Margate Crime and Margate Punishment

Anthony Lee

12. Marsh bay and James Taylor.

Newspaper reports give a fairly clear description of the events at Marsh Bay.1,2 Early on the morning of Sunday September 2 1821 the coast around Margate ‘was thrown into confusion by successive discharges of fire-arms, the flashes were seen distinctly from the pier along an immense line of coast.’ Soon after news was brought in that a six-oared galley, in attempting to land a cargo of spirits, had been seen by a seaman of the Coast Blockade on the look out, who immediately gave the alarm, and Mr. Washington Carr, an Officer of the Coast Blockade, accompanied by two of the Blockade seamen, ‘proceeded towards the spot and there encountered a party of smugglers, about one hundred in number, most of whom were armed, and beginning to discharge the cargo. Carr and his men were repeatedly fired on as they approached; but, rushing in, they forced the smugglers to drop their casks of spirits, and, aided by the fire of two other blockade-men, caused the smugglers to disperse “in the greatest consternation”, leaving behind a musket, the stock and lock of another, two hats, a handkerchief, and several large bludgeons. From the quantity of blood that marked the line of retreat it was believed that several of the smugglers had been wounded. No smugglers were captured, the wounded having been carried off by their comrades; the boat also escaped, with part of the goods. During the skirmish Carr received a severe sabre wound to his head, probably from his own sabre which had been wrenched out of his hand and three of the Blockade seamen had also been wounded, one by a gun or pistol shot through the upper part of his thigh; none of these wounds were thought to be life-threatening.’

Although all the smugglers escaped on the Sunday many of them were subsequently identified and arrested. The first was James Taylor, who lived in Covell’s Row. He had been identified by Thomas Cooke one of the seamen of the Coast Blockade, who later reported at the Maidstone Assizes: ‘a party of the smugglers surrounded us – a man among them . . . of the name of Taylor exclaimed “Fire at him, fire” – I knew his voice when he spoke’.3 The sequel was described by an officer of the blockade:4

One of the gang having been recognised during the affray, the circumstance was communicated upon the spot to Lieutenant Barton, one of the most zealous, able, persevering, and honourable officers in the service [the Coast Blockade]. He immediately perceived the vast importance of keeping secret the clue he had received; and on the following morning he applied privately for a warrant against the offender to the Rev F. W. Bailey, vicar and Justice of the Peace, at Margate. The clerical gentleman hesitated to issue a warrant which would probably consign a fellow-creature to the gallows, while, as vicar of the parish, he (the Justice) was preparing to ascend the pulpit on the Sabbath morning. At length, however, he yielded to the urgent solicitations of Lieutenant Barton, and before noon the culprit was not only in custody, but had turned evidence against his confederates. The proceedings were then confided to Mr John Boys, solicitor of Margate, who employed Bond, a Bow Street officer, to arrest several of the gang.

A slightly different version was given in the newspapers of the time. The Kentish Chronicle reported that, on the Sunday afternoon Taylor was apprehended and then:5

He was taken before Edward Boys, Esq. and after a short examination remanded till yesterday. It was expected that the accused would have turned King’s evidence, and in that expectation the examination was kept strictly private, so much so that our correspondent was refused admittance. It appears, however, that the idea was ill founded, as the unfortunate man was yesterday afternoon committed to Dover gaol.

Edward Boys was, like the Rev F. W. Bailey,  one of the Cinque Port Magistrates, and it seems unlikely that Taylor was taken before two of the Magistrates; it is possible that there is confusion here between Edward Boys and John Boys and that the report of the Blockade officer is the correct one. From Taylor it was learnt that there were about 60 smugglers, divided into two parties. The first party, of 15 men, was armed and covered the landing of the goods, and the second party of about 40 were to carry the goods off the beach.6 At this same time a notice was placed in the London Gazette offering a pardon to any of the gang who turned King’s evidence, except for those who wounded Carr and the seamen of the Coast Blockade, and also offering a £500 reward for information:7

