to strengthen its position and to clarifying the bargains that it had made with Dover, the ‘People of Margate and Barons of the Cinque Ports’ petitioned the King and Council petitioned the King and Council asking for a confirmation of Margate’s position:4,10

The people request that they are able to be discharged of various grievances made to them by the king’s ministers according to the purport of an inquisition returned into Chancery, as although they are members of the port of Dover, because Margate is not specified in the charters of the king’s progenitors the sheriff of Kent and other ministers disturb them in the enjoyment of the liberties.

The petition was endorsement ‘Let the inquisition be viewed before the council’, but the outcome is not known. However, in 1424, Margate, the parish of St John’s, and a group of other parishes in Thanet were recognized in a charter as ‘members and advocants of the port of Dover:11

We command you that you allow the men of the Towns of Margate and Gorisende, and the men of the Parishes of SS. John, Peter, Nicholas, and All Saints, of Birchington, Wode in the Isle of Thanet, and the men of Kingsdown, and of the Parish of Ringwold near Dover, which are Limbs and Advocants of the Port of Dover, and the said men avowing themselves to be of the said Liberty, or any one of them, to be quit of this kind of toll, custom, lastage, tallage, passage, kayage, rivage, from pontage, and all wreck, and of every their sale in its sale and re-sale throughout all our land and dominion, with sac and soc, and thol and them, wreck-free, and wit-free, and lestage-free, and lovecop-free, and of shires and hundreds, according to the tenour of the Charters and of the Confirmation aforesaid; and that you do not place, or cause to be placed, them, or any one of them, in any Assizes, Juries, or recognizances held before you for any tenure outside the Liberty, contrary to the tenour of the Charter and the Confirmation aforesaid, nor shall you in any way molest or burden them, or any one of them, contrary to the tenour of the said Charters.

The Cinque Ports fought hard to maintain their rights and privileges, despite the decline in the importance of the ports from their peak in the fifteenth century. A surviving copy of the annual accounts of the Town and Port of Dover for the year 1530 gives a flavour of how Dover spent money keeping the old traditions alive.12 The total expenditure for that year was £66 14s 2d, including; 16s 1d ‘for a supper, wine, ale, and beer at Mr Mayor’s election’, 10s ‘for Mr Mayor’s torches at Christmas’, 42s 10d for ‘expenses at the first general broderyeld’, £14 for ‘present for the Lord Warden, Sir Edward Guldeford, at the taking of his oath, 20 June’,  4s 4d for ‘a dinner for Mr old Mayor and Mr new Mayor upon the court day’, 30s for ‘wine and other pleasures given to the Lord Warden and other noblemen’ and 4s 4d ‘to the King’s minstrels and the Lord Warden’s minstrels’. Paying for all this were receipts for the year of £66 8s 3½d, consisting of various fines and taxes on the inhabitants, including ‘contributions of our lymmes’, one of which was, of course, Margate. Unfortunately Margate was behind with its payments, and the accounts include a debt of 53s 4d, ‘the contribution and forfeit of Margate and St John’s, in Thanet’. On the other hand, Dover’s income did include an item: ‘from Valantyne Petytt [Valentine Pettit of Dent-de-Lyon] of Thenett, for striking Thomas Lyncoln, deputy to Mr Dyar, mayor, 40s; of which 21s 8d was remitted by request of divers gentelemen.’ 

At times things degenerated to the level of farce. In her history of the Cinque Ports, Murray describes a quarrel between the barons of the Cinque Ports and the royal footmen at the coronation of Charles II: ‘Dressed in their “large cloaks of garter blue satin with slashed arms of scarlet and red and stockings of dead red”, presenting “an appearance perfectly unique”, they were involved in an unseemly brawl in which, clinging to their canopy, they were dragged down Westminster Hall by the footmen who were trying to take the canopy from them’.4 As late as 1682 Dover and the other Cinque Ports were fighting to confirm their independence from the rest of Kent. In that year the Kent Assizes decided to indict some inhabitants of Sandwich, Deal, Dover, and Margate for not attending church. Since the Kent Assizes had no jurisdiction over the Cinque Ports, the Mayor and Jurats of Sandwich wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons complaining of the action taken by the Kent magistrates, and sent a copy of their letter to the Mayor and Jurats of Dover, asking them to support the complaint:13

26 Feb 1682

The Mayor and Jurats of Sandwich to the Mayor and Jurats of Dover. The bearer going to Mr Speaker with a letter for a public contribution for the defence of our townsmen presented at the last county assizes for not coming to church, we knowing that several of your inhabitants are under the same prosecution have ordered him to call on you with this, in which is enclosed a copy of our letter to the Speaker, that, if you think fit, you may likewise recommend it to the Speaker. Enclosed,

The Mayor and Jurats of Sandwich to the Speaker of the Cinque Ports. By an indictment preferred by the Grand Jury of Kent at the last assizes, whereof a copy is enclosed, several of our town and of Deal, one of our members, and of Dover and Margate are indicted for not coming to church, and proclamation was made that, if they did not surrender at the next assizes, they should stand as convicted Recusants. We, conceiving it the greatest and most dangerous violation ever attempted of our ancient privileges and liberties, which will tend to the utter subversion of our rights and lay us open to the county, think fit that a public defence be made by pleading the Ports’ privilege or such other defence as counsel shall advise and desire you to send this letter to all our brethren of the Cinque Ports, praying them to agree that the charge of such defence may be borne by the public as in other cases of less consequence has been formerly requested and submitted to and, as the assizes are to be at Maidstone, 13 March next, we beg you to give such your letters as speedy a dispatch as possible, and that, if our brethren comply with our request, they would in their answers order the delivery of our charter to Mr Pepper or such other as you shall nominate solicitor herein. If counsel shall advise the producing of the same to be necessary, we doubt not of your condescension hereto, for it is but what we have often done for you and other towns, being resolved to live and die constant and bold asserters of the Ports’ immunities and franchises.

There was, however, a serious side to all of this. There was, for example, the question of who had the authority to impress sailors into the navy. For the rest of the country the ultimate authority lay with the Lord High Admiral and with a number of Vice-Admirals, each responsible for one of the maritime counties. However, in the Cinque Ports the Vice-Admiral of Kent had no authority, the authority lying with the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. It is unclear whether or not this arrangement was actually to anyone’s advantage (Chapter 6). And then there was the question of tax. Margate, as a member of the Port of Dover, was taxed by Dover in a number of ways. In the reign of Richard II, the members paid Dover an annual contribution for the expenses involved in the defence of their franchises, Margate paying 100s and the other Members sums varying from 86s 8d to 26s 8d.4 Margate also had to contribute ships to the Cinque Ports, although, as described in Chapter 6, this came to be replaced by a contribution in cash to the port of Dover. In the seventeenth century this contribution varied widely from £8 5s in 1621, rising to £54 1s 8d in 1634 and falling to £41 7s 7d by 1640.14 

In 1692, in the reign of William and Mary, the government introduced a Land Tax to help pay for the war with France, a tax that was not finally abolished until 1963. Each county was told how much tax it had to raise, and, within each county, the tax was imposed on the basis of an assessment made in 1692, based largely on the value of land.15 The total assessment for Dover and its members was £1923 13s 9d, with Margate’s contribution being £502 16s 6d, compared to £349 8s for Birchington and £671 3s for the town of Dover. Over the years, however, Dover gradually increased the assessment of the members, reducing the burden on the town of Dover itself. Not surprisingly ‘this gave rise at first to secret  murmurings, and finally to open complaints, and they [the members] presented a petition to parliament for redress’.16 The petition was accepted by Parliament and in the Land Tax bill of 1711 it was enacted that in future ‘the parishes of St John, St Peter, and Birchington, in the Isle of Thanet, within the liberty of Dover, shall be deemed and taken to be a distinct division within the said liberty, and in the executing of this Act, shall be charged towards making up the whole sum charged on the town of Dover, and the liberty thereof, according to the proportion which was assessed upon the said parishes by virtue of an Act of Parliament passed in the fourth year of the reign of their late Majesties King  William and Queen Mary’.4,16

Non-corporate membership of the Cinque Ports gradually came to be seen in Margate as a problem, placing the town in a position subservient to Dover, rather like a colony in the old British Empire. A parliamentary report on municipal corporations in 1835 summarized the position of a non-corporate member rather well:3

The Members .  . .  which have not been incorporated, are under the municipal jurisdiction of their respective Ports: they are within the jurisdiction of the criminal and civil courts, and of the magistrates and coroners of those Ports; they are summoned on the juries, and con­tribute to the rates, in the nature of county rates, imposed by the justices of those Ports. None of the rights of citizenship, however, can be acquired in the Members, nor have they any share in the election of any of the officers of their respective Ports. Residence within them is not considered as residence within the Port for any corporate purpose.

As a ‘limb’ of the port and town of Dover, Margate was not answerable to the Justices of the Peace for Kent, meeting at Maidstone and Canterbury, but came under the legal system operating at Dover. Dover, like most of the other corporate towns in Kent, was governed by twelve jurats (aldermen) from whom the Mayor was elected, and thirty six common councillors; the jurats and councillors were chosen from the freemen (all male) of Dover.3 The Dover jurats acted as Justices of the Peace at what, in the 1800s, had become the Court of General Sessions and Gaol Delivery, a court equivalent to a County Assizes.17 The lack of surviving records makes the early history of the court unclear, but it is likely that the mayor and jurats of Dover met in this way from before the middle of the sixteenth century, the earlier Hundreds Court gradually evolving into the Court of General Sessions.

This system of law and order, run from Dover, failed Margate in a number of ways.  Most importantly, a Jurat of Dover, living in Dover, would not have the local knowledge required to be a good arbiter of events in Margate. There was also the problem that, to report a crime, the victim had to travel the twenty three miles to Dover to present his case to one of the Jurats, usually the Mayor of Dover. If the Mayor decided that the case should go for trial, the accuser, the accused and any witnesses would all have to travel to Dover for the trial and would probably have to stay overnight; if it was decided that the accused needed to be held in detention, it would be in Dover that they would be held. Finally, although the inhabitants of Margate could not be Jurats, as they could never be Freemen of Dover, they were expected to serve on the Grand and Petty Juries, with all the inconveniences and expenses associated with travelling to, and staying in, Dover.

To alleviate some of the problems, the Mayor of Dover appointed an inhabitant of Margate to be his representative in Margate, with the title of Deputy; the Deputy was also High Constable of Margate, with responsibility for overseeing law and order in the town. Until paid police forces were established in England in the second quarter of the nineteenth century there was a collective obligation on all the inhabitants to help maintain law and order in their neighbourhood. For almost 600 years the Statute of Winchester of 1285 laid down what was expected which was that everyone had a duty to maintain the peace and had the right to arrest an offender.2,18 The most common crimes were likely to be simple theft or housebreaking, and, if the offender was not caught red-handed, unpaid, part-time constables, often referred to as petty or parish constables, were expected to raise a hue and cry, and, with the help of the inhabitants, to chase the offender through the streets and arrest them. The petty constables were also responsible for presenting offenders at court for trial.

The effectiveness of the system relied on the quality of the petty constables and their willingness, or ability, to perform their duties in an efficient and conscientious manner. These duties were onerous and only someone of ‘honesty, knowledge and ability’ could be expected to perform the role well.19 It was accepted that professionals such as clergymen, lawyers, attorneys and physicians could not be expected to fill the office, and so most petty constables were appointed from amongst the tradesmen and craftsmen of a town. The constables had, of course, to earn their livelihoods at the same time as carrying out their constableship duties, and only a man of some economic and social standing would have been able to devote the necessary time to these duties.

How well this system worked in Margate is unclear. The Deputy of Margate was appointed each year by the Mayor of Dover and many of the principal citizens of Margate held the position (Appendix I), although later in the eighteenth century the position was taken over by the Cobb family. It is possible that the Margate Deputy, as High Constable, was the only constable in Margate at this time; there is no mention of any parish constables in the parish records. This is certainly suggested by the published report of a case of murder in the parish of St Laurence in 1652.20 On December 12, 1652 Adam Spracking had ‘cut, mangled, and murchered his own wife’. He was apprehended on the night of the murder, ‘having his dagger in one hand, and pistol in the other hand’ and the next day ‘he was carried to Sandwich Jayl’. At his trial in April 1653 he pleaded ‘that he was mad when he kill’d his wife, and that he knew not what he did’. At the trial it was described how Humphrey Pudner, the Deputy at Margate, had been called upon to help Edward Taddy at St Laurence to disarm Sprackling, and Pudner described how he had ‘to disarm’d Mr Sprackling in an affray, which he made in a Taphouse in St John’s Parish’:

Edward Taddy deposed, that he being Constable, did assist Humphery Pudner, the Maior of Dovers Deputy, at St Johns parish, and Richard Langley, Deputy to the Maior of Sandwich, at St Laurence Parish, when they three had an Order to disarm Mr Sprackling, and, having taken and secured the Arms in his house, Mr Sprackling assaulted the said Edward Taddy, when he met him some moneths after; and Humphrey Pudner deposed, that he drew upon him also in the street, and, that he being Officer, disarm’d Mr Sprackling in an affray, which he made in a Taphouse in St John’s Parish; and William Grant deposed, that in that Parish he drew at him, and had cleav’d his head with his Cutlash, if he had not put by the blow.

Sprackling was found guilty and hanged at Sandwich on April 27 1653.

Until the nineteenth century it was the victim who had to initiate any criminal prosecution: ‘not only assaults but virtually all thefts and even some murders were left to the general public. That meant that responsibility for the initial expense and entire conduct of the prosecution was thrown on the victim and his or her family . . . As late as the mid-19th century no public official was responsible for ensuring that even the most serious offences were prosecuted’.21 A victim would first have to identify the supposed guilty party; this was easy if the suspect was caught red-handed, but, if not, there was no modern police force to provide help. Having identified a suspect, the victim would present his case to the Mayor of Dover, who would decide if there was actually a ‘case to answer’. If there was and if the case was sufficiently serious, the Mayor would issue a warrant to his Deputy at Margate for the arrest of the suspect. The suspect would be held in gaol in Dover until the case came for trial. The victim would face the cost of drawing up an indictment and hiring any necessary legal help, and the inconvenience and cost of travelling to Dover with his witnesses for a trial.

At the trial the emphasis was on a personal confrontation between the victim-prosecutor and the defendant. It would have been highly likely that the victim, the suspect and their respective families and friends would have known each other, and their relative social standing was likely to influence the outcome of the trial: ‘In making their calculations, judges and jurors were influenced not simply by the abstract character of the various offences . . . Who the prisoner was — his character and reputation — was as crucial a question as what he had done (and even in some cases whether he had done it), and it was centrally the business of the trial to find the answer’.22 All in all it is not surprising that many victims of crime chose to avoid taking the legal path at all. The Times in 1785 suggested that ‘nine-tenths of the breaches against the laws escape detection from the trouble and charges consequent on prosecution’.23

Dover butchery-gate-with-steadfast-tower | Margate History
Figure 29. Sketch of the now demolished Butchery Gate with Steadfast Tower. From ''.

There were several gaols in Dover where prisoners would be held until their cases come to trial. Until 1722 Dover distinguished between prisoners who were freemen of Dover and those who were not, who they referred to as ‘foreigners’; prisoners from Margate, not being freemen, counted as foreigners.24 The prison for foreigners at Dover was originally at Pennyless Bench, a paved area used by merchants for transacting their business, close to Boldware Gate, also known as Severus Gate, one of the gates in Dover’s town wall.  The prison for freemen was a tower in the town wall called Standfast, also known as Butchery Gate (Figure 29). In 1722 Standfast became the town jail when the system of having separate prisons for freemen and foreigners died out. Standfast continued in use until 1746 when it was condemned as unfit.

Standfast was not a very secure gaol, as shown by the case of Matthew Pain (or Payne), a Margate man committed to gaol in Dover in 1733, following his confession for robbery:25

On Monday night last one John Clun received a sum of money . . . and being in company with Matthew Payne of that place [Margate], the latter offered to accompany him home, it being 12 o’clock, which was accepted of; and being got a little out of that Town, they shook hands, and friendly parted, Clun for St Peter’s and Payne pretending to return to Margate; but the former had not gone above a mile, when he was knocked down by a person with a club, who robbed him of £6 13s 6d. Clun knowing him, on Tuesday the said Payne was taken up and examined, who at first denied the fact, but at last confessed it, signed his own confession, and was committed to Dover Castle. He was always a loose idle fellow and could never keep any Service.