WHEREAS it hath been humbly represented to the King, that a great body of men, to the number of fifty or more, armed with pistols, cutlasses, and other offensive weapons, feloniously assembled on the sea shore at Marsh Bay, near Margate, about two o'clock in the morning of Sunday the 2d of September instant, in order to be aiding and assisting in the illegal running, landing, and carrying away of foreign spirits and other prohibited and uncustomed goods, and who, on being opposed by an Officer and several seamen belonging to His Majesty's ship Severn, employed on the preventive service, maliciously and feloniously attacked and fired at them, and severely wounded the Officer and one of the seamen;

His Majesty, for the better apprehending and bringing to justice the persons concerned in this felony, is hereby pleased to promise His most gracious pardon to any one or more of the offenders (except the person or persons who actually wounded the said Officer and seaman), who shall discover his or their accomplices therein, so that they may be apprehended and convicted thereof.

And, as a further encouragement, a reward of FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS is hereby offered to any person or persons (except as aforesaid), who shall discover the said offenders, so that they may be apprehended and brought to justice for the said felony. — Such reward to be paid on conviction by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

These steps appear to have been successful as a number of the smugglers were soon arrested. On 26 September, early in the morning, James Rolfe, a labourer, was arrested at his house in Ivy Lane in Canterbury, by Bond, the Bow Street officer. According to the Kentish Gazette, Rolfe ‘immediately on his apprehension was taken to the barracks, and put under a military escort from this city to Margate, to prevent the possibility of any rescue (as heretofore) by the lawless gangs of smugglers to whom he was attached, and who are equally a disgrace to the country and the name of Englishmen. He was yesterday conveyed under a similar escort to the county gaol, Maidstone, to which he was committed by the Justices of Margate. This is the second offender in this transaction who has been taken and fully committed for trial at the next assizes. We are informed that the prisoner showed some signs of contrition, and was willing to make every atonement that disclosures of accomplices might afford; but the solicitor for the prosecution being already in possession (from a variety of good private information) of the names of most of the principal offenders, and finding the prisoner's name to stand amongst the list of those who made use of fire-arms in the attack, refused to admit him to become evidence for the Crown; and especially, as he had made no offer to impeach his accomplices until he was apprehended’.8

In October two further Canterbury men, John Ramsay, alias Buffington, and Thomas Hay Webster, were arrested and committed to the gaol in Maidstone by the Margate magistrates, charged on the oaths of Washington Carr and others.9 Ramsay was committed as a principal, and Webster as an accessory, for assisting and concealing the offenders. The Morning Chronicle reported that ‘Several persons, of whom better conduct might have been expected, are said to have con­tributed to the concealment of some of the smugglers, and that their names have been forwarded to Government’.9 In early December Bond, the Bow street officer, arrested another of the suspects, Thomas Stokes:10

In consequence of information, Bond, a constable belonging to the [Bow street] office, apprehended Thomas Stokes, at Islington, on Friday, on a charge of being concerned with a gang of smugglers, in wounding several officers employed in the Preventive Service. The offence with which the prisoner was charged, having been committed in the county of Kent, Bond was directed to convey him into that county. On Monday the prisoner underwent an examination before the Magistrates at Margate, when he was identified as one of the smugglers found in arms on the 2d of September last, at Marsh Bay, near Margate, who attacked a party of Officers engaged in the Preventive Service . . . The prisoner was committed for further examination.

On 25 December the Morning Chronicle reported that eleven out of the fifteen men who carried fire-arms had been arrested and that two of them had turned King's evidence, with a third expected to do the same.11 A noted Canterbury ruffian, Daniel Fagg, was also wanted on suspicion of being one of the gang. Fagg was already wanted for a previous robbery, and had escaped from some constables in pursuit of him on that charge by swimming across  a river at Canterbury, and had been heard to declare that he would not be taken alive.11,12 Nevertheless, he too was captured by Bond under rather unusual circumstances:13

Bond, an active officer belonging to Bow Street, was not intimidated by his [Fagg's] reported threats, and undertook to go in pursuit of him. The name of Bond was already well known to the gang of smugglers, as he had previously apprehended six of them. Last Monday evening he received private information that Daniel Fagg was in a house at St. Mildred's, in Canterbury, where he repaired, accompanied by two able assistants, aware that he should meet with a desperate resistance, and to guard against an escape, one of these he stationed at the front door, and the other at the rear. Bond contrived to gain admittance to the house, but not without a considerable degree of management and manoeuvring, and proceeded with all speed to search the house, having no doubt that Daniel Fagg was in it. In the lower part of the house he heard a noise which he had no doubt proceeded from the rattling of bricks: he followed the noise, and found it proceeded from making an aperture through the wall under the cellar stairs into an adjoining house, which no doubt had been previously arranged and prepared to assist him in escaping. The officer found Daniel Fagg in a state of nudity except his breeches, in the act of clearing away the bricks to escape into the adjoining house: his state of nakedness was, no doubt, to avoid being held, and he made a desperate resistance; but Bond at length succeeded in securing him by handcuffs, and conveyed him to Margate, where he underwent an examination before the acting Magistrates, and from the evidence produced, he is suspected of being the man who attacked Lieutenant Carr, wrested his sword from him, gave him a desperate wound on his head, of about three inches in length, and afterwards threw the officer's sword into Pluck's Gutter.

Fagg was placed, for better security, on board the navy ship Severn in the Downs to await trial. Further arrests followed; and eventually twenty were held pending trial at the Spring Assizes at Maidstone (Table).

Table: List of Gaol Delivery, Kent Spring Assizes, 1822.3,14,15 


No. Name Age Committed Sentence
75 Stephen Gummer 25 Jan 9 1822 Death but reprieved
76 John Gill 45 Jan 26 1822 Death but reprieved
77 Charles White 25 Feb 2 1822 Death but reprieved
78 Joseph Clements 23 Mar 4 1822 Death but reprieved
101 James Taylor  28 Sep 4 1821 Death but reprieved
102 James Rolfe 23 Sep 26 1821 Death but reprieved
103 John Ramsay  27 Oct 9 1821 Death but reprieved
    alias Baffington
    alias Babington
104 Thomas Hey Webster 32 Oct 9 1821 Discharged by proclamation
105 Edward Rolfe 20 Nov 23 1821 DEATH 
106 Thomas Woollett  19 Nov 23 1821 Death but reprieved
107 Francis Carden 31 Nov 30 1821  Death but reprieved
108 Thomas Stokes 51 Dec 6 1821 Death but reprieved
109 John Wilsden 45 Dec 10 1821 DEATH
110 Daniel Fagg  48 Dec 22 1821 DEATH
111 Thomas Mount 24 Jan 11 1822  Death but reprieved
112 Joseph Gilbert 19 Jan 21 1822 Death but reprieved
113 Henry Smith 28 Jan 21 1822 Death but reprieved
114 Daniel Baker 26 Jan 26 1822 Death but reprieved
115 John Meredith 28 Jan 26 1822  DEATH
120 John Hagle  27 Feb 15 1822 Death but reprieved
    alias Fagg


The trial took place on 22 March 1822 at Maidstone. There were twenty prisoners but the Grand Jury found that there was ‘not a true bill’ against Webster, and so he was discharged. As well as the remaining nineteen on trial, there were four men indicted, Stephen Lawrence, Henry Lemar, John Mills and John Pollard, who had not been captured. Details of the men on trial, taken from the List of Gaol Deliveries and other sources are given in the Table. All the men were on trial ‘for having, on the 2d of September last, with other persons unknown, assembled, armed with fire-arms and other offensive weapons, in the Isle of Thanet, in order to the aiding and assisting in carrying away uncustomed goods, and for having maliciously shot at and wounded Washington Carr, Thomas Cook, and John Brimen, being in the execution of their duty as officers on the coast blockade service’.16 The judge at the trial was Mr Baron Wood; Sir George Wood, made a Baron (that is, a judge) of the Exchequer in 1807, was 79 at the time of trial and resigned his office the following year, dying in July 1824.17 The only one of the defendants to be represented by Counsel was James Taylor, who was represented by Messrs Adolphus, Walford and Ryland.16