Then, a month later, the Keeper of Dover gaol, Edward Green, placed an advertisement offering a reward of a guinea for Pain’s recapture:26

Whereas Matthew Pain, of St John the Baptist in the Isle of Thanet, has broke out of Gaol at Dover, early Yesterday morning, with his irons on, whoever can apprehend him, or give Notice as he may be apprehended and delivered to Edward Green, Keeper of the said Gaol, shall have a Guinea reward. Note, the said Pain is about five feet eight inches high; black hair, full visage, pretty fresh complexion, about 23 years of age, and a stout body’d man.

There is no record of whether or not Matthew Pain was ever recaptured.

Debtors were dealt with differently from other prisoners. Debtors were expected to maintain themselves in prison, buying their own food and drink, clothing and bedding; they were allowed to work in prison, as long as this did not interfere with prison regulations. Although debtors from the town of Dover were generally housed in the town jail, debtors from elsewhere in the Cinque Ports, together with those guilty of offences against the revenue laws, were imprisoned in Dover castle.16,37 In 1738, Captain Philemon Phillips, Commander of the Cus­toms sloop at Deal, complained to the Customs Commissioners in London that when he applied to Dover for writs for the arrest of some local smugglers he was told that there was no point as there was nowhere to keep prisoners safely in the castle. Robert Wellard, the Register of Dover Castle, reported that ‘all the prison rooms in the said Castle do now lay open, there having very lately several of the walls of the said rooms fallen in’ and that there was not a single ‘close room to put a man in sufficient to detain him for half an hour’.38 Sometime later Fulbert de Dover’s tower in the castle was converted into the prison for Cinque Port debtors and offenders against the Revenue laws.16

The complexity and expense of the legal system meant that simple disagreements between the poor would usually be settled in private. Even those with money and more of a social position to maintain would avoid legal action if they could. If a case actually went to court and the accused was found guilty, the judge could order a number of possible punishments. . Before 1717 the punishment for all felonies was death except for the felony of petty larceny where the penalty was whipping. For minor misdemeanours the punishment could be a fine, whipping or public exposure in the stocks or pillory; after 1717 possible punishments also included transportation to the American colonies. It was not until the 1820s that many of these punishments were replaced by short periods in gaol, usually with hard labour. Although the court at Dover had jurisdiction over offences up to and including capital felonies, by 1835 ‘within the liberties of the Cinque Ports . . . capital offences, which are likely to be followed by executions, are generally sent for trial at the assizes of the adjoining county’.3 

Unfortunately the lack of criminal records for Dover before about 1800 makes it impossible to say much about this period. In 1699 the parish Overseers paid 7s 6d ‘for a Journey to Dover about the Wench at John Benets, and for a Warrant to distraine’ and 6s 3d ‘for an Order of Sessions for to Whip the Wenches’, the Wenches probably being the local prostitutes.27 We know that there were stocks at Margate to punish minor offenders. The overseers account’s for 1706 include payments of 18s 9d ‘to Vall. Jewell and Edw. Bing for the new Stocks’ and 6s ‘to Vincent Barber in part for the new Stocks’, the reference to ‘new Stocks’ implying, of course, that these were replacements for older stocks.27 In 1712 Thomas Sprackling was paid £1 10s 3d ‘for the Stocks’, the large sum paid suggesting that these were yet another set of new stocks, and in 1736 Joshua Sandwell, a blacksmith, was paid 6s 6d ‘for work done to the Stocks’.28

It is likely that Margate had a simple lock-up for prisoners who needed to be held securely before being transported to Dover to await trial; Birchington, for example, had a simple brick structure built in 1787 ‘at the end of the poor houses to confine ill-behaved riotous persons’.29 It is not clear when such a lock-up was first built in Margate. John Lewis refers in 1723 to ‘two watch-houses, and a watch-bell hung on the cage’.14 ‘Cage’ was a term commonly used for ‘lock-up’ and the overseers’ accounts for 1699 show a payment of 2s 6d ‘to Andrew Hurst for mending the Cage’.27 Later, when the Town Hall was built in Market Place, the opportunity was taken to construct under the Town Hall ‘a cage to immure offenders against the law, during the pleasure of the magistrate’.30

Two types of crime for which Margate had a deserved reputation were smuggling and paultring, the latter being the removal of goods from stranded ships. Smuggling will be discussed separately at the end of this chapter, but as to taking goods from stranded ships, this had a long history at Margate (Chapter 3). In 1723 John Lewis, after praising Margate’s sailors for being ‘bold in going off to Ships in distress’, went on to complain that ‘it's a thousand pities that they are so apt to pilfer stranded Ships, and abuse those who have already suffered so much’, which ‘they themselves call by the proper name of Paultring, since nothing sure can be more vile and base, than under pretence of assisting the distressed Masters, and saving theirs and the Merchants’ goods, to convert them to their own use by making what they call  guile shares’.14Legally, any ‘wreck of the sea’, ‘driven on shore without any living creature upon it’ would, in most parts of the country, belong to the King; if any man or beast escaped alive from the ship it was not counted as a wreck and the owner could claim any property saved from the ship within three months, later extended to a year and a day.4,16 However, things were different in the Cinque Ports; a charter from the reign of Edward I gave the rights to wrecks, including flotsam and jetsam, to the Barons of the Cinque Ports ‘to assist them in raising supplies for fitting out their fleet’. The later history of these rights is complex, the rights being taken by the Admiral of the Cinque Ports, an office that eventually became extinct, and then by the Jurats of the port where the wreck had been found, and finally by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Of course, these rights were of little practical value if a wreck had been stripped before the authorities heard about it, as often seemed to be the case.

What should have happened after a ship was wrecked was an orderly sale of any of the ship’s cargo that had been saved, as happened, for example, after the wreck of a ship carrying deals from Norway in 1729:31

On Tuesday the 22 inst about ten of the clock in the forenoon will be exposed to Public Sale at the Pier in Margate, a ship’s cargo of Deals, in several lots, to the highest bidder.

Note. The said vessel came from Norway, and having struck upon a Sand, was with difficulty brought into Margate Pier on Sunday last, having receiv’d so much Damage that she cannot be repair’d, and could not proceed further on her voyage.

An early example of what actually happened was recorded in 1298:32

Commission to Ralph de Sandwyco and Master William de Apperleye, to enquire by jury of Kent touching the complaint by William Martyn, that his ship, laden with armour and other goods, was, on its return to England from Flanders, in jeopardy off the land of Tanet, co. Kent, and that the armour and goods in her, being cast upon the shore, came to the hands of Thomas le Gront, John le Grout, Robert Taillur, John Richard, Thomas de Our’, Robert Brewere, Clement Brewere, William Molt, Martin de Rammesgate, Michael Martyn, Laurence Martyn, William Osebarn, Walter Lucas, Robert Martyn, John Botenn, John Godekyn, Stephen Herry, John Person, Nicholas le Clerk, Stephen Deveneys, William Folke, Laurence le Noil, John son of Adam Sprakeling, John Clifford, Henry le Rede, Geoffrey Samuel, Thomas Denshe, Richard Astyn, Matthew Devenyshe, William Lyffon, Henry de Stone, John Sprakeling, Geoffrey Attesole, Richard de Stone, Geoffrey de Stone, Henry Bard, John Bard, Thomas Ivynge, Thomas Kempe, Thomas Walclyn, William Lambyn, Richard son of John Taillur, John Bacchel, John Thomelyu, Henry Devenyshe, John Attechirche, Michael Taillur, Dunstan Arnald, Stephen Velages, Robert Baillif, John Stoch’, John son of John Stoch’, Robert Hugelot, Richard de Northwode, Matthew Pelekok, Thomas Colyn, John Shrob, John Caretere, John Rykenere, John Greder, William Burel, William Shrob, John Part, Thomas Part, John son of John Litepart, Henry Bleys, Walter Bleys, William son of John Litepart, John de Ecclesia, John de Sancto Laurencio, chaplain, and others of that county, to arrest the said armour and goods in whosesoever hands they may be, and restore them to the said William Martyn, or his attorney, on his proving them to be his.

In June 1345 the ship that was wrecked was carrying wine:33

To the sheriff of Kent. Order to take diligent information concerning 210 pipes of the King’s wines in a ship which was wrecked near the Isle of Thanet, in coming from Gascony to London, the wine being scattered along the coast of that island and elsewhere, found and carried away by the men of those parts, and to cause all that wine which he finds to be taken into the king’s hand and kept safely until further order, certifying the king from time to time of his action in the matter. 

A few days later the Sheriff of Kent was able to report that ‘he had arrested 14 tuns 53 pipes of that wine in divers places’ and was keeping it safely until he had received further orders.33 A pipe (or butt) of wine was 126 gallons, and a tun was equal to two pipes, so that of the original 210 pipes of wine on the ship, the Sheriff had managed to recover 81 pipes, leaving rather a lot unaccounted for.

In July 1579 the Privy Council provided ‘a letter of assistance for the recovering of certaine clothes, &c, taken and spoiled out of a certaine hoye in the monethe of November last past by one Walter Dabernall and his complices, about Margate in the Isle of Thennet, divers parcells wherof are said to have come to the handes of divers th'inhubitauntes of the countie of Kent and Dorset about Lullworthe’. 34  Again, in November 1579 the Star Chamber wrote to ‘Richard Barey, John Finnox and John Crispe . . . to cause restitucion to [be] made of certen goodes and merchandis spoyled and taken out of three hulkes driven on shore about the Downes by the inhabitantes of the Isle of Tennett and others there aboutes’.35

Serious action against paultring was finally taken early in the seventeenth century. In March 1602 Lord Cobham, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, appointed George Newman to be Judge of the Admiralty Court of the Cinque Port. Probably as a consequence of this appointment a harder line was taken over the stripping of wrecks. In August of that year an order was made ‘in his Lordship's office, to arrest divers poor people prosecuted at the last Admiralty Court for things of small value found by them’.36 However, the question arose ‘whether these persons who dwell far off, by paying the duties due to his Lordship to the droit gatherers [at the various ports], might not be freed of coming hither to the Court on the 17th inst., as their charges in coming would cost them much more than what they have to pay’, an arrangement to which the Lord Warden agreed. Also in 1602 George Newman took depositions from three seamen from Ramsgate and one from Margate concerning a wreck some twenty years earlier off Cliff’s End, Ramsgate.36 The depositions give a good idea of what actually happened following a wreck. The deposition of John Coppyn of Ramsgate was:

Has known the Hope at Cliff’s End in Thanet 40 years. A wreck of canvas happened there 30 years since, when the Lord Warden’s officers and men took away and enjoyed the goods; 18 or 20 years since, another ship grounded, laden with deals, wax, &c. Deponent and divers others went on board, and the master of the ship desired them to stay, to save the goods from the spoil of the people of the country, which they did until the tide came, when they went on shore until it ebbed; going aboard again at low water, they met one Paramore by the ship’s side, with a waggon, and 18 or 20 persons, who got on board before deponent and his company, saying that they would keep possession of the ship and goods, but not claiming any wreck, nor saying for whom they would keep possession. Deponent and his company getting on board, the others went away, the ship perished, and the Lord Warden and his officers had the disposing of the ship and goods. Within his remembrance, they have always had the disposing of wrecks in the Isle of Thanet.

Richard Saunders, also from Ramsgate, made a similar deposition:

Has known the Hope 30 years; 25 years since, a ship laden with cloth, &c. was cast away there, the men drowned, and the goods saved by the inhabitants of Ramsgate were disposed of by the Lord Warden’s officers; 20 years since, another ship came aground there, laden with deal boards, wax, and copper, when Thos. Paramore of Minster went aboard with others, in right of Mr Wotton, and when John Coppyn of Ramsgate and others came to go aboard, Paramore willed them to keep off, but when they got on board, Paramore and his company went. All the goods saved and carried to Ramsgate out of that ship were disposed of by my Lord Warden’s officers. Never knew any wreck goods saved or found by any inhabitants of Ramsgate, Broadstairs, or elsewhere, but they were disposed of by the Lord Warden’s officers. 

Finally, the account of John Bussher, of Margate, gave a picture of the competition between the men of Ramsgate and Margate:

Has known the Hope 33 years; 20 years since a ship came on ground there; was then dwelling at Minster in Thanet, and Thos. Paramore, then of Minster, and servant to Sir Edw. Wotton, or to Mr. Thos. Wotton, requested him to go on board and seize her to the use of his master, but he refused. On Paramore’s return, he said that the men of Ramsgate then aboard had beaten and tumbled him overboard, and had broken three or four of his men’s heads, whereupon he wrote for directions to his master, who bade him demand soilage or groundage of the ship, but not any wrecks, as he had no right therewith. Does not know that any has anything to do with the disposition of wrecks but the Lord Warden’s officers.


Church and  Vestry

A further and vital part of the local government system was the parish.  Although originally dealing just with ecclesiastical matters, from the 1530s onwards central government, seeing the parishes as working and available administrative units, started to load them with a wide range of non-religious responsibilities.39 A statute of 1555 required the parish to maintain the local highways, and required each parish to appoint two surveyors to oversee this work. In 1572 parishes were required to appoint overseers of the poor to implement the new Poor Laws, as described in Chapter 4. Gradually the numbers of these statutory duties increased and, particularly for a town like Margate ruled without representation by Dover, the parish came to be what mattered most to the majority of the population. 

The administration of the parish was in the hands of the parish vestry, named after the room in the church, the vestry, used for keeping the church vestments. The members of the vestry were the minister or vicar, any curates who might have been appointed, the churchwardens, and various secular officers; they were responsible for the church building, and for setting and collecting a poor rate, for looking after the poor, maintaining law and order, and repairing the roads. The vestrymen would generally hold their meetings in the church vestry and would call meetings of the whole parish in the church, usually attended by all those who paid poor rates. These meetings would discuss all kinds of parish matters, often of a totally secular nature, and when the parish was divided in its views these meetings could become extremely heated and noisy. 

The relationship between the minister and the vestry and parishioners was important for the minister as, although the vestry did not appoint him, they controlled the finances of the parish and the minister’s income. Until the middle of the sixteenth century the minister’s income at Margate was small, just ‘a manse, a small glebe, two bushels of wheat, to be paid yearly at Midsummer, and a pension of eight pounds a year, paid out of Salmstone’.14 In 1553 this was augmented with tithes on that part of the parish that was ‘the borough of Margate’, this being about a third of the whole parish.40,41 These tithes were ‘tithes of lambs, wool, piglings, geese, flax, wax and honey and other small tithes in the borough of Margate in the said parish’. The income of the minister also included ‘all oblations of the four yearly principal days and feasts, and all personal tithes and Easter dues of the parishioners in the same parish’. The glebe land belonging to the vicarage at Margate made up about 15 acres, but about an acre of this lad had been lost due to erosion by the sea.14 Finally, to make a decent living the minster relied on fees for performing services, together with voluntary contributions from the congregation.  The fees charged in 1577 were set out in the Parish Register:14

Duties belonging to the Vicar of St John’s                                                    

For Marriage and Banes

3s 6d

For Burial in a Sheet only

0s 6d

        With a coffin      

1s 0d

Yf the Corps be brought into the Church

2s 0d

For churching a Woman, but must compound for


       the Face-Cloth*

1s 0d

And the poorer Sort to pay only

0s 9d

Easter offering per pole

0s 6d

 * This refers to the ancient custom of purifying a woman after childbirth, and, if the child died, the face-cloth used to cover the child at its Baptism would be used to wind the child in.