The evidence presented at the trial was largely that already described. The only new piece of evidence of importance was that the men had been hired by Stephen Lawrence, a smuggler and leader of the North Kent gang who, while landing a cargo of spirits at Herne Bay in April 1821, had been involved in a struggle with the Coast Blockade men in which one of them, midshipman Snow, had been shot and killed.4 Although six of the gang had been caught by Bow street runners, they had all been found not guilty at their trial at the Old Bailey and were all set free.

The prosecution at the trial aimed to trace the prisoners to and from the scene of action and identify those that were armed; they made much use of the evidence of four of the smugglers who had been admitted as King’s evidence. The defence counsel for James Taylor, the first man to have been arrested, tried to prove that Taylor had not been present at the affray. When arrested Taylor had been examined by John Boys, and he had claimed that at the time of the affray he had been at home asleep; a written record of this examination, taken by John Boys, was presented to the court by the Counsel for the Prosecution. Now, however, James Taylor changed his story and claimed that at the time of the affray he had, in fact, been two miles away engaged in a separate smuggling operation, at Hubbard’s bathing house in Margate, with three accomplices, Robert Harman, Charles Winch and James Saunders. Obviously, he would not have wished to admit this at the time of his initial examination, but he did so now as it was a much less serious offence, as no fire arms were involved; conviction for the Marsh Bay affray could lead to the death penalty. Harman, Winch and Sanders were examined and all agreed that James Taylor had been with them that night at Hubbard’s bathing house. Three men involved in the affray, James Justice, Samuel Kerby Meredith, and Thomas Mears, were also examined, and claimed that Taylor was not present. The only witness who claimed to have seen Taylor at the affray was Thomas Cooke, who was adamant that he had heard Taylor say ‘Fire at him, fire’, and ‘knew his voice when the spoke’3 although, on cross examination, he admitted ‘that there was much confusion and noise, that he himself was in a state of considerable alarm, and that the morning was dark and hazy at the time at which it appeared to him that he saw and heard Taylor in the Affray’.18

The trial lasted from 9 in the morning until half past 6 and the Jury took just 5 minutes to find all the prisoners, including Taylor, guilty but recommended that a distinction be made between those that were of the armed party and those who were of the working party.  Mr Baron Wood passed the sentence of death on them all, but later the judge reprieved 15 of them, leaving Edward Rolfe, John Wilsden, Daniel Fagg and John Meredith for execution.

The execution was carried out on Thursday morning, 4 April, 1822, at Penenden Heath, near Maidstone, in the presence of a vast concourse of people. An officer of the Coast Blockade described the scene.4

The unfortunate smugglers appeared perfectly resigned to their unhappy fate. Wilsden and Meredith observed that it would be well if all men, particularly the instigators to the baneful pursuit which led to their untimely end, were as well prepared to meet an offended God as they, the sufferers, were. The parting between these deluded men and their families was truly heartrending. After ascending the fatal drop, and joining fervently in prayer with the chaplain, they repeated several times to the spectators, 'God bless you all,' when the dreadful bolt was withdrawn, and they ceased to exist. There can be no doubt but that these wretched victims were encouraged to the last moment by the hope of a rescue, either before or at the place of execution; and, as is always the case among characters of this description, they were abandoned by their associates from the first hour of their apprehension. There were about 40,000 spectators present at the execution, but not a sound broke the awful stillness of the procession, nor was a word spoken, except by the clergyman, from the gaol to the gallows.

Right from the start, there were many who felt that the sentences had been unduly harsh, particularly in Canterbury from where many of the men came. A letter from Canterbury dated 8 April published in The Examiner19 reported that ‘a considerable sensation has been excited in this city during the last few days, in consequence of the sentence passed at the last Maidstone Assizes’ and that

a Petition to the King, signed by the Mayor, Aldermen, Common Council, Clergy, Gentry, and other respectable inhabitants, nearly to the number of 1900, was immediately handed to Mr. Secretary Peel [the Home Secretary] by the Mayor in person, in favour of these deluded victims; stating the comparative innocence of these wretched men, who were by no means the primary offend­ers in this forbidden traffic, but labourers, unable to pro­cure work, most of them in a state of abject poverty, and hired for the occasion for a few shillings. To this no answer was received!!! Four were executed on Penenden Heath on Thursday last, and their remains brought to Canterbury the same night, accompanied into the city by a procession of several hundreds of the inhabitants, singing funeral anthems, &c. in the most solemn and impressive manner. On Sunday a public funeral took place, when the procession and interment of the bodies were attended by nearly half the population of Canterbury, five or six thousand being computed to be present.

Fifteen remained respited during pleasure, one of whom has since died in prison. —The misery this affair has spread through numberless families is indescribable. — Such are the blessed effects of the system under which Englishmen are at present suffering: it being notorious (at least in this neighbourhood) that honest industry can­not procure even a bare subsistence for the labourer and his family. The prisoners on their trial had no counsel.

On Monday morning, 13 May, the remaining fifteen men were moved from Maidstone gaol to Portsmouth, for transportation to van Diemen’s land, as Tasmania was then known, five for life and the rest for seven years.

Stephen Lawrence, the suspected leader of the gang, had not been captured at the time of the first trial but he was found later and tried at the assizes at Maidstone in December 1822.20 Interestingly he was defended at the trial by Bolland and Adolphus, Adolphus being the defence lawyer appointed for James Taylor. Lawrence was accused of being one of the smuggling party, in fact, of being the principal ring leader, and of shooting at Washington Carr and the other men of the Coast Blockade. The prosecution called three accomplices of Lawrence, ‘one of whom denied any knowledge whatever of the prisoner, whilst the others swore positively that he was most active on the occasion, paid the men who assisted in landing the spirits, and armed those who were to protect the debarkation.’ Several further witnesses were called to prove Lawrence’s presence at March Bay. The defence tried to establish an alibi for Lawrence and argued that the Crown witnesses had mistaken Lawrence for his brother, ’there being a remarkable similarity between them in person and general appearance;’ the brother had absconded to America.

Mr. Justice Bayley, the judge, ‘left it to the Jury so say, whether they would find the prisoner guilty under so highly penal an Act of Parliament; on the testimony of the accomplices, who had not been confirmed to that degree which would justify a confident reliance upon the truth of their statement. If a conscientious doubt was entertained as to the prisoner's identity, he was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.’ The Jury deliberated for about ten minutes, and found the prisoner Not Guilty.20 Lawrence’s later history is unclear. In 1836 one of Daniel Gouger’s three mills on the road to Northdown burnt down, and it was rumoured that this was the work of smugglers who wanted to create a diversion and distract the Preventive Officers while they landed their contraband on the beach.21 Clarke in his book Historic Margate suggested that the smugglers could have been led by Lawrence and that shortly afterwards he was captured and sentenced to transportation, 21 but the evidence for these suggestions is unclear.

The case of James Taylor, one of the Margate men found guilty at the trial, is particularly puzzling. It is strange that he was the only one of the accused to have legal representation at the trial; it is not known how this legal representation was paid for. It is clear, however, that Taylor was badly let down by his legal representatives: ‘Mr Adolphus who had been retained as Counsel for Taylor, handed over his brief to Mr Walford, and he left it to Mr Ryland, who had not read one word of it’.18 Nevertheless, it was reported that the judge, Mr Baron Wood, was convinced that Cooke was mistaken in his identification of Taylor and disagreed with the verdict of the jury; he wrote to Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, recommending a  King’s pardon  for Taylor.3,18 On 18 April 1822,  J. P. Powell, the High Sheriff for Kent, also wrote to Robert Peel enclosing a petition asking for a pardon for Taylor, signed by many Margate inhabitants who, Powell said, ‘would not in any measure screen a Person whom they believed to be guilty, and I know the gentlemen who signed the Petition are of the highest respectability, and I believe with them in the perfect innocence of the said James Taylor’.3 Those signing the petition, as well as J. P. Powell himself, included Francis Cobb, the Margate Deputy who noted that he had interviewed the three people providing an alibi, and believed them, his son Francis William Cobb the Deputy Constable of Margate, three medical men, George Slater, Daniel Jarvis, and John Neame, Samuel Silver, the librarian, and many others. Peel later reported that he had corresponded with Mr Baron Wood over the appeal, but that finally ‘Mr Baron Wood says that he has assured himself of Taylor's guilt, and that if he had known at the trial what he knows now, he would certainly have left him for execution’.22 What made Mr Baron Wood change his mind is not known. One letter from Robert Peel to Mr Baron Wood survives in the National Archives, dated 2 May 1822.3 In the letter Peel tells Wood:  