To fulfil their responsibility for looking after the fabric of the church the Churchwardens charged the inhabitants of the parish an annual cess (a tax). The many complaints about non-payment of the cess in the records of the Archdeacon’s Visitations to St John’s suggest that this was a particularly unpopular charge.42 In 1592 the Churchwardens reported that Joseph Norwood, Leonard Spracklinge, Samuel Taddie, Henry Platt, and George Fleet were ‘behind for a cess made for the Church and refuse to pay’; Joseph Norwood, one of the non-payers, was also a regular non-attender at church, as described later. Francis Parker was another repeat offender; in 1593 the Churchwardens reported that ‘Francis Parker refuses to pay a cess made for the reparation of our Church, 6s 8d’, in 1598 they reported him for not paying his 14s church cess for that year, in 1600 he was again reported ‘for that he will not pay his cess according as he is set, namely at twenty shillings, done by the parish for the Church; and also he is a very negligent subject in coming to Church to Divine Service’, and in 1601 he was reported ‘for not paying his dues belonging unto the Church, being several times entreated to pay the same.’ Alexander Violett, who we will see later caused the Churchwardens many problems, was also reported to the Archdeacon in 1600 ‘for that he refuseth to pay his cess for the Church, as he is cessed by the parishioners of the parish’.  A more surprising name to appear in the records for 1600 was Nicholas Osborne, a former churchwarden. He was reported to the Archdeacon ‘for that he will not pay his cess for the reparation of the Church, 8s’. He appeared before the Archdeacon’s court in November 1600 when ‘he alleged that the parishioners of St John’s did owe him . .  .  £3 or £4 for business done by him about the necessary reparations of the said Church during the time of his churchwardenship, and therefore thinketh he is not bound to pay this present cess referred to’. His argument was supported by Valentine Pettit who declared ‘that of his certain knowledge the parishioners of St John’s do owe unto Mr Osborne sums of money or some sum of money, amounting to more than the several cesses for which the said Mr Osborne is presented by the churchwardens of the parish; especially they do owe unto Mr Osborne for a suit in law which he disbursed for the said parishioners lately, between them and the inhabitants of the town of Dover.’  In 1615, John Johnson, ‘a gentleman’, was reported ‘for not paying his cesses and other duties to the Church, namely, for his cess for the Church, 8s 4d; more for his poor, 7s 6d; more for breaking the ground and the great bell, 10s; more for paving the grave, 6s’. In January 1616 he appeared before the Archdeacon’s Court to plead his case: ‘he stated: that whereas he is presented for the breaking of the ground and ringing of the great bell for the burial of two of his children, which were lately buried in the Parish Church, the sum of 10s, and for the paving of the graves again 6s. The truth is that he did long since pay and satisfy the said several sums unto Thomas Bussher, late Parish Clerk for the same parish of St John’s, who did in his life time collect and gather the same money to the use of the churchwardens.’ 

The Church played an important part in the life of most inhabitants of the parish. In fact, it would have been very hard to ignore religion at this time, what with the Reformation, the Puritans, and the English Civil War. The Reformation might have started with Henry VIII’s attempt to persuade the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon but, by the time of his death in 1547, it had turned into a full scale religious revolution. Until the Reformation, English churchgoers ‘had been taught to believe that their best hope of salvation lay in leading a good life, and trusting in the range of sacraments and ceremonies supplied by the Catholic Church. Once a year, they confessed their sins to a priest, and were assured of God’s forgiveness. Week on week, they attended the mass in their parish church, a service during which Christ became, in the form of bread and wine, as truly present as he had been on the cross of Calvary. They prayed in front of statues of the saints, and petitioned them to assist their plans and heal their ailments. When guilt or piety moved them, they gave alms to the poor, or went on pilgrimage to the great monastic houses, where relics and images of the saints were housed in reverential splendour’.43

This traditional form of worship was swept away by Protestant reformers under Henry VIII and his son Edward VI.  Popish ‘flummery and superstition’ and the belief that salvation could be found in ‘good works’ was to be replaced by the belief that salvation could only be achieved by placing one’s faith in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this the Bible was all important, and, in English translation, its words were to be preached in Church and read by ordinary people at home. In 1538 churchwardens were ordered to buy a Bible for their churches, and also to extinguish the candles and lamps that used to burn before the images of saints, and all the other lights used for religious purposes, except for those on the altar and before the Easter sepulchre. As described by John Lewis:14

In the Times of Popery, besides the High-Alter, as it was called, at the East end of the middle Chancel, there were Altars in this Church [St John’s], dedicated to St George, St John and St Anne, and very probably, others for other particular saints. On, or over them, in Niches, stood the Images of the several Saints, before which were burnt Wax Lights, to whose Maintenance People used to contribute when alive, and leave Legacies when they died.

The removal of these lights represented a very visible sign of the changes taking place. Charles Cotton lists a number of testators who had left money in their wills to maintain the lights in St John’s:44

William Rooke, in 1448, left inter alia one peck of barley to the light of St George within this Church. Thomas Draper, also in 1448, left one peck of corn to the light of Corpus Christi. In 1414 John Sandere left 5s to the high altar, together with the other altars in the same Church; also 20d to the light in the presence of the image of the crucifix; also to John, the Vicar there, twelve pence; also to the light in the presence of the image of St John, 8d; also to the image of St Anne one quarter of barley in the hands of William Culmerhouse, for the making and sustaining of the light in the presence of the said image.

These lights or tapers were made in two houses called wax-houses, which used to stand on the south side of the churchyard, but burnt down in 1641.44

In 1547 it was ordered that all shrines and pictures of saints should be destroyed and many religious houses were closed. In 1548 four of the major ceremonies of the religious year were banned and any remaining religious images were ordered to be removed from parish churches. The effects on religious life over this short period were profound; most of the seasonal rituals of the English Church had been done away with, along with the ornaments that were such a part of them. From 1549 services were held in English, based on a new liturgy set out in the Book of Common Prayer.

The Protestant Reformation came to a sudden end in July 1553 with the death of Edward VI and the accession of the Catholic queen, Mary I. Edwardian statutes concerning alters and lights were repealed, and ceremonies and processions were reintroduced. However, in November 1558 Mary I died and her Protestant sister Elizabeth I came to the throne. In April 1559 Parliament passed a statute requiring the use of a new Protestant liturgy, based on that of 1552. An Act of Parliament in 1563, the Supremacy of the Crown Act, required schoolmasters and others to acknowledge on oath the royal supremacy, and the first canons of the new Church of England issued in 1571 laid down that ‘it shall not be lawful for any to teach the Latin tongue or to instruct children, neither openly in the schools neither privately in any man’s house, but whom the bishop of that diocese hath allowed and to whom he hath given licence to teach under the seal of his office.45

Radical Protestants, unhappy with the settlement of 1559 and its many compromises, believed that every remnant of ‘popery’ should be swept out of the Church of England. They were called Puritans by their enemies, a mocking reference to what was seen as their obsessive concern with purity of life and doctrine,  but called themselves the ‘godly’. Their vision was of a society in which everyone led a strictly ordered life, according to the mandates of the bible; behind their preaching and campaigning lay a deep concern with the final destiny of the individual soul. They obsessively scrutinized their own behaviour for signs that they were members of the ‘elect’ and would be saved, and were equally willing to condemn others for conspicuous failings such as drunkenness and fornication which would inevitably lead to damnation. 

Until the 1630s most Puritans were content to press for reform within the Church of England but then more radical groups started to splinter off from the mother church. The English Baptist movement started in exile in Amsterdam in 1611 and then established itself in London, preaching the belief that only adults should be baptised. In 1633, a group believing in Calvinistic predestination broke away to form the Particular Baptist Church, those remaining with the original body becoming known as the General Baptists; many General Baptist churches later became Unitarian. To their opponents, both Particular and General Baptists were known as Anabaptists, a term that was also used loosely for many other Protestant Dissenters.     

A further convulsion in English religious life followed the English Civil War of 1642-6 and the brief second Civil War of 1648 which led to the execution of Charles I in January 1649. The period of republican government that followed is referred to as the Interregnum or Commonwealth; in 1653 Parliament was dissolved by the army and Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector, to be succeeded upon his death by his son Richard. The Interregnum lasted until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Over the period 1661-1665, following the Restoration, four acts were passed that effectively re-established the supremacy of the Anglican Church and put an end to a period of toleration for dissenting religions. The Acts became known as the Clarendon Code, after Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, who was Charles II’s Lord Chancellor. The Acts reintroduced a system of licensing by Bishops to ensure that schoolmasters subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles of the established church, and forbade conventicles [meetings for unauthorized worship] of more than 5 people who were not members of the same household. The second of the acts, the Act of Uniformity, made use of the Book of Common Prayer compulsory in all religious services and over two thousand clergymen who refused to comply with the act were expelled from the Church of England.

Those who refused to accept the Clarendon Code were referred to as Nonconformists or Dissenters and included Baptists, Presbyterians (who rejected government by bishops) and Quakers (members of the religious Society of Friends established by George Fox).  For short periods in 1669 and 1672 Nonconformist meetings were allowed, as ‘licensed conventicles’ and, in 1689, after the Glorious Revolution in which the Roman Catholic James II was replaced by the Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary, Nonconformists were allowed to license their meeting houses for public worship. A letter of 1675 from John Glover to Sir John Williamson, head of the government’s intelligence network, reported on an attempt to build a conventicle house in Margate:46

February 12 1675: John Glover to Williamson.

The fanatic party are building a conventicle house here where we never had any before, and I know not why they go about it now unless it be in spite of the proclamation against them. They make great haste to get it up, and I tell them it may be it will be pulled down as fast ere long.  

The records of the Archdeacon’s Visitations to St John’s reflect the upheavals of the time.42 These records start in 1560, two years after the death of the Catholic Mary I and the succession of the Protestant Elizabeth I, and show that at the time the church building was in a poor state of repair. The vicar was Thomas Hewett who had been appointed in 1546, and so survived the changes from Catholic to Protestant, back to Catholic, and then finally back to Protestant again.  (Appendix XVIII).47 This might make him sound rather lacking in principle, but public opinion was generally against violent change, and clergy who avoided controversy and went on quietly attending their flock were left in peace. Thomas Hewett did not die until 1563, but at the end of his life he seems no longer to have been active in the parish as an entry in the records of the Archdeacon’s Visitation in 1560 reads ‘they have no vicar’. 42,47 In 1561 it was reported to the Archdeacon that ‘their vicarage house is in ruin and that our chancel is unripped [that is, without tiles or slates]. That the nether part of the body of the Church is unrepaired. They have neither Vicar, nor hospitality kept.’ In 1562 the report was that ‘the vicarage is in decay for that the fruits [income] are not able to keep the same in repair. They lack the Homilies for the gang [i.e. Rogation] days, and the little book of prayers set forth by the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.’ The Homilies refers to the Book of Homilies, a collection of sermons explaining the reformed doctrines of the church in greater depth than in the 39 Articles, and designed for vicars who lacked the experience and education needed to write their own sermons.         

In 1565 ‘the churchyard is not sufficiently repaired. The vicarage is in ruin and decay. The place where the altar stood is not yet paved’ and in 1569 ‘we lack a Bible in the largest Volume, and the Paraphrase of Erasmus which was stolen out of the Church a year ago’; the Paraphrase of Erasmus refers to Erasmus’s Paraphrase of the New Testament. Despite these obvious signs of poverty there was at least a vicar in the parish, William Lesley [or Lester], who was reported to be ‘hospitable according to his power’, but he was not a graduate and was ‘no preacher or licensed to preach’ (Appendix XVIII).42 

In 1578 the Churchwardens reported ‘that they lack the first part of the Homilies, the Paraphrase, [and] a cover of silver for their Communion Cup’. In 1581 the state of the building was still a problem: ‘the nether part of our Church is not paved nor sufficiently repaired, and that they used to lay there lime, tiles, sand, and other rubbish, which serveth to their use of repairing the Church, and that they set there the parish ordnance [weapons], very unseemly for that place’. In 1585 ‘they lack a convenient book of Common Prayer, also a convenient and comely surplice. The pulpit is not comely and decently placed. There is no cloth for the pulpit, nor cloth of linen for the Communion Table’, and again in 1586 ‘the pulpit is not decent’, and in 1592 ‘we lack a cloth for the Communion Table; also the first part of the Book of Homilies’. Now, however, the Archdeacon finally came up with a solution: ‘the churchwardens were ordered to provide a cloth for the Communion Table, a silk cloth for the pulpit, and the Book of Homilies’.  

In 1591 the problem was with the vicar, Robert Jenkinson:

1. We present our Minister for being absent from service four Sabbaths together, from the 10th of October to the 1st of November. And at other times since Midsummer, two Sabbath Days.

2. Our Minister, for keeping the Register Book so that we know not whether the christenings and burials be entered into the book, yea or no.

3. Our Minister, for that his houses are not so largely maintained as heretofore they have been, and between the hall house and the barn there is a house burnt down and not set up again. Also the dove-house is let fall down, that belongeth to the Vicarage.

Despite these complaints, the parish continued largely untroubled by religious controversy. Only one parishioner, Richard Sharpe, was examined at an Archdeacon’s Court for Puritan views, and that was in 1599; the grounds for his summons were detailed as follows:42

1. He hath of late published and affirmed that the Book of Common Prayer is heresy.

2. That the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer is a charm.

3. That no ministers are to be allowed in the Church but preaching ministers.

4. That the Sacraments are no Sacraments, being administered without a sermon.

5. That Common Prayer is not needful in Churches, because it may be read at home.

6. That where in the Litany we pray for travellers by sea and land, and for women labouring with child, that we do but pray for ‘theeves and hawes’.

7. That Holy Days are not to be kept, because they be ordained by men, not God.

His defence to the charges was as follows:

To the first he denieth that he uttered the same; also the second.

To the third he confesseth that he hath said that he knew not whether unpreaching ministers were ministers or not.

To the fourth, he confesseth that he said he thought that the Sacrament was not Sacrament without a sermon.

To the fifth, he confesseth that he said that Common Prayer was not sufficient, because they received nothing thereby, and they could utter it at home.

To the sixth, he confesseth that he said he disliked the prayer, for then we prayed for the Spaniards and other enemies of the truth of God.

The seventh he denied the same. He owned and alleged that he hath not, nor doth obstinately affirm as before he hath confessed, but only uttered his opinion what it was; wherein so far forth as he hath erred, he is sorry and willing to be informed and reformed.

The Judge must have been impressed by Sharpe’s contrite manner as he simply ordered that Sharpe ‘go to Mr Simons, Vicar of St Nicholas in Thanet, or to Mr Jenkinson, Vicar of St John's, and confer with them or either of them, touching these matters for his instruction’.

Not surprisingly, disagreements would sometimes arise in these very difficult times between the ministers of neighbouring parishes. One such occurred in 1620, between the vicar of St Peter’s the Apostle and William Stone, described as ‘Minister and Lecturer at St John the Baptist’:42

A presentment made by the Vicar of [the] parish of St Peter’s the Apostle in Thanet, of the delinquents whose names and qualities hereunto arc certified: —

1. Forasmuch as Thomas Elwood, a parishioner of this my parish, coming unto myself upon the 4th day of October last past, between the hours of eight and nine of the clock in  the morning, about the baptizing of a son of his own, born unto him on Friday before in the evening, and then at the time of his coming to me pretended to be weak, having answer from me that I was even then ready to do my ministry, and replying that he had not as then his witnesses ready, but that he had to fetch them from Sandwich, which is a town five miles from us, did not only defer the baptism of his child until the next day, on the which I told him I had to be from home, but also without my leave and against my will procured Mr William Stone, Minister and Lecturer at St John the Baptist in the same Isle of Thanet, to baptise the same. I do by these presents present both him the same Thomas Elwood, the father of the child, and him the same William Stone, the Minister of the Baptism, unto your Court as delinquents against the wholesome and laudable constitutions of our Venerable Church, and humbly desire of the same your Reverend Court their correction.

2. Again, forasmuch as on the Sunday following, which was the 8th day of October, at what time the child baptized was brought into the Church according to another constitution of the same our Venerable Church, there to have the baptism thereof to be published unto the congregation, and with all to be further proceeded with all, according to our Venerable Church Order and Rites as by the last rubric in private baptism is appointed, the forenamed William Stone standing there at the font, as both the Minister of the former act and as one of the godfathers, did at what time I offered to minister unto the child the ceremonies receptant thereof into pastoral charge, together with the consignation, make strong and peremptory opposition, whose example was followed both by the forenamed Thomas Elwood, the father of the child, and also by Henry Joanes of the parish of St John the Baptist, who stood at my font as the other godfather, and also by John Howman’s wife of the parish of St Lawrence in Thanet, the midwife and holder of the child, who refused to deliver me the child or suffer me to minister unto it in her arms. I do by these presents present unto your Reverend Court all these same four forementioned persons, to wit, William Stone, Thomas Elwood, Henry  Joanes, and good wife Howman, as open either contemners of our Church Order, or at the least disturbers of the Minister in his Ministry. By me, Leonard Rowntree, Vicar. 

In 1620 the vicar of St John’s was Humphry Wheatly, and the fact that William Stone was described as a Lecturer suggests that Wheatly was not a preaching Minister.14 There is no record of the outcome of the complaint.

Wheatley died in 1631 to be replaced by Peter Criche [or Oriche or Creech] who drowned with his parish clerk on a voyage to London in a hoy.14 Peter Chriche was replaced by John Banks who resigned the position in 1647 having been offered the ‘rich rectory’ of Ivy Church, in Romney Marsh.14 One of Banks’s innovations was, in 1641, to take an inventory of the contents of the church:47

A note of such goods and imployements as are belonging to the pishe church of St-John’s ye Baptist, in the Isle of Thanett.

Comprising two silver cups, with one silver cover, used at the time of administering the Holy Communion.

Item — three pewter flaggones used at the like occasion, and were given by Mr Valentine Pettit, deceased.

Item — a deske; three books, one of Jewell's workes, the other two of the Acts and Monuments of the Church [Foxe’s ].

Item — a Bible, two bookes of Comon Prayer, a booke of Cannons, a booke of Homileyes, and other smalle bookes of paper appointed to bee read for several purposes.

Item — a Communion table, and a carpett thereunto belounging.

Item — two old tables, and one cushion.

Item — a newe pulpitt cloath and cushion, both of greane cloath.

Item — one old pulpitt cloath and cushion, both of silke.

Item — a surplus and a hoade.

Item — two chestes one with three lockes, and the other with one locke.

Item — one old trunke, and one pewter bason.

Item — foure laddera, a spade, a shovel, a spud, a ladle, and mattock.

Item — ten settinge formes, one planke forme to worke on, and sixe old bell-wheels not serviceable.

Item — in the vestry, three tressells, a shoote for leade, and parte of a fourme for the sheets to runne; certaine old leade, and foure small piggs of leade.               .

Item — a saint’s bell, a beer to carry the dead corps on, and xviii of bell metle.

Item — five peeces of new timber cont. by estimacton, two tun lyeing in Edward Mussared's place.

Item — one spill pin, one drift pin, an iron chisell, and some olde iron.

Item — a table cloath of linnen, and a napkin for the Communion table.

Item — in the steple, certaine posts of timber and planke to trusse the bells, three long peeces of timber, and two winch rowles.

Item — a new stoole to sett the coffins on in sermon time.

An inventory was taken each year up to 1653 and remained substantially the same. The mention of ‘ten settinge formes’ is interesting, and could refer to benches or simple pews for the parishioners. Thomas Staveley, in his History of Churches in England published in 1773, describes the early history of the pew:48 

Now the churches were always furnished with some necessary seats for ease and convenience; yet those of that sort which we now have were set up but at, or since the Reformation, for many ceremonies, and processions, and other services, could not be performed, if seats had been posited as now they are. And for regulating the ancient seats, such as they were, I find this constitution in a synod held at Exeter by Peter Wivil, Bishop of that diocese, in the fifteenth year of King Edward III. ‘Whereas we are given to understand, that the Parishioners do often quarrel about the seats, to the great scandal of the church, and disturbance of Divine Service, frequently two or more challenging the same seat; we do ordain that from henceforth none shall claim any property in any seat in the church except noblemen and patrons: And if any come into the church to say their prayers, let them do it in what place they please.’ From this constitution, and for other reasons, I apprehend, that before Henry VIII his time, that is, before the Reformation was begun, there were not any pews or seats to be seen in our churches, except some that were appropriated to persons of quality and distinction: and some are apt to think, that those which our ancestors then had were moveable, and the property of the incumbent; if so, consequently at his disposal. For before the Reformation, it was the use for the people to thrust up together near the priest, without respect to the condition and qualities of persons: and some would place themselves near to some altar, pillar, or tomb, with the convenience of a matt, cushion, or some small stool or form, to rest upon. But when the service of the mass (performed generally at the high altar, the priest turning his back to the people) was laid aside, and Divine Service ordered to be read in a desk, then both that and the pulpit were placed for the most convenience of the people’s hearing; and the whole church furnished with seats for that purpose; the ordering of the same being in the power of the ordinary [the minister], who placed the people and their families therein in decent manner, according to their respective ranks and qualities, as we see them continued to this day; and thereupon in time, some seats become appropriated to some certain capital messuages [houses] within the parish.

Certainly there was some form of seating in St John’s church by 1615 as in that year, during the Archdeacon’s visitation, the Churchwardens reported ‘the wife of Robert Young and the wife of John Cosbye, for not taking their places that were appointed to them’ and then ‘on the 5th of May, Young appeared in Court and confessed: that she is now contended to take the place in the Church of St John in Thanet that is appointed unto her by the Commissioners’.42 In fact, Mrs Young was still dissatisfied, and was once again called to appear at the Archdeacon’s court on October 23 to announce again to the court that ‘she is contented to sit in the seat appointed unto her by virtue of a commission taken out of this Court, and she do sit in the said seat appointed unto her’.42 In another case, in 1626, two boys, Thomas Creed and Christopher Russell, had been fighting in church; Thomas Creed was questioned by the Churchwardens and his defence was that he had hit Russell with his elbow ‘unawares’ after Russell had pulled him ‘out of his seat wherein he did peaceably sit to hear Divine Service’.

An entry in the parish registers reports that in 1714 a private gallery had been erected in the church, generating a long running argument about ownership of a pew in the gallery, which was only settled after a legal opinion had been obtained:49

In the year 1714 Mr Edward Bing & several other persons at that time Parishioners of St Johns Thanet, by the consent of the then Minister, Churchwardens & Inhabitants, erected a Gallery in the middle Chancel at the East end of the Parish Church there at their private expence, each of the Subscribers taking a separate Pew for the use of himself & his Family. Several of these Pews have been transferred at different times from one to another as Personal Property.

Mr Edward Bing died many years since possessed of his Pew in this Gallery leaving an only son Edward Bing his Executor & Residuary Legatee.

Mr Edward Bing the son enjoyed this Pew without interruption for his life. He died in or about the year 1774 leaving a Will, by which . . .  [after] certain specific Legacies therein contained not comprehending this Pew, He gave all the residue of his personal estate to his Wife Ann Bing for her life & after her decease to his nephew Benjamin Solly his Executors & administrators.

In or about the month of May 1765 Edward Bing junior a Son of the last Mr Bing intermarried with Alice Cowell the Niece of Mrs Bing his Mother. He died in or about the year 1770 in the life time of his Father the last Mr Bing leaving the said Alice his Widow him surviving. She hath since intermarried with Mr Robert Eason & is now living.

Upon & for some time previous to the present Mrs Eason’s marriage with the late Mr Edward Bing junior she was permitted, owing as it is presumed to the family connection by Mr Bing her Father in Law during his life & after his decease, by Mrs Bing his Widow & residuary Legatee for life during her life to have a Seat in the Pew above mentioned. This Seat having been enjoyed by Mrs Eason upwards of twenty years under such permission, Mrs Eason now claims a right hereto, which Mr Solly the substituted residuary Legatee of the last Mr Bing [denies].

The before mentioned Gallery is erected over a Chancel being private property & all the Galleries in the Church have been considered private property & locked up for security from being interrupted, & by long custom have been transferred from one to another & Pews in the Gallery have been customarily let & hired for different lengths of . . .  [time?] as parties have agreed upon, Mr Solly having sold his part of [another] Gallery in the Church & taken possession of the above mentioned Pew.

Your Opinion is therefore requested Whether the Sole Property of this Pew is not vested in Mr Solly & whether he cannot maintain the same against Mr [sic] Eason’s claim of a right to a seat therein. Upon the state of this Case I cannot see how Mrs Eason can maintain a claim of Right to a seat in this Pew, the Presumption is very strong indeed, to me it appears more than presumption, I think it to be very plain from the case stated, that her original &  [continued] use of the Seat was from Family courtesy only, such courtesy as no Family that was not divided, could deny & such as one shou’d think wou’d never induce any one to set up a claim under. I think the property of the Pew, such as it is, is in Mr Solly . . .  that he can maintain it against Mrs Eason.

E. Benson, Cant [Canterbury] 2 July 1785.



In 1643 the English Parliament decreed that a covenant should be taken by every Englishman over the age of eighteen, agreeing that the church would be reformed ‘according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches’. Parliament decreed that the covenant should be taken by every Englishman over the age of eighteen. In 1643 John Banks, then the minister at St John’s, summoned the parishioners to the church where they swore ‘to the solemn league and covenant’, and the churchwarden’s accounts include a charge of 3s ‘for writing the covenant and parchment’.47 Puritan families in many parts of the country at this time rejected traditional Christian names associated with Catholic saints for their children, and instead used names from the Old Testament or newly minted names descriptive of Christian values, such as ‘Lovewell’, ‘Do Well’ and ‘Temperance’. This fashion did not catch on at St John’s, the only new names appearing in the register being only mildly odd, such as ‘Godlie’, ‘Mercy’, ‘Godgift’ and ‘Freegift’.47 It seems the parish was continuing its tradition of religious moderation.     

In 1653 Parliament ordered that the parish registers were to be taken out of the hands of ministers and given to a registrar, chosen by the parish and sworn in by a justice of the peace. Although no record of the administration of this oath is included in the registers for St John’s, there is a record of the event in the neighbouring parish of St Peter’s, and presumably the oath taken at St John’s would have been very similar:47 

The oath of John Baker for marriages, births, and burials, in the parish of St Peter the Appostle in the Isle of Thanet, administered before me, Thomas White, of the towne and port of Dovor, Jurat and Justice of the Peace there, and in the limbes and precincts thereof, this 1st day of June, 1654.                 

‘You shall sweare that you shall duely and truly during the tyme you shull coutinew register Register all marriages, and birthes of children, and burialls of all sorts of people within the said parish of St Peter the Appostle in the said isle, and the names of everie of them, and the dates of the moneth and yeare of publicacion of marriages, births, and burialls, and ye parents, guardians and overseer’s names, whereof you shall have notice according to the Act of Parliament in that behalfe made. So helpe you God.’


Many ministers protested when the registers were taken out of their hands. The following note occurs in the St John’s register after a baptism on December 11, 1653:47

Henceforward untill [blank] you must look to have this register somewhat confused, for it was kept in confused times, and when the government was broken and imprisoned, when Hypocrisy reigned and proclaimed her­self by the name of Religion, and this poore nation lay under an arbitrary government, our lives, libertyes, and estates for divers year last past being subject to be taken away by a vote of a piece of an House of Commons without any legall  tryall or judgment by peers, according to the law untill ye Lord Generall of ye army took on him ye government and then we began to have some rules to live by.

The first registrar chosen at Margate was Edward Culmer, a member of a family renowned for its puritanical fervour; it was one of the Culmers who destroyed the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral. It seems probable, from the way that he signed his name, that he could not write, but he did not hold the office for long, as he died in 1656. After his last signature in the register someone has written ‘Exit Culmer’.47 Culmer was replaced by the parish clerk, Francis Cory, who was able to write, and who held the post until 1693 when he died.

During the Interregnum, marriages were generally, although not always, performed by magistrates rather than by a minister in a church. For example, on December 26, 1653, ‘Edward Paine and Elizabeth Nash were mar­ried by Justice [he is sometimes called Major] Foach at his house at Monkton’, and ‘Richard Younng, Bach. and Ann Egender, Virgin . . . were married by Justice Foach the 9th day of October, 1656’; marriage bans were sometimes published in the parish church and sometimes ‘in Sandwich markett’.47 It is not clear why Major Foach, a Justice of the Peace at Monkton, was marrying couples from Margate, as this would seem to represent an extension of the jurisdiction of the Kent magistrates into the Cinque Ports. Major Foach is probably the troop leader addressed in a letter from the Council of State in 1651 asking him to keep the peace in Kent:50

August 27, 1651. Council of State to Major Foach. We ordered you to march up to London, with your troop for strengthening the guards of the Parliament and city, since which, upon information received, we think you should remain in the quarters in which you were before our last order to you, in [Kent], and have a special care to prevent any trouble or insurrection in those parts by enemies to the peace, by hindering their meetings, and passing up and down the country, and stopping all persons who are suspicious, and cannot give a good account of their occasions. Be very careful in this business, there being more than ordinary cause.

John Banks was followed as minister in 1647 by John Laury [or Lawrey]; John Lawry died in 1655 and John Lewis reports that for the following few years there was no permanent minister at Margate.14 It seems that the Churchwardens worked hard to find a suitable successor to John Lawry as their accounts include several charges for journeys to consult the former vicar, John Banks, who had moved to Ivy Church.47 In 1657 Edward Riggs moved to the parish from Deal and, John Lewis reports, ‘for [his] encouragement a collection was made that same year for building the chalk-wall round the Vicarage Green’ and the Churchwardens accounts for 1658 contain the entry ‘Paid to Francis Parker for two posts to make the Gate on Mr Riggs his Wall’.14 Edward Riggs remained vicar until at least December 1659 when he married a couple in the church, but it is not known what happened to him after that; it is possible that he had to resign his position at the Restoration.47 His successor, appointed in 1660, was Thomas Stephens [or Stevens], previously vicar of St Peter’s. This was a strange appointment; Lewis records that he was removed from St Peter’s ‘for Incontinency’, meaning that he had led a licentious life, and Lewis adds, he had ‘some way or other rendered himself very obnoxious and unacceptable to the People of both Parishes [St Peter’s and St John’s]; but he did not continue here long.’ In fact, he was buried at St John’s on January 2 1662. 1662 was a momentous year for the Church of England as the passing of the Act of Uniformity that year, requiring the clergy to take an oath to follow the rites, ceremonies, and doctrines prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, led to the expulsion of over 2000 clergymen from the Church. Four ministers were ‘ejected’ in this way in the Isle of Thanet, from St Peter’s, St Lawrence, Monkton, and St Nicholas, but not from St John’s.51 It is not quite clear what implications can be drawn from this fact as John Lewis claimed that no minister was ejected from St John’s simply because ‘there was no settled minister’ there at the time to be ejected.51 However, a contemporary diarist recorded on July 27, 1662 that ‘Mr [Stephen] Street, at St John’s in this island, was silenced and put by preaching by Capt. Rook, by special order from the king himself, because the book that was set out concerning the execution of Col. Oakey and two others was seen at his house’.51 The Colonel John Oakey referred to here was a religious radical, actively involved in the trial and execution of Charles I, who fled abroad but was arrested and executed in 1662. Possibly Stephen Street was a curate or assistant to the minister at St John’s; Street’s daughter said ‘that he only preached in this island [the Isle of Thanet] for some time occasionally’.51

What is clear is that Thomas Stephens was replaced by John Overing, previously curate at Minster. Overing had made himself very popular at Minster and the Churchwardens at St John’s had requested that Overing move there after the departure of Edward Riggs, but had been unsuccessful in their request. After the death of Thomas Stephens they again applied to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking that Overing be appointed, and this time they were successful.14,47 Unfortunately, they soon came to regret their decision, and in 1665 they made a number of serious complaints against Overing. One complaint was that he had been absent from the parish for a long period of time. This was a serious issue. If a minister was away from his parish he was expected to pay for a curate to carry out his duties during his absence; the ‘cure [or care] of souls’ by instruction, sermons and administration of the sacraments was seen as the prime responsibility of a parish priest. Failing in these duties could lead to sequestration [removal] of the assets of the parish such as tithes and glebe lands, which would be held by the Churchwardens until a new priest was appointed.52 Unfurtunately for Overing he had also fallen out with his Churchwardens, and the Archbishop took the decision that the assets of the parish should be sequestered. In July 1665 Overing applied to the Archdeacon’s Court at Canterbury to have the sequestration lifted:42 

On the 11th day of July 1665 Mr John Overing, cleric, Vicar of St John the Baptist, appeared in Court, and said: That he was absent from his Vicarage for about the space of three or four months at several times, but did in such his absence take care with the churchwardens for the supply and serving of the Cure, and see it was accordingly done, as he believeth, he promising the said churchwardens to allow according to the proportion of the living, and the said churchwardens and parishioners did seem to be therewith satisfied and contented.

And as to the obliterating of some letters in the Church, he said that whereas John Crampe, one of the churchwardens of St John’s, had his name written or painted upon the wall of the said Church, by the name of John Crump, but he understanding his name to be John Crampe (he being commonly called by that name) did with his staff endeavour to make an "a" of the "u", which was all he did.

And as to his calling the sequestration a bug-bear, he said and confessed: That upon the churchwardens and some others of the parishioners telling him that by virtue of that sequestration he had lost his living, and had nothing to do there, he told them that as to that the sequestration was but a bug-bear, but he did not speak in any such contemptuous manner as is specified.

And as to the two days presented, namely, the 5 April and the 29 May last past, he saith that he wrote to the churchwardens to provide for the supplying of those days of the said Church, and he did know nothing to the contrary but that the Cure was served accordingly. Wherefore he humbly prayeth that the said sequestration may be decreed to be released, promising that he will constantly reside upon his said living and duly discharge the Cure thereof in all respects as by the Canons is required. Then the judge admonished him that he do reside upon his vicarage of St John’s and duly discharge the Cure according to the Canons.

It is not clear what then happened to John Overing. The Calendar of State Papers for 1664-5 include a letter written to Joseph Williamson:53

5th February 1665. John Wakefield, Queen’s College, Oxford, to Joseph Williamson. The Vicarage of St John, Isle of Thanet, worth £100 a year, is void by the removal of Mr Overing to Old Fish Street, London; it is in the gift of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Begs assistance to obtain it, if he thinks it worth the having.