You cannot be more alive than myself, to the importance of taking care that a fabricated defence of this nature should not be successful, and more particularly that it should not succeed with the Secretary of State after being negatived in the trial – That what is important in all instances becomes doubly so, in a case where such a defence is fabricated with peculiar facility and is extremely difficult of detection…

If this, in fact, was the only communication from Peel to Wood, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the fight against smuggling was deemed to be more important than any considerations of justice for Taylor.

The sense that Taylor had been treated unfairly remained, and in 1824 further moves were made to obtain a pardon for Taylor. Two petitions were submitted to the House of Commons and considered on 9 June 1824, one from Maria Taylor, the wife of James Taylor, and one from ‘several inhabitants of Margate’.23 These petitions are given in Appendices II and III. John Boys, the Margate solicitor who had been so involved in the original prosecutions was, however, convinced that James Taylor was guilty as charged.3 In 1823 John Boys, in recognition of his work on the original case, had been appointed to the position of an assistant solicitor to Her Majesty’s Revenue Boards for the Isle of Thanet.24 In a letter of 20 May 1824 Boys refers to the state of excitement in Margate: ‘There is here again such a stir, that I have been half afraid the mouths of some of my informants will become sealed’.3 In particular he thought that he had identified the gun stock found at Marsh Bay as belonging to James Taylor. Boys reported that in the autumn of 1822 ‘he produced to John Witherden in his office two guns and a gunstock which had been delivered to John Boys by Lieut. Richard Barton as found at Marsh Bay on 2 Sept – Witherden know nothing of the guns, but well knew the gunstock, as he had recently repaired it – Witherden said the gunstock belonged to either Robert Jordan or James Taylor his constant companion, but he could not say which – Robert Jordan and James Taylor were in partnership with each other in pigs and a pig sty near Witherden’s shop – the two were so often together in bird catching or with a gun along the seaside, and so seldom saw one without the other, that Witherden could not remember if he got the gun from Jordan or from both of them’.3 Boys was worried that in the present state of excitement at Margate Witherden would no longer stand by his previous statements. A letter from John Cramp also dated 20 May 1824, reports, however, that Robert Jordan denied ever having seen such a gun, and Cramp complained that he had not been allowed to see the gun.3 John Boys also throws scorn on Daniel Jarvis and his support for Taylor: 3

Mr Jarvis is reported to believe a statement of the smugglers who put the boat ashore “That Taylor was not one of the party” – How any man of common understanding can listen for a moment to such an absurd tale is extraordinary – The truth is, that the men who push a boat ashore to work tubs know nothing more than the amount of numbers of the labourers on shore – they are known only to the gang on shore . . . until they meet together on the spot . . . it is absurd to suppose that 50 faces will be remembered by the men in the Boat – in the dark.

Boys seems to have a good point, but nevertheless he was very much in a minority.