John Lewis 1736 | Margate History
Figure 30. Portrait of John Lewis, from the second edition of his ‘History and antiquities as well ecclesiastical as civil, of the Isle of Thanet’, 1736.

In fact, John Overing never moved to a parish in the Diocese of London and certainly John Wakefield did not become Vicar of Margate; the next vicar of Margate was Nicholas Chewney, who was appointed in 1665 and died in 1685.14,42,54 Chewney was followed by Gilbert Innys [Innes] who resigned in 1692 to go to Maidstone. John Lewis reports that the parish was so poor at this time that to encourage Innys to take the post ‘the Principal Inhabitants of this Parish, obliged themselves to pay him yearly an Augmentation of £40’.14 Innys was followed by George Stevens [Stephens] who left in 1697 to take up the post of vicar of Shrivingham, and, as reported resignedly by John Lewis, ‘ever since  . . .  this poor Vicarage has been under sequestration, and served by . . .  curates’, John Johnson (1697-1703), John Warren (1703-1705) and John Lewis himself (1705-1747).14,54 Lewis was certainly right that the position of vicar at St John’s was a poor one. There were some tithes in the parish that went to the vicar, and some Glebe land, originally of about 15 acres, although about half an acre of Glebe land at a place called Sea-Deales and half an acre at Rockinstairs had been washed away by the sea. In 1709 the value of the living was estimated to be just £49 2s 6d a year.14 However, this was not Lewis’s only source of income, as, from 1708, he was also vicar of Minster in Thanet, worth £250 a year and held positions at Eastbridge and Saltwood, worth £30 and £80 a year, respectively.55  Why St John’s was in sequestration from 1697 is not known; after Lewis’s death in 1747 the parish again obtained a vicar, so that the sequestration had presumably been lifted by then. John Lewis is, of course, best known to us as the author of his invaluable history of the Isle of Thanet, published in a first edition in 1723 and in a second edition in 1736; his portrait is shown in Figure 30.14,40

Surviving parish documents, apart from the registers of births, marriages and burials, are concerned mainly with the management of the poor(Chapter 4). However, entries in the volumes of the Visitations of the Archdeacon of Canterbury give us a picture of what petty crime and misbehaviour were like in Margate in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.42,56 During a visitation any ‘improprieties’, any matters of public scandal in the parish, would be reported by the churchwardens to the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon would then issue orders for any changes he thought necessary in the parish, together with a list of any individual penances he had imposed. Such penances were usually a simple ‘Declaration Penance,’ a confession to be read publicly in the church, reciting the offence and expressing penitence, although the penance could be performed in private if the churchwardens thought the offender was of generally good character or of good social standing. Those accused of more serious offences were summoned to appear before the Archdeacon’s court in Canterbury.

Complaints made to the Archdeacon often concerned purely church matters such as regularly missing Sunday services. For this a parishioner would first be fined but, if they refused to pay the fine, they would be reported to the Archdeacon. In 1597 the churchwardens complained of Joseph Norwood, Nicholas Seare, and Robert Kirkby ‘for that we demanded twelve pence apiece of them for their absence from Church, and they refuse to pay it.’ Joseph Norwood was reported again in 1614 ‘for not coming to our Parish Church this twelvemonth to hear Divine Service.’ Norwood was summoned to the Archdeacon’s court later that year where Stephen Strong, a notary public, appearing on his behalf, said of Norwood ‘that for three quarters of that year . . . he was so continually grieved with sickness and disease in his body, that he could not go unto his Parish Church, and for the rest of the time there were four other just and lawful causes that hindered him.’ Norwood was fortunate to have a legal representative to speak for him; he could afford it as he was a member of one of the principal families of Margate. 

Parishioners working on a Sunday were a common cause for complaint. Thomas Deale was reported in 1581 ‘for being absent from Common Prayer on the Sabbath Day, and for grinding with his windmill,’ Richard Knowler was reported in 1593 for using his beer-cart on the Sabbath Day, and in 1611 Robert Spracklinge was reported for ‘reap[ing] the wheat of Thomas Spracklinge on the Sabbath day.’  Drinking and playing sports instead of attending church was also frowned on. In 1600 ‘Alexander Borage, William Parker, Ralph Tebb, with the rest of their associates’ were reported ‘for playing at Bowles in time of Divine Service, forenoon and afternoon.’ In 1605 William Huffe and John Taylor were found drinking in the house of Robert Harbie, a victualler, instead of attending church. In 1615 John Cosbie, another victualler was reported ‘for entertaining of divers persons at sundry times, playing and drinking in time of Divine Service upon the Sabbath Days.’ Cosbie’s defence was that ‘upon one Sunday in harvest time last past the churchwardens of the parish of St John’s, coming into his house in the time of Divine Service in the afternoon, found two persons in his house going to play at tables, but what their names were he knoweth not, for that they were strangers, poor harvesters’; ‘tables’ was a popular game similar to backgammon, played on a flat board.57 In 1610 Roger Coleman and his wife were reported ‘for keeping victualing in the time of Divine Service on Trinity Sunday 1610, and since upon another Sunday, at which times they kept ill rule by selling drink and entertaining divers disordered persons in their house in Service time.’ Roger Coleman was also reported ‘for being a man given to excessive drinking and drunkenness,’ and his wife for being ‘a very malicious and contentious person among her neighbours, railing on them and troubling them.’ Railing and scolding were seen as largely female vices likely to result in discord in the community.  In 1561 Ann, the wife of Henry Paine, and Elizabeth Druett were reported as common scolds, and Ann was ordered to ‘behave in future.’ In 1598 Margaret Cates, the wife of Charles Cates, had also been reported ‘for a railer and scolder, coming into the Church and misusing the schoolmaster in evil words, and throwing a stone at him in the Church, among the children.’ 

The churchwardens complained several times about fighting in and around the church. In 1578 they reported that ‘Austen Carpenter did fight with one Gilbert Wimark in the churchyard, and there drew bludd.’ In 1612 John Savage was reported for striking Paynton’s servant in Church: he claimed that ‘he and Paynton’s servant being in the Church together, did then wrestle and strive together in jest, and some blows passed between them, but all was in merriment without any malice or anger between them.’ In 1617 the minister accused Winter Churchman, a weaver, of ‘striking of Leonard Browne, Parish Clerk, in the churchyard of St John’s aforesaid, who would not desist from beating him till I myself came and pulled him from the said Leonard, lying under him.’ Another case, already described, involved two boys, Thomas Creed and Christopher Russell, who ‘did in the Church, in the time of Divine Service, strike each other with their hands or arms.’  Creed was called to appear at the Archdeacon’s Court, and claimed in his defence ‘that he did unawares hit the said Russell with his elbow on the face, and thereby caused his nose to bleed’ when Russell pulled him out of his seat.

Particular complaint was made of the general behaviour of John Covell, or Cavell. He was reported by the minister in 1613 ‘for that by the space of two years or at least twelve months last past or thereabouts, [he] hath been and is a great ale-house haunter and given to drunkenness, or at the least to excessive drinking, and for that in the said time he hath been and is at the said ale-house such a common gamester, and an enticer of others to excessive drinking, unthriftness, and drinking. Also that within the time aforesaid he hath attempted the chastity or offered very incontinent behaviour and gesture, with or unto divers women, hereafter if need require to be named. Also for that within the time aforesaid he hath been and is vehemently suspected to live incontinently with divers women, hereafter, as occasion shall need, to be named. Also for scoffing at and abusing me the said Vicar in divers ale-houses in the time aforesaid, by virifull speeches uttered before people, and by scurrilous and base gestures to the great contempt and depraving of my person and calling.’ 

The churchwardens also had problems with Alexander Violett. In 1588 he was first reported for being often absent from church on a Sunday; his excuse, when he appeared in Court was ‘that he came not to the Church in that time for that he was bitten with a dog, and by manner thereof was not able to go to the Church’. Ten years later he was again reported for not attending church and for refusing to pay for ‘four or five Sundays’ absence, being demanded of him.’ His excuse this time ‘was for that he was not well, but grieved with a pain in his head and teeth so as he feared to come abroad, and also saith that many have died lately in the parish of St John’s, as it is suspected of the plawge [plague], which also somewhat moved him to absence from Church’. He was reported yet again in 1603 for not coming to the Church for a whole year, for not receiving Communion for the last three years and for ‘living most suspiciously in his house,’ ‘living suspiciously’ being a phrase used to describe any behaviour of which the churchwardens disapproved, but particularly referring to sexual misconduct.58 Benet Wayte, Alexander Violett’s female servant, was also reported ‘for not using to come to the Church, and for not receiving the Communion, living also suspiciously in the said house.’ More seriously, Alexander Violett had been reported in 1597 for consulting with a ‘witch or sorcerer’; his explanation was ‘that he had a child was sick, and there came one Chambers, a woman that told him his child had the "yelow jandis," and gave his child medicine for it.’ Paul Rigden was also accused of consulting with Chambers: Rigden confessed to the Court ‘that his wife was sick and there was one mother Chambers that had done some good unto divers others that were sick; he sent for her, but not as a sorcerer or witch as alleged.’ In fact witches were not particularly common in Margate. Alice Busshe of St Lawrence, but previously of St John’s, had been convicted of being a witch in 1561 and was ordered to perform a penance at Christ Church, Canterbury and in the Market Place in Canterbury; she failed to appear on two occasions and was excommunicated.56 In 1582 Goodwife Swane was reported ‘for that she is vehemently suspected to be a witch, and she herself hath reported that she can make a drink, which she saith if she give it to any young man that she liketh well of, he shall be in love with her. And that she hath threatened one of her neighbours and upon words fell out with her, and told her that she would make her repent her falling out with her. And it is come to pass this same woman her neighbour hath never been well since.’

The Churchwardens were also responsible for ensuring that local schoolteachers and surgeons were properly licensed, and as described in Chapter 3, had occasion to report both unlicensed schoolteachers and, more worryingly, unlicensed surgeons such as Francis Carpenter, ‘who being a smith by trade, doth practise surgery without license’. The impression given from reading these cases is of churchwardens trying to maintain good order in the community, particularly among the poor; the poor, of course, probably saw this as their ‘betters’ trying to interfere in their private lives. The number of cases of sexual wrongdoing, excessive drinking, and ‘scolding’ were rather small, only one or two cases being reported by the churchwardens at each visitation, but then Margate at the time was also very small.


Smuggling and the Customs at Margate


Customs Officers

Coast-waiter: the officer who supervised the unloading of goods from ships from a British port.

Collector: the Customs official responsible for collecting customs duties in a port.

Comptroller: an alternative name for the Controller.

Controller: an official whose role was to check on the Customer.

Customer: originally the principal Customs official in charge of a port, and originally responsible for collecting customs duties in the port, a task later passed to the Collector. The post eventually became largely redundant, the most important official in practice being the Collector.

Land-surveyor: the officer in charge of the coast-waiters and land-waiters.

Land-waiter: the officer who supervised the unloading of goods from ships from foreign ports.

Riding officers: officers patrolling the coast line on horseback.

Searcher: an ‘indoor’ official who did not actually search ships or passengers, but supervised the import, export, and coastal business of the port.

Tide-surveyor: the officer in charge of the tide-waiters.

Tide-waiter: the officer who met ships arriving on high tide and ensured that all cargo was discharged into the custody of the land-waiter.


The nearest Margate got to organized crime was smuggling; Margate was well known as a smuggling town. In Letters of Momus from Margate published in 1777 Margate was described as being ‘almost central to a great number of little villages . . . which were originally the habitations of farmers and their dependants, but are now the receptacles of contraband goods. Indeed the whole Isle of Thanet exhibits only a general jumble of lawless confusion; everything is conducted by trick, and law and gospel are dispensed by smuggling’.59,60 A writer to the Morning Herald in 1784 described Margate as a ‘dirty, imposing, smuggling village’.61 The Kent coast was, of course, ideally suited for smuggling, being close to both the continent and to London. Large scale smuggling started in England when the government tried to protect the manufacturers of woollen cloth by imposing a tax on the export of wool and yarn.62 Smuggling then changed in the eighteenth century to the illegal import of a variety of goods, including jewellery, lace, silks, and, most importantly, tea, wines, spirits, tobacco and snuff, after the government started to impose duties on these goods to fund a long succession of wars. The peak of the smuggling trade was reached in the years 1700 to 1840; it was estimated that in 1773 15,000 men were engaged in smuggling in Kent alone, with an average of 1,500 gallons of Geneva (gin), 450 gallons of brandy and 4½ tons of tea being smuggled through Kent and Sussex per day, by 1783.63

The government took a number of steps to combat the smugglers and protect its revenues. A national customs system was created in 1275. The coastline of England was divided up into administrative regions, referred to as ports. Each port consisted of a head port and, usually, one or more member ports, together with a number of smaller landing places, called creeks.64 Custom officials were based at the head port and at any member ports, but not at the creeks. Initially there were 13 head ports but, during the reign of Elizabeth I, this was increased to 21. One of the head ports was Sandwich, included in which were the member ports of Rochester, Milton, Faversham and Dover, together with creeks at Queenborough, Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate and Deal.62 From time to time the membership changed, with Deal and Dover becoming head ports in the eighteenth century and Ramsgate and Folkestone achieving head port status in the nineteenth century. 62 It was not until 1732 that Margate became a member port rather than just a creek.

A confusingly large set of officers were responsible for running the customs establishments at these ports. There were originally three principal officers appointed by the Crown at each head port, the customer, the controller and the searcher.65 The most important of these was the customer, who was responsible for the collection of customs duties in the port. With time the job of actually collecting the duties was passed to another official, the collector, and the job of the customer became that of returning the accounts each year to the Exchequer in London, and of monitoring the coastal trade of the port to prevent goods from being smuggled abroad. Later, the roles of customer and collector merged into one post that was sometimes called customer and sometimes collector. The second Crown appointment was the controller, who was appointed to act as a check on the customer. The controller was expected to keep an independent account of the port’s overseas trade, sitting next to the customer in the customs house and making his own record of all overseas shipments and the duties paid on them. Each year the accounts of the controller were also sent to the Exchequer so that they could be checked against those of the customer. Although this might seem wasteful duplication, it was designed to minimize fraud.

The third of the Crown appointments at a headport was the searcher. His role was to supervise the import and export and coastal business of the port. Despite his name the searcher did not actually search either ships or passengers. Rather, he had two basic duties. The first was to confirm that the goods on a ship matched what was declared at the customs house which he did by overseeing the loading and unloading of cargoes. The second involved boarding outbound ships to inspect their cargoes and check that these matched the certificate of customs paid, known as a cocket or coquet, a word derived from the Latin phrase quo quietus est, meaning ‘by which it is cleared’. The searcher was always the most likely of the customs officers to be corrupt because he could defraud the customs without any of his fellow officers knowing about it. The job of the searcher, like that of the customer, gradually changed with time and other, more junior, officials were appointed to carry out many of tasks he used to perform, particularly the tide waiters, the land waiters, and the coast waiters. Tide waiters met ships arriving on the high tide and made sure they tied up at the appropriate place on the quay; the tide waiters were overseen by a tide surveyor. A number of boatmen were employed to get the tide waiters on and off ships when they were anchored off shore. Once a vessel had tied up at the right place the unloading of goods would be supervised by a land waiter, if the ship was from foreign parts, or a coast waiter, if the ship was from a British port; the land and coast waiters were supervised by a land surveyor. Finally, riding officers patrolled the coast line on horseback for up to about 10 miles inland, to combat smuggling. Riding officers were often shared between head ports. 

The Customs officials had to administer a complex set of laws, with an associated complex set of paperwork. The coquet was a small parchment receipt for the payment of export duties; goods carried along the coast required a coquet from the port of origin. Goods that had been brought in from abroad and on which duty had already been paid were allowed to go from port to part without the payment of any further duties, under a document called a transire. Documentation of this type was not, however, required for items of low value, judged not worth importing illegally; such goods, including timber, iron, hemp, rope and other ‘heavy’ goods, were referred to as ‘gruff’ goods, in contrast to ‘fine’ goods such as cloth, wine, jewellery and so on. Gruff goods were allowed to move from port to port without documentation, under ‘let pass’ or ‘sufferance’. 

Despite the long history of the Customs service, it was not until 1671 that a permanent Board of Customs was established in London. The Board, as well as collecting customs revenue for the Treasury, was responsible for preventing and detecting smuggling, for which purpose they operated a fleet of boats patrolling the coast, referred to as the water guard.63 The water guard and the smugglers were in constant competition over who had the fastest boats.65 Initially the water guard only had modest smacks and sloops, but cutters and cruisers were then added, together with six-oared boats, although, unfortunately, the smugglers response was simply to use light, open craft that could hide in the shallows where the large customs boats could not go. In 1698 a new branch of the Customs was formed to help in the fight against smuggling, known as the Land Guard, consisting of ‘surveyors and riding officers’ who patrolled the coast on horseback, searching for contraband that had eluded the Revenue cutters; the service continued until 1865. Each officer of the Land Guard would normally patrol alone but could, in principal, call on help from the Army who, in the absence of a civilian police force, played an important role as guarantors of civil order.66 In practice, although small local units of dragoons (regular mounted soldiers) might be called on for help, many dragoon officers resented taking orders from a revenue man and so provided little help.63

Customs officials, as part of their jobs, were expected to guard the coast and prevent the entry of people thought for one reason or another to be ‘undesirable’; they were also expected to search people entering the country for letters that might help enemies of the Crown. Margate’s proximity to the continent meant that it was often a source of worry to those in power.  In 1326 a commission was issued to William de Grey and John de Shelvyng ‘to guard all places along the coast of the Thames between Recolvre, Gruyston and Whitstapel and search in all places where ships put in, both those entering the realm and those leaving the realm, and to arrest all who are carrying letters prejudicial to the crown, and send such letters with all speed to the king: as he is informed that many persons, to evade the scrutiny of the persons appointed in the several ports for the capture of such letters, are frequently landed there in ships and boats’.67 At the same time an equivalent commission was issued to Ralph de Sancto Laurencio and Thomas Pusserum for ‘the coast of the isle of Thanet and the ports of the towns of Margate and Stanregg’.67

In 1345 the Abbot of St Augustine’s, who owned much land in Thanet, kept a ‘keeper’ at Margate to control arrivals and departures from the town:68

Oct 13 1345. To the abbot of St Augustine’s, Canterbury. Order to cause the port of Margate and all other maritime places in his lordship in those parts to be safely guarded, and to cause all those bringing letters from parts beyond or taking them thither, except letters of the king or from those of his alliance to him, to be arrested with their goods, without delay, and to keep them safely until further order, sending such letters to the king and council, so that after they have been examined the king may cause what seems good to the council to be done, certifying the king in chancery of the names of those arrested and their goods, although the king by divers writs ordered the mayors and bailiffs of ports on the sea coast of co. Kent to arrest such persons in the said form, yet certain persons bringing bulls [Papal edicts] and other things prejudicial to the king and the community of the realm have newly come to the port of Margate, through the default of the abbot and his keeper in that port.

In 1354 a proclamation was issued stating that no one could cross to the continent from Margate because of the lack of control there:69

To Bartholomew de Burgherssh, constable of Dover castle and warden of the Cinque Ports, or to him who supplies his place. Order to cause proclamation to be made that no one shall cross from England at the place of Mergate, or at other privy places on the sea coast in Kent, other than in one of the said ports where the king has ordained a scrutiny to be made so that none of those crossing may carry things prejudicial to him, and that no one coming to the realm from parts beyond shall land elsewhere, and to arrest any crossing or landing without the said ports after the proclamation, unless they are driven by a storm, with the goods found with them, and keep them and the goods until further order, as the king is informed that numbers of men cross to parts beyond the sea at Margate and other privy places in the said county, and land there with letters prejudicial to the king and his people.                                       

In 1358 the prohibition was renewed, making it clear that no one should cross to the continent from Margate, but only from Dover:70

To Roger de Mortuo Mari, earl of March, constable of Dover castle and warden of the Cinque Ports, or to him who supplies his place in the port of Dover. Order not to permit any one to cross from any port or place in the liberty of the Cinque Ports, even if they have the king’s licence to cross from any port, or from the port of Dover without special licence, to cause proclamation to be made that no one shall enter a ship or boat to cross or shall presume to cross at Sandwich, Mergate or elsewhere than Dover, upon pain of forfeiture, and if he finds any crossing after the proclamation contrary to the form of this order, to arrest them with their horses, harness and goods and keep them safely until further order, certifying the king in chancery from time to time of the persons and things and the value of the things so arrested.                                    

A copy of the order was sent ‘to the bailiffs of Mergate’, bailiffs probably being an alternative name for the Pier Wardens.   

The Cinque Ports treated their independence very seriously and all communications between the Crown and the ports were expected to be directed to the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, who also held the post of Constable of Dover Castle, would then pass instructions on to the Deputy Constable, formerly known as the Lieutenant of Dover Castle. In February 1606 Henry Howard, first Earl of Northampton and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, wrote to Sir Thomas Fane, Lieutenant of Dover Castle, passing on a message he had received from the King, asking for a short, red-haired man to be arrested if he arrived in one of the ports:71

The Lord Warden to Sir Thomas Fane.

The matters I wrote to you about I am to recommend from the King's own mouth to myself. "I must require you with all speede possible to awake the Portes and charge them to putt on all their eyes of caution and curiouse observation whether any man do lande in port or creeke that is of little personage, a sharpishe nose, a shrimpishe face, a beard light auborne or somwhat more enclyninge to a reddishe yellowe, that he may be either stayed, till I have word or sent up, with sure garde of two or three, with so great care in the keepinge him from accesse or specche of any man till he be brought to me as I may answer both for myself and for the diligence and discretion of those that are putt in the leike trust in my absence to have an eye to these occurrences under me. It is likely that he will not tell his name, but he is northerly, which circumstance in his tongue may geve you some light also wherby to gesse at the right man, yf it be so  happy that he fall into their handes, that knowe the right waye howe to handle him." 

It is not recorded whether or not the man was spotted.

In May 1606 when the Lord Warden again wrote to the Lieutenant of Dover Castle, the problem was Irish beggars arriving unchecked at Margate:72

The Earl of Northampton to Sir Thomas Fane

I hear that the commissioners for passage at Dover and Margate have been of late very remiss in suffering great numbers of Irish beggars to be brought over and landed here, contrary to the express directions from my Lords of the Council. I pray you let them understand from me that if it be true, as it is reported, they shall not only run into danger themselves by their negligence, but cause an imputation and blame upon me. 

In 1635, the Lord Warden, now Theophilus Howard, 2nd Earl of Suffolk, wrote to Henry Crispe, Comptroller of the Customs at Dover,73 complaining that proper procedures for recording those arriving at the Cinque Ports, including Margate, had not been put in place:74

The Earl of Suffolk to Henry Crispe.

Whereas uppon notyce given by me to his Majestie and the Bord of the landinge of great numbers of strangers in the Portes within my government whoe in respect of troubles abord desyre to retyre into this kingdome for theire better safetie, his Majestie commiserating theire estate with the advise of the Bord was then pleased to admitt them passage and did in May last order and command me to give directions to keepe a particular booke or register of the names, sur­names, qualities and professions of all such strangers as then were arived or from thence forward should arrive at any of the said Portes with an intent to reside in this realme, and that they should from tyme to tyme send up a true copye or transcript thereof. And that I should direct and charge the Maiors and others whome it should concerne not to permit the said strangers so landinge to dwell and reside in any of the said Portes [but] to repaire to any of the said inland townes and more remote from the seas. According to the purport of which order I did addresse my letters to the Porte townes in generall to put the same order in execution, and som of them did only make return unto me of the persons that landed, but have not caused them to departe the Porte townes; neither have they since theire last certificates in Michlemas terme last past made known unto me of the great numbers of people since arrived, wherein they deserve much blame no more to regard his Majesty's command in that behalfe, it beinge so dangerous to this kingdome that if any enimy should arise, the numbers of strangers might neere equalize if not exceede the strength of those townes, and secondly the tyme of yeare cominge on it is dangerous for infection of the plague and other infectious deseases, and thirdlie verie incommodious for theire owne inhabitantes in raysing the prizes of victualls; but not the least of all to myselfe in my accompte to his Majesty when I shall be called thereto, touchinge the performance of this service by them hitherto neglected. And therefore these are to praye and require you to send copies of this my letter unto all the Maiors of the townes within my government to require them that they spedilie put the said oider in presente execution in all particulars. And that they shall also spedille give an accompt thereof, especially from the townes of Dover, Sand­wich, Margate, and Rye. . .  .     

And of all this I require as speedy an accompt as may be, because I knowe not how sone I shall be thereto called myselfe.

There were still problems with controlling entry at Margate in 1695:75

Sir William Trumbull to the Commissioners of the Customs. I am informed that a vessel, coming, as was pretended, from Ostend, landed lately at Margate about twenty persons, supposed to be foreigners and some of them officers, and it being a thing which may have very ill consequences if men coming from beyond seas are permitted to land without passes without any notice taken of it, I desire you will give orders to your officers at Margate and on that coast to look more diligently about them, and not suffer passengers to be put on shore without examining them, and taking a strict account of them; and if they are foreigners or his Majesty’s subjects (unless officers in his Majesty’s army), and have not passes, they are to detain them and give immediately an account thereof to me, together with their names and what they can discover of them, lest dangerous and disaffected persons to his Majesty’s government be invited thither, when they find there is so easy an entrance into the kingdom and that they may pass unobserved.

In 1696 Sir William Trumball wrote to the ‘Principal Officer of Customs at Margate’ about three foreigners of ‘evil design’ expected to land at Margate:76

I send you herewith the descriptions of three foreigners, who are expected shortly to land at Margate or thereabouts, with some evil design. I therefore desire you to be very watchful over persons coming to your port from abroad. If you find any who come near these descriptions, you are to secure them and give immediate notice to me thereof; also if any such persons have already gone, I desire you to give me notice of them, and where they may probably be found.

Appended is a description of three suspected persons: —

The first is a large, tall, well-shaped man, with broad shoulders and handsome legs, pretty full eyes and very black, his eyebrows thick and rough; he has great hands, and black hair upon his fingers. He now wears a periwig, but intends to leave it off, his hair being jet black and frizzed. He is about 48 years old, and has a tanned complexion.

The second is a man of wit, and bold. He is large, rather high-shouldered, and hangs his head down a little. He has a light brown complexion, small eyes, a great nose, hanging cheeks, a long chin, a large mouth, and his teeth are white as ivory. His left arm is somewhat shorter than his right, which happened by a wound he received. His legs are ill-shaped, he is much wrinkled between his eyebrows, has a very fierce look and a sort of bullying air. He wears a very light periwig, but designs to leave it off.   He is 55 years old.

The third is related to ------.    He is little, broad-shouldered and long-waisted for his height. He has a large head and forehead, black eyes, and his eyebrows hang a little over his eyes, a great round nose, and cheeks like a trumpeter, a handsome chin and red lips, pretty white teeth, a hand like a ploughman, and well-shaped legs. He is considered a very good soldier, and is drawn in upon hopes of preferment.

The following year Sir William Trumball wrote to the Commissioners of Customs about several Irish men expected to arrive in Margate:77

I have received advice from Holland that several Irishmen, belonging to a marine regiment in the service of the French King, design to come over to England from Holland or Flanders, intending to make an attempt upon the King’s person. You are to give directions immediately to your officers at the several ports, especially at Margate, whither the Flemish convoys usually come, to be very careful what passengers they permit to land, and to apprehend all persons, with their papers, who come without passes or whom they may have reason to suspect, sending notice thereof to me. I have as yet no other description of the persons, than that the sergeants wear blue coats with yellow trimming, and the private soldiers red coats with yellow trimming, if they have not changed their habit; but, even if they have, they may be distinguished by their speech, and discovered to be Irishmen.



Although the early history of the customs at Margate is obscure, we do know that in 1485 Thomas Creys, ‘one of the yeomen of the King’s chamber’, was appointed to ‘the office of searcher within the ports of Margate and Feversham, Kent, with wages &c out of the customs and subsidies of the said ports’.78 In 1660 a letter from the Council of State to the Commissioners of Customs warned them that John Glover ‘customer and searcher at Margate, and late postmaster there, is very intimate and holds correspondence with disaffected persons,’ for which reason he had been dismissed as postmaster; the Council suggested that the Commissioners of Customs ‘remove Glover from being customer and searcher of that port [Margate], and to put Hooke into the employment, if you hold him qualified’.79 It is not clear whether or not Glover was actually dismissed as customer and searcher but in 1672 we find him employed as  commander of a Customs smack at Margate, with ‘one mate, 6 men and a boy’.80 Glover lived in some style in Margate in the town’s largest house, the Mansion House, but it seems that he over-reached himself financially and he died in debt in 1685 (Chapter 1).

Locating a customs smack at Margate was clearly not a success as in 1675 the smack was removed to Queenborough, and Glover was dismissed ‘as an unnecessary officer’.81 However, moving the smack to Queenborough was also not a success, and in 1676 it was decided to get rid of it and to use the money saved to increase the salary of the waiter and searcher at Margate from £20 a year to £40, so that he could keep a horse to be used ‘for taking care of the Isle of Thanet’.82 At the same time John Smith, the existing waiter and searcher at Margate, was sacked.82

At small ports like Margate it was common for one person to fill several posts, and the searcher at Margate was also the tide and land waiter. In 1682 John Hunt was referred to as ‘surveyor, waiter and searcher’ at Margate; in 1684 he was dismissed and replaced by Christopher Merett, previously waiter and searcher at Sandwich, even though it was suggested that Merett ‘was too aged and infirm for that employment’.83,84 In 1685 it was decided to remove the element of the waiter and searcher’s salary that paid for him to keep a horse, and to use the money instead to maintain a boat and two men at Margate to protect the coast.85 The hope was that a ‘fit’ boatman would be able to ‘do the duty of waiters and searchers at land and be frequently in motion in their boats at sea occasionally as shipping shall approach their coasts’.85  In August 1687 Thomas Ryder was appointed ‘to be waiter and searcher and have the command of the boat and boatmen [at Margate] at £40 per an. salary’.86 However, he was dismissed in October 1687, to be replaced by Thomas Child.87 In 1690 Thomas Child was dismissed to be replaced by Abraham Hough, although Hough was appointed just as waiter and searcher, suggesting that the idea that a boatman could do it all had not worked out.88 For many years Abraham Hough was paid an extra £10 per year for ‘keeping the wool register in the Isle of Thanet, being 10 miles from Sandwich, the principal port, and having often occasion to visit the wool growers there and to inspect the disposition of their wool’.89 Abraham Hough was married to Hannah, one of the daughters of John Glover, the former waiter and searcher and postmaster at Margate.90 Unfortunately no reasons are given in the Treasury Entry Books for why any particular customs officer was dismissed, but the frequency of dismissals at Margate suggests that the Board of Customs was unhappy with the way that the customs establishment was operating there.

In 1718 it was decided to base a tide surveyor and a boat and a boatman at Margate to board ships at anchor in Margate Road, because ships not being monitored by a tide surveyor had  ‘great opportunities . . . for running their goods on shore’ and ‘several ships came into Margate from Holland and other parts without being inspected by any officer’.91 However, by 1729 the Customs Commissioners had concluded that putting tidesmen and mariners on board ships at Margate had been ‘of little service’ and, instead, decided to establish ‘four additional sloops at certain stations in the ports of Deal, Sandwich, Rochester, and London, to accompany ships up the river till they come under the care of the tide surveyors at Gravesend’.92



Successful smugglers, by the very nature of things, leave few written records to tell of their exploits, but we do at least know a little about their less successful colleagues. Some light is thrown on the kind of low-level smuggling that was probably common at Margate by two linked cases from the 1690s, involving a customs official, John Watkins, a one-time customs official, Thomas Child, the local postmaster, Paul Hart, a local mariner and would-be spy, John Lethered, and Richard Laming, a wealthy Margate hoy-owner. The tale of John Lethered (or Lithered or Letherhead), part mariner and part spy, has been told by Rachel Weil in her book, A plague of informers.93 In the early 1690s the Earl of Nottingham, the Secretary of State, arranged for spies to be sent to France to provide information about Jacobite plots against the Government and about the effects of the English blockade of Dunkirk. One of those recruited by his agent William Carter was John Lethered, a mariner who lived at Margate, owned his own boat, and made frequent trips between Margate and Dunkirk where he would usually stay a few weeks, arranging deals with the local merchants.94,95 To enable him to report on the state of the French defences, Lethered was given a Royal Pass allowing him to travel freely to the coast of France. Lethered was expected to provide his first report to William Carter early in May 1691, but was delayed for a few days by a lack of wind.95 When Carter visited Lethered’s wife in Margate on May 27 Lethered had still not returned from France:95

William Carter to Nottingham, May 27 1691

Having been at Margett in the Isle of Thanet in expectation to have met with Jo. Letherhead back from Dunkirk, etc., but his wife hearing nothing from him since he went away puts her upon doubts of [his] being lost, for that he usually made two or three voyages in the time; but I suppose while any part of their Majesties’ fleete lyes on the French coasts no English vessel, tho’ never so constant a trader, will be suffered to come out of their ports.

Carter added in his letter that Lethered’s wife ‘intends this day to go to Canterbury amongst their mer­chants to see if any letters are come from Dunkirk. I could not get any of their names from her’. Her reluctance to give up any of the names suggests that some of Lethered’s business might not have been totally legal.

It turned out that Lethered had experienced a number of problems while he was in Dunkirk, explaining his delayed return to Margate. He was later to attribute these problems to the actions of one the customs officers working at Margate, Abraham Hough. Little is known about Hough except that in November 1685 he had applied for a post in the Customs, ‘he having been bred a merchant’, and that he had been appointed waiter and searcher at Margate in April 1690, as a replacement for Thomas Child who was ‘lately dismissed’.96,97 Lethered claimed that Hough would not at first allow him to go to sea, ‘which obliged him to show the said Huff [Hough] his pass’, which sounds as if Hough was simply doing his job.94 However, Lethered went on to claim that, having seen his pass, Hough told others about it and, feeling that his mission was now widely known about, he decided he should provide cover for his spying mission to Dunkirk by acting like a smuggler, buying goods in Dunkirk to smuggle back to Margate. Lethered arranged that an officer in Margate would seize these ‘smuggled’ goods, but then, in private, would ‘quit the seizure’, returning the goods to him, allowing him to sell them and regain his money. This plan failed, again because of Huff. According to Lethered, on his arrival back at Margate ‘the said Huff with one John Anderson, pretending to have share in the seizure, the said Huff requiring some of the said goods to make cherry brandy, and being refused it, he made the designs of the deponents voyage . . .  public’, putting at jeopardy any future spying trip to France. When Lethered finally met Edward Russell, Lord of the Admiralty, on June 2 1691, to report on what he had discovered in Dunkirk, the meeting did not go well. Russell reported to Nottingham that ‘I do not find his report very probable’, but added that ‘the custom house officers have been a little hard with him, which may frighten others from going on the like service’.98

Despite these setbacks, William Carter wrote to Nottingham in July saying that he had persuaded Letherhead to undertake a second journey, although he had to provide him with money as ‘he was straitened for money (and the more for that his last return is still under seizure) but I have borrowed some for to set him out and promised to remit more to his wife in his absence . . . I shall be as frugal as the thing will bear in my own expense’.99 Nottingham replied to Carter a few days later:100

I have received your letter, and have had an account that the man you employ has in a public house talked very openly of his designs, by which it may seem that he does not intend to act honestly, and therefore is in no fear of being dis­covered, or else by his own indiscretion he will bring his life in danger, so that if you are satisfied he will be true to his trust, you may do well to advise him to be more cautious in his behaviour and discourse.

Meanwhile it had become common knowledge, both at Margate and at Dunkirk, that Lethered was a spy and ‘his merchant’ at Dunkirk advised him not to go, but Carter devised a way ‘to obviate that difficulty [by] not going into Dunkirk with his vessel, and yet to effect his design another way’, which seems to have been by sailing to Calais.99 At Margate though, Hough and Francis Diggs, the Deputy at Margate had, according to Lethered ‘used all means to prevent his going the second time which so discouraged the seamen that when ready to sail they deserted this deponent [Lethered] being informed they would all be hanged’.94 Lethered was only able to sail after John Watkins, described as ‘an Officer to their Majesties Voluntary’, as ‘Messenger extraordinary for preventing the exportation of wool’, and as a ‘King’s Officer’, had agreed to sail with him, which encouraged the others.94,101 Despite their cunning plan, Lithered was arrested as soon as he arrived in Calais, ‘his design being made known at Dunkirk, by means of an information sent [there] from an officer in the Isle of Thanet’; John Watkins claimed that the information had come from Abraham Hough, or, at least, ‘by his means.’ Meanwhile feelings were running high in Margate: ‘it was commonly reported that [Lethered] was gone to France almost as soon as he got out of sight, and his wife was abused by the mob, who rent her clothes from her and her flesh in several parts, telling her her husband was a rogue and gone to France to sell us’.102

Luckily for Lethered the Calais merchants spoke up for him and his crew, and they were all released. However, John Watkins explained that ‘the said Lithered was forced (to prevent suspicion) to bring from there, some other prohibited goods’ and, ‘to keep his designs private’ Watkins, together with Thomas Child, seized the goods when the boat arrived in Margate. The intention was then for the boat to continue on to London, ‘but the vessel proving leaky, was forced to land the goods at Romansgate [Ramsgate].’ The goods, nine parcels of thread, silk, and lace, were then carried from Ramsgate to Margate where John Watkins arranged for them to be left with Paul Hart the Postmaster at Margate until he could come to take them away. However, sometime later ‘the said goods were forcibly seized, and taken out of the possession and custody of the said Paul Hart by Mr Wallford, Collector of Sandwich, Mr Fisher another officer of Sandwich, Mr Hough Surveyor of their Majesty’s Customs at Margate, and Mr Francis Diggs, Deputy at Margate who assisted them’.

All this had cost Lethered dear. He presented a bill of his costs to the Commissioners of Customs asking them to pay ‘what your Lordships shall think fit:94

The particulars of the Goods I was obliged to bring from [France] to colour my design and to save all our lives the Second Voyage (being discovered, viz)


pcs Black Lace

£158  9s



pcs White Lace

£167 19s



p coll of Lining





Gallons of Brandy

Gallons of Wine

£60 15s




p colls of Thread

p coll of Silk cqt 4 remnants



The value of my goods lost to me by

Huff’s [Hough’s] interruption  

£445 3s



The Charges of my first voyage



At Dunkirk for my vessel

£3 16s 6d



For victualing




For a new cable and anchor




Mens wages







The Charges of my second voyage


At Calais for my vessel




For victualing 




Mens  wages – The enterprise being dangerous by the discovery, and opposition was made by Abraham Huff and Frances Diggs who slighted their Majesty’s pass and your Lordships authority








Extraordinary charge I have been put to in fees and attendance and soliciting for my goods to save their majesty’s charge

£12 4s 9d





£67 11s 3d




£512 14s 3d



Received -





£490 14s 3d


At the end of July Lethered wrote to Nottingham asking that John Watkins ‘who freely ventured his life along with me to encourage my seamen to go with me, may be employed to bring the said goods to London, he being the first that did seize them for their Majesties’ use’. He also complained that ‘my goods having by stress of weather received wet, will be much damnified should they lay long, being I have not the liberty to open them’.101

In July Lethered also launched a lengthy complaint against Hough with the Treasury, claiming that Hough ‘having obtained a sight of [his] pass from his Majesty he forthwith published the same and the service that the said Lethered was engaged in, whereby their Majesty’s service was greatly obstructed and the said Lethered put in danger of his life’.94 This complaint was treated seriously by the Treasury in London who wrote to the Collector and Comptroller at Sandwich directing him ‘forthwith to send the said Hough hither to answer the said charge’. The Collector was instructed to look into the complaint and ‘inform yourselves by the best means you can of all the circumstances of the said publication . . .  and what public notice was taken thereof . . . and what happened thereupon at Margate’, all this ‘without acquainting the said Hough’ with what you are doing.  At the end of September the Collector at Sandwich sent his conclusions to the Treasury:94

In obedience to your honours of the 26 instant touching the complaint against Hough the officer at Margate, upon all the inquiry that can be made there, Hough had a view of Lethered’s pass, by reason the embargo was not then out and as he was officer upon the place we judge it was his duty so to do for had he not produced his pass to him he was obliged to have given bond before he departed the port, but how and by whom the pass came to be divulged is not known nor any person in Margate will charge him with it, neither will any person in Margate say but that he is well affected to the present government and we believe him to be such, in the whole we are able to inform your Honourables and that Hough will attend the Board speedily to make his defense.

The case was referred to the Commissioners of Customs for a hearing but, unfortunately, Hough was taken ill and could not meet them until early October. John Lethered suggested, unkindly, that Hough was indeed indisposed, ‘but rather in mind than body’ and that this had been brought on by the pressure of getting people in Margate to sign multiple affidavits and petitions in his favour, or, as Lethered put it, the true reason for Hough being unwell was ‘that he has been all this time tampering with several persons to set their names to what he was pleased to form and draw in manor of certificates, which I suppose will be sent to your Lordships’.102 Lethered said that he would be able to demonstrate ‘by affidavits from most of the substantial and well-affected persons in and about Margate, that the majority of those who signed his [Hough’s] certificates are criminals in this affair, as well as himself, especially Francis Diggs, John Baker, Valentine Jewell, Edward Bilting and several others, who are as true French [ie Jacobites] and self-interested persons as Mr Wells, the officer at Sandwich was. . . or as Mr Hough himself, when an officer in Sussex, or Sir Nicholas Butler when a Commissioner of the Customs, and I wished we had no great reason to suspect that there were some “of the same kidney” at that Honourable Board at this time.’

The Commissioners of Customs concluded that Lethered had no fresh evidence supporting his claim against Hough, which was based largely on unsubstantiated hearsay. Hough, on the other hand, had laid before them ‘several certificates under the hands of most of the chief inhabitants at Margate testifying his good affection to the present Government’, several of whom also affirmed that ‘the first notice they had of the said Lethereds being in France was from one Egerton who went with him to Dunkirk [on] the former voyage and had publicly declared the same’; they concluded that they could find no support for the charges against Hough. They also concluded that John Watkins had no authority to seize Lethered’s goods, a seizure which had, of course, been meant to be a sham, and that Hough was the only one legally entitled to the right of seizure. The Commissioners were, however, clearly worried that if Lethered was seen to have lost a lot of money on the two trips, this would discourage others from undertaking similar spying missions for the Government. The Commissioners therefore suggested to the Treasury that ‘one half part of his [Hough’s] moiety of the value of the [seized] goods may be disposed of between the said Watkins and Lethered. And as a further reward and encouragement to them for their diligence in the public service, that your Lordships will be pleased to become a means that they may be recompensed with their Majesty’s moiety of the said goods after condemnation thereof’.

The final decision reached by the Treasury was even more favourable to Lethered:103

Lords of the Treasury to the Customs Commissioner to deliver to John Lethered that part of the goods seized by Abraham Hough, surveyor of Margate, to enable him [Lethered] to make up his account in order to his receiving satisfaction for the loss he has sustained; provided same be not of the growth and manufacture of France and that you have nothing to object hereto.

Thomas Child and John Lethered re-appear in the second case, a local smuggling case of 1693 involving Roger Laming, a rich local hoyman. Laming had been found guilty and fined at the Court of Exchequer in London for carrying to London six hundred pounds weight of French Silks and two hundred and fifty pounds weight of French Lace, prohibited goods at the time.104,105 Penalties imposed by the Court of Exchequer could be severe, including seizure of the smuggled goods, forfeiture of the boat which carried the goods, fines amounting to several times the value of the smuggled goods, and imprisonment of those engaged in the smuggling.65 Laming claimed that the fines imposed on him ‘would prove the utter ruin of him and his family’. His defense was that the goods were put on his hoy by Thomas Child when only his servant John Edgington was on the boat, and, he said, that as a hoyman he ‘comes to London virtually every fortnight and never opens parcels or trusses that are put on his hoy nor enquires what is put on board the same.’

In 1698 Laming addressed a petition to the King asking for the judgement against him to be reconsidered:

Petition of Roger Laming, of Margate in the island of Thanet, hoyman; setting forth that he has for many years been a hoyman and common carrier to and from Margate and London. In Oct., 1693, one Thomas Child, then an officer of the Customs at Margate, put on board the petitioner's hoy some goods for London, which were seized at London by Peregrine Bertie, Esq., an officer of the Customs, as prohibited goods: and the petitioner is informed that the goods, proving to be French silks and French lace, were afterwards condemned in the Court of Exchequer. And, although the goods were seized and condemned, yet in Trinity Term, 1696, an information of Devenerunt [a type of writ] was exhibited in the Court of Exchequer against the petitioner, in the name of Sir Thomas Trevor, for their value; and on the 1st inst. a verdict was given against him for £760 damages. The petitioner was not present when the goods were put on board, but they were taken on board by his servant, John Edgington. The petitioner never knew what was in the packets, as appears by affidavits annexed, nor was he to have a farthing more for carrying them than is given for other goods. The petitioner has a wife and many children. The servant had no reason to suspect the goods being put on board by an officer of the Customs. He prays that the Attorney General be directed to cause satisfaction to be entered upon the judgment.

Although Roger Laming described Thomas Child as ‘then an officer of the Customs at Margate’, this is probably not correct, as Thomas Child had been dismissed as waiter and searcher at Margate in 1690.106 Nevertheless, Thomas Child might have still held an official position at Margate in 1693 as it is known that in 1696 he was ‘deputy to the Sergeant of the Admiralty’ at Margate; the Sergeant to the Admiralty was the principal droit gatherer appointed by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports with responsibility for enforcing orders of the Admiralty Court.4,107

The King referred Laming’s petition to the Treasury for their decision and in July the Commissioners of Customs heard the case.105 The principal prosecution witness was a Mr Saunders, described as ‘a Common Importer and Conductor of prohibited goods.’ Saunders laid before the court ‘a book fairly kept containing the accompt of this transaction between him and his employers and partners, and the money by him expended in the carrying on their practices. Amongst which were diverse sums charged to be paid to the Letter L for the conveying of several parcels of prohibited goods, which sums are much above the common rates for carriage in the ordinary course of trade. And the said Saunders viva vow in the presence of the Petitioner, explained his accompt; that under the character L in that part of the said accompt was means the Petitioner Laming, and that the said severall sums were actually paid to him, for carrying goods from Margate to London.’ Roger Laming, however, claimed, that he had never received any money from Saunders ‘other than the sum of two shillings for the passage of him the said John Saunders in his [Laming’s] hoy from Margate to London.’ Supporting Roger Laming’s claim was John Leathered  who said that he was the mysterious ‘L’ in Saunder’s book; Lethered said that he had been acquainted with Saunders  for about fourteen years ‘and that during that time he hath received of the said Joseph Saunders several sums of money for bringing goods from France to England which he believeth are the sums entered in the said Joseph Saunder’s book under the letter (L) and saith that at any time since his acquaintance with the said Joseph Saunders he never delivered any French or other prohibited goods whatsoever to Roger Laming . . .  or to any of his servants or agents either by the order of the said Joseph Sanders or for his use or by the order of any  other person whatsoever.’ Unfortunately for Laming, Lethered’s evidence was not believed by the Commissioners as a note on the back of a report of the proceedings reads ‘Read 16 Aug 98 – The petition is rejected’.

This was not the last we hear of Lethered. In 1697 he had been caught by Joseph Beverton, one of the riding officers of the customs at Canterbury, for ‘going to France in the time of the late war’.108 He was taken to Canterbury gaol and there ‘he confessed his employers, to wit, Joseph Saunders, --- Eveden, and many others’. On the basis of his evidence Saunders was charged with the import of £760’s worth of French silks. Earlier in 1697 it was reported that a vessel called the Mary and Jane, of 23 tons, of which Joseph Saunders had been ‘late master’, was ‘seized in the port of Margate, and condemned in the High Court of Admiralty for coming out of France’.109 In 1697 Paul Hart had been dismissed as Margate postmaster for ‘assisting in the running a parcel of lace’, presumably some further business with Lethered and Saunders.110

Saunders was to reappear in the House of Commons in 1698 at a discussion of ‘Foreign Lustrings, and Clandestine Trade’, lustrings being a type of glossy silk fabric.111 There he reported that on the 11th of November 1692 ‘he sent a boat from Margate to Calais, John Lethered went master about eight voyages between that time and May 1694, and brought from 12 to 20 packets each return; only once he brought but seven; and generally 9 or 10 pieces in a packet’; he also reported that ‘Mr Letherhed, master of the vessel Mr Saunders sent to Calais, had, at three times, five packets of silks from Gilbert at Calais’, and that ‘in 1694 he received from Arthur Goodwin, of Wivenhoe, in Essex, by the hands of Thomas Child, 4 packets of silks’. He went on to explain that ‘he commonly sent his vessels over in ballast, but once sent over 10 bags of wool’ and that ‘he was paid 5s per pound weight freight for silks, and 6s per pound weight for lace’. There seems little doubt that Lethered had tried to use spying and his Government pass as a cover for his own smuggling.



In the eighteenth century the Customs officers based at Margate were responsible both for finding smuggled goods on the ships passing to and from London through the Margate roads, and for capturing smuggled goods landed locally. Although smuggling of wool was concentrated around Romney Marsh, the main area of wool production, woollen goods were sometimes captured by the Customs station at Margate.62 In 1724 it was reported that ‘some days since Mr Purnell, Surveyor of his Majesty’s Customs at Margate, seiz’d thirteen casks of fine worsted yarn, on board of a ship bound for France, clear’d out of the Custom-House at London, as flour, which proves a very considerable seizure’.112 It was not unknown for smugglers to try to recapture goods such as these, seized by the Customs. In 1688, ‘John Underdowne, gent., Customs officer at Margate, Kent’ had seized a load of wool which he then stored in the barn of Thomas Fleet, at St Stephen, Kent, but which was then rescued by the smugglers:113

Treasury warrant, to Serjeant Ryley to arrest Thomas Price of Sterry [Sturry] and — Iverson of Canterbury and Thomas Fleet of St Stephen, Kent; the said Price and Iverson having with 50 persons unknown on the 5th Mar. inst. repaired to the barn of the said Fleet with clubs and staves and forcibly rescued and carried away towards the sea side 14 horse load of combed wool which had been seized that day by Jno. Underdowne, gent., Customs officer at Margate, Kent, the said officer and his assistant being beaten, bruised and wounded in the said rescue.

Despite the undoubted profits that could be made from smuggling wool, spirits and tobacco were more to the smuggler’s taste. In 1686 the Customs Commissioners decided ‘to sell a parcel of 109 cwts of tobacco stalks seized at Margate and to pay £10 to the seizer for his encouragement’.114 The Commissioners, thinking that the tobacco stalks were only worth ‘an inconsiderable value, viz., only £15 0s 6d’ had at first decided to destroy them. However, they were informed that following the imposition of a new tax on tobacco, ‘great quantities of tobacco stalks were imported into England from Holland and that by a new invention of rolling and pressing, it supplies the [place and] use of tobacco to the great prejudice of the revenue’ and that the stalks were in fact worth the best part of £200; the Commissioners changed their minds, hence the sale.   

In 1723 ‘Mr Purnall, a Custom-House Officer at Margate, having Intelligence of three open boats coming from France with brandy, went off in quest of them; but their friends on shore making a signal to them, they made off to sea; however Mr Parnall came up with one of the boats, and made a seizure of about 42 half anchors of brandy [a half anchor or half anker was a small barrel containing about 4 gallons] ’.115 In October 1726 30 small casks of French brandy were advertised for sale to the highest bidder in the Margate Customs House and a further 190 gallons of French brandy were advertised for sale ‘in several Lotts’ during August 1729 at ‘the King’s Warehouse in Margate’.116,117 In 1753 it was reported that ‘yesterday came up three smuggling boats, supposed to be laden with brandy and other accustom’d goods. Two of the Tidesmen belonging to this place went out in the evening, and seized ten half anchors of brandy, as they were running them ashore; but the smugglers got off with the rest of their cargoes’.118

Although the Customs Service had a waiter and searcher stationed at Margate to supervise the loading and unloading of goods, there was no quay for the transaction of foreign trade and it was the Collector at Sandwich who had responsibility for the customs at Margate.119 By the 1720s the customs duties collected at Margate amounted to close to £2000 a year and, to save unnecessary trips to Sandwich, ‘from time out of mind’ the Collector at Sandwich had allowed the duties on foreign goods landed at Margate under the supervision of the landwaiter to be settled at Margate rather than at Sandwich.120 However, this dispensation came to worry the Customs Commissioners in London and in 1728 they ordered an inquiry ‘into the conduct of the collector of Sandwich in granting sufferances for landing wines and other fineable goods at Margate’.120 The inquiry uncovered a range of abuses at Margate.  One concerned wine from Spain and Portugal landed at Margate; it was found that ‘the gauges of the casks appeared to be at least five or six gallons less than the lowest gauge of the like casks from the same places [imported] into the port of London, whereby the Crown lost in about nine years the Duties of above twenty five tons of wine’. There were similar problems with ‘Linnen, fruit &c’ landed at Margate, ‘it not appearing they had been measured or weighed’. The Commissioners therefore ‘gave strict directions to the Collector and  Comptroller [at Sandwich] to observe the law and not to permit wine or any other foreign goods except timber, deal boards, hemp and other gruff goods to be landed at any other place than the lawfull keys’ as ‘should such indulgence be granted to the people at Margate the like will be expected by the traders of all other creeks and places where there are no lawfull keys which has often been desired and always refused and would subject the Revenue to great abuses and losses.’

The inquiry also found abuses in the coastal trade. Masters of coasting vessels loading just small quantities of foreign goods on which the custom duties were less than 20s, were allowed to take out a ‘let pass’ or ‘transier’ rather than having to take out a ‘cocquet’ and provide a bond. This system was abused in a number of ways, with the ‘connivance or negligence’ of customs officers. One abuse was for a ships’ master to arrange for foreign goods of low value to be inserted in his let pass or transier but not to actually load these goods; the ship would then travel to a foreign port or meet another ship at sea and load up with goods of high value. An alternative was to obtain a let pass or transire for ‘damaged or decayed’ goods of low value that were actually on the ship, and then, having left the port, to ‘fling the goods overboard’ and then ‘take in other goods of a better quality to the great precudice of the Revenues.’ This type of fraud was sufficiently common for the Commissioners to give directions in 1728 ‘not only to Sandwich but to the Officers of all the other ports to oblige all Masters of coasting vessels loading any foreign goods to be carried from one port to another the dutys whereof mounted to twenty shillings and upwards to take out a cocquet and give bond according to Law’.

These new tougher regulations meant a lot of extra work for the mariners at Margate and so in 1731 the ‘freeholders, traders, fishermen and other inhabitants’ of Margate petitioned the Lords of the Treasury ‘that for their ease and the encouragement of the fishery and foreign trade a proper officer may be established at Margate to receive the Customs, to land all foreign goods, and to give the necessary dispatches to the hoys, &c’.121 The petition explained how under the new system ‘they have been obliged after payment of the duties on the arrival of a ship with wines in Margate Road to take the wines out and carry them to Sandwich in open boats, there to land them and in open boats to bring them round the Northforeland which is fifteen miles by sea back to Margate, by which the wines run a much greater hazard of leakage and perishing in quality than in the voyage home; besides the danger of losing the goods and the customs; and in a war with France small privateers often lurk under the Highlands that a foreign trade would be impracticable’. They also explained that the inhabitants of the Isle of Thanet ‘in a great measure subsist by the fishery particularly that of herrings’ and that ‘by a late Order they cannot ship their herrings for foreign parts but in the presence of an officer from Sandwich which is eight mile and the delay of such officer’s coming is frequently the loss of a Market’. There was also a problem with corn shipments: ‘that the Growth of the island being chiefly corn and the inhabitants having no market but London keep hoys to carry the same weekly to Bear-Key the masters of which hoys are obliged to send to Sandwich for sufferances to load and for transires to clear to their great delay and expence’. The final problem was with importing coal: ‘the said Island having little or no wood [they] are obliged to fetch coals from Newcastle, and the pier not being capable of receiving ships of great burthen they are frequently in danger of being lost for want of a proper Officer to receive the customs or to permit the Masters to lighten their ships’.

The Commissioners of Customs produced their response to the petition in January 1732.120 Having rehearsed all the abuses at Margate, their report concluded: ‘It will not be safe to comply with the petition without appointing a new set of lawful officers, with a custom house and lawful quay, distinct from Sandwich. This would be a great expense’. Fortunately the petitioners’ rebuttal of the report persuaded the Commissioners to change their minds:122

Mr Francis Wyatt and Mr Robert Brooke attended the Commissioners with a Memorial by way of reply to the said report and the Commissioners on considering the said Memorial did agree in order to ease the traders of Margate as far as was consistent with their duty and in their power to direct the Customer and Comptroller to appoint Deputys at Margate to grant dispatches for all goods brought or carried coastways and corn and fish exported and to receive the dutys on coals and to discharge gruff goods on a special sufferance from the Officers at Sandwich as has been done in some other places . . .  And the Customer and Comptroller of Sandwich having very lately appointed Deputys at Margate, orders will be sent down next week to the officers at Sandwich to admit them to their duty.

In August 1733 it was reported that a deputy-controller and deputy-searcher had indeed been appointed at Margate, which was now a port rather than a mere creek: ‘Treasury Warrant – Henry Petkin [Petken], Deputy Controller at Margate at £40 and ---- deputy searcher there at £35 for the accommodation of the traders of the Isle of Thanet and the town of Margate, now made a port’.123 Henry Petken’s career as a local brewer and maltster has been described in Chapter 1.

Margate pier 1736 | Margate History
Figure 31. The pier, from Lewis’s map of Margate, 1736: A, King’s Warehouse and Warehouse; B, Warehouses.

Lewis’s 1736 map of Margate shows the Customs establishment at Margate, consisting of the King’s watch house and the King’s warehouse at the entrance to the Pier (Figure 31); the King’s warehouse was a building provided by the Crown where the Customs officers could lodge goods securely, and where confiscated goods could be auctioned off.40,124 It was usual for the Customs to rent suitable premises for their use.65 At Margate premises were rented from the Pier wardens; the pier accounts for 1733-34 include a payment of £8 from the Collector at Sandwich for a year’s rent and those for 1744-45 show that this rent was for ‘the storehouse and Watch house’.125

By Christmas 1743 the Customs establishment at Margate had gown to one supervisor, one tide surveyor, one waiter and searcher, and seven boatmen, together with four riding officers who had to cover Margate, Ramsgate and Kingsgate.126 The Margate men had an average age of almost 42, as follows:


Thomas Ketcherell, Supervisor                       32

Gervas Cowper, Tide Surveyor                       34

7 Boatmen

            Thomas Moulden                                 53

            Henry Bassett                                       52

            Bradwell Brothers                                44

            Edward Marshall                                  51

            John Dibock                                         34

            Thomas Malpas                                    36

            John Friend                                           32

William Hewett, Waiter and Searcher              49

Despite their age, it was reported that ‘the officers above mentioned are in good health and are able to do their duty’. At Christmas 1749 the size of the establishment was the same, as were the personel, except that John Friend had left and been replaced by Charles Crickett.127 Noticeable are the large number of boatmen, manning the boats now patrolling the coast. In 1743 the Tide Surveyor at Margate, Gervas Cowper, wrote to the Customs House in London requesting a new vessel as ‘the six oared Boat there is quite worn out and not fit for the Service’.128 In 1749 he  reported ‘that the old boarding boat is so bad that she is not fit to go to sea in, and that to repair her would cost more than she is worth’ and he requested permission to order a new boat, costing  ‘twenty four pounds sixteen shillings and a penny’.129

While the water guard protected the coast from the sea, riding officers protected it from the land. A riding officer had been appointed as early as 1697 to patrol the Thanet coast:130

Copy of a letter from the Commissioners of Customs to the collector of Dover. They agreed to present Jeoffrey Haford to be established by the Lords of the Treasury, as a riding surveyor, for the guard of the Isle of Thanet and the adjacent coast; and that he should reside at Margrett [Margate]

By 1735 no Riding Officers were actually based at Margate but two riding officers were stationed at Birchington to cover the coast from Reculvers to Margate, together with one each at Ramsgate and Broadstairs to cover jointly covered the coast from Sandwich to Margate.131 John Collier, the Surveyor General of Riding Officers in Kent, judged that the two Riding Officers stationed at Birchington in 1735, Gervas Cowper and Thomas Thunder ‘are both brisk young men & very capable of performing their duty but on inspecting their Journals & enquir­ing of their Supervisor have reason to believe they have of late been remiss in observing their Instructions as to patrolling their district but on admonishing them have promised to be very careful and diligent’.131 Collier was able to report in 1736 that having ‘admonished’ Cowper and Thunder, they ‘are more diligent in discharge of their Duty’ but he now had a problem with Edward Elsted, the Riding Officer stationed at Broadstairs: ‘Elsted was a little lame on my survey and I observed but little duty done by his Journal & on enquiry of his brother Officers, for which I reprimanded him & he promises a future diligent behaviour & I directed his Supervisor to have a particular eye over him.’ In 1740 Elsted was more active having, with Edward Bunting the Riding Officer at Ramsgate, seized ‘forty gallons and a half of foreign brandy.’ Unfortunately though, in 1740 Collier again found fault with Cowper and Thunder, as, although they had ‘very good horses and arms’, he found ‘but little done by them having since my last survey made but one Seizure of 17 gallons of Rum which belonged to William Born and John Darker of Margate; on examining these Officers and their Journals they gave an account of several persons in the Island they suspected to carry on the Smuggling Trade but did not find they had proof against any of them. I charged them with being Indolent in the Execution of their Duty and that on my report Your Honours would be displeased with them and think them very remiss and that if they did not more exert themselves they must expect to be dismissed and more vigilant persons employed. And they promised to be very careful and diligent.’ Cowper and Thunder had a better year in 1741: ‘These Officers since my last Survey have made ten Seizures consisting of a horse, a boat, 49 Gallons of rum, 4 Gallons of brandy, 80 pounds weight of tea, 28 pounds weight of coffee, 80 pounds of tobacco, 68 yards of handkerchiefs and a parcell of all spice & beads. These Officers prosecuted before the Justices of the peace of the County, Benjamun Damaster, Roger Fagge, and Peter Dunskin, three persons in whose custody part of the above Goods were found but the Justices would give no penalty against them.’ Gervas Cooper was promoted to the  position of Tide Surveyor at Margate in 1743, in place of John Barber, ‘the late Tide Surveyor’.

John Collier also reported on the customs establishment at Margate, where, from 1734 to 1742, the Tide Surveyor was John Barber, who, Collier noted, was also responsible for keeping the Wool Register.131 In 1734 Collier reported that ‘I found at [Margate] and at Ramsgate and Broadstairs considerable quantities of Wine and Brandy which was taken up floating at sea and is secured in warehouses in a safe manner’. In 1735 John Barber reported that one more boatman was required at Margate, as he only had six boatmen and six men were required to take the Margate boat out to sea; an extra man would allow one man ‘to be on shore and on the Pier when he [John Barber] is out with his boat’ and ‘it would be of very good service and more than compensate the charge thereof’.131 In 1736 Collier reported that the extra boatman had been appointed at Margate; the new boatman ‘one John Debock . . .  is a stout active man & the Tyde surveyor thinks him to be of great service to the Revenue in preventing the clandestine landing of goods’. In 1740 Collier ‘mustered the seven Marriners belonging to the Boat and found them well in health and of ability to do service’ and added that William Hewett, the Waiter and Searcher at Margate was ‘a diligent and good Officer’. He reported that they ‘appeared to be wanting a Jack Flag for their Boat and a new Ensign to hoist on the Flag Staff on shore as a Signal to Captain Long or other Sloops and vessels in the service of the Revenue’.  

In 1744 Gervas Cowper, now the Surveyor at Margate, wrote to London reporting that ‘a shed is . . . necessary to shelter their Great Boat particularly during the  summer season’ and ‘ that there is a shed already built at the expense of Capt. Long, late Commander of the Princess Caroline Sloop, and in which he used to keep the Great Boat, which has been valued by indifferent persons who think the same to be reasonably worth thirty shillings and that to erect a new one would cost a great deal more’; he asked that he be given an ‘allowance for the said shed as it stands, seeing himself obliged to have one if that is taken away by Capt. Long’.132 It seems that  Gervas Cowper was allowed his shed since in 1745 London enquired about the price of the shed ‘for the service of the Surveyors boat’ and were assured that ‘it is a very good shelter and is worth thirty shillings’.133


There are surprisingly few reports of the capture of smugglers in the Isle of Thanet and widespread collusion was suspected between the smugglers and the Custom officers.134 A letter sent by Gervas Cowper in 1743 provides another possible explanation — the large numbers of men in the smuggling gangs and their willingness to use violence. Cowper explained that on one occasion ‘he and his men were out along the coast and at night five of them met with a Gang of Smugglers, arm’d about 24 in number who beat the said officers very much, particularly Henry Bassett, whose head is in such a miserable condition that the surveyor thought proper to put him under the care of a surgeon which we humbly hope your Hons. will approve of’.135 The Surveyor reported that smugglers ‘travel in such Gangs and so well-armed that it is impossible for the officers to cope with them, there being seldom or never less than 30 in a gang who bid defiance to all the officers when they meet them’.135

The customs officers at Margate were themselves armed. In 1745 Gervas Cowper was asked ‘to explain the necessity of firearms for his people, and when they were last provided’.136 The arms available were, in fact, not always sufficient. In 1747 Gervas Cowper wrote to London about a seizure of tea asking for ‘an allowance to be made to . . .  several people of Margate and Birchington . . . without whose assistance with firearms the seizure could not have been made’ as the officers at Margate only had four pistols and two blunderbusses between them.137 It was agreed that the 23 inhabitants involved in the seizure should receive rewards totalling £70, individual rewards varying between £4 4s and £1.138