The original intention was that the petitions for clemency for James Taylor would be presented to parliament by Sir Edward Knatchbull, one of the MPs for Kent. However it became known that Knatchbull now believed that Taylor was guilty, and Daniel Jarvis wrote to Knatchbull  asking what had caused ‘this singular change in his sentiments’.18 His reply was that  ‘Mr Peel could not be convinced, and that Sir Edward could not have an opinion averse from those of the Cabinet- but that he should feel it his duty to present any petition to the House that might be entreated to him’.18 Jarvis thought ‘this would not be a good idea.’ It was therefore decided to ask Richard Martin to present the petitions. Richard Martin, known as ‘Humanity Dick’, was the MP for County Galway and had no Kent connections, but was known for his humanitarian concerns, working for the abolition of the death penalty and for animal welfare.25 He duly presented the petitions to the House of Commons on 9 June 1824. His speech and the reply from Robert Peel was reported at length in the Morning Post:26

For the last six months he [Richard Martin] had been engaged in advocating the cause ofan unfortunate woman of the name of Maria Taylor, whose husband was now suffering the punishment of transportation arising out of an unmerited prosecution. During the greater part of that time he had laboured with his Right Hon. Friend (Mr Secretary Peel), and he assured the House that had he been satisfied that this man had no title to a free pardon, or that he (Mr Martin) had embarked in a case which he ought not to advocate he would not then have troubled the House. If it had been so, he would have withdrawn any further application in favour of his unfortunate friend, Maria Taylor, the widow of the man who had been transported. The charge against James Taylor was for an offence, under, he believed, the 52d of George the Third, for being found in arms for the purpose of removing smuggled goods. He was charged with eighteen others, and there were four witnesses to convict them all. Of these four Thomas Cooke was the only one who affected to identify James Taylor as concerned in the transaction. Two of these witnesses were accomplices, and therefore must have known whether Taylor was of their party or not, and had not they given a fair and full evidence, they would have been liable to be tried and executed. So satisfied was the presiding Judge that the man was wrongly convicted, that he forwarded a recommendation to the Crown for a free pardon. He therefore thought that the man ought to have profited by this as a matter of right, as not to allow him to do so, went to alter the usual course of the administration of justice. He moved that the Petition (from certain inhabitants of Margate) should be brought up.

Mr Secretary Peel felt very much embarrassed on occasions like the present. An appeal was made against the responsible servants of the Crown, for not recommending an individual convicted of a very serious offence to the mercy of the Crown. Were he silent when it was represented that an individual had been left, though innocent, to suffer condign punishment, it would be not only a reproach to him, but to the Administration of which he formed a part. He held in his hand the evidence given on the trial, but felt all the difficulty of trying a case over again, where the countenance of the accused was not seen, the willingness with which some, or the reluctance with which others of the witnesses gave their evidence. He, however, in some instances, where fresh evidence was brought after the trial, had not scrupled to recommend a revisal of the evidence. He felt it to be of the utmost importance, that an individual in his situation should not attempt to disturb the verdict of a Jury, when from all that came before him, he was satisfied that they had come to a right decision. It was perfectly true, that his Hon. Friend had been in constant communication with him through the last six months, and he should not have refused to attend to his representations, had he not been convinced that it was his duty to resist them, and to suffer the sentence of the law to be executed. It would be much more easy and more gratifying to him to comply with the prayer of a petition like that which had been presented to him in favour of Taylor, but to do this where the party has been properly convicted, and where the sentence was not unjustly severe, would be a gross neglect of duty. He could state that no case had come before him in which the guilt of the accused was more clearly proved. This opinion he supported by reading part of the evidence given on the trial, which he shewed to be consistent throughout and conclusive against the accused. He then appealed to the House if this were a case which demanded further consideration. He had never taken more trouble in any case than in this. So careful had he been that when one individual had described himself to have heard words spoken on that occasion, while in his own house, which made in favour of Taylor, that he had caused the distance between that house and the spot where the outrage occurred to be measured. The consequence of this was, the house was found to be fifteen roods more than half a mile from the place where the words were said to have been spoken. — (Here, hear) — He had not recommended the individual to mercy, because his conviction that he was guilty remained unchanged. When the correctness of a verdict was doubted, it became the duty of the Secretary of State to interfere; but when such was not the case, he was bound by the most solemn of all obligations not unnecessarily to reverse the decision of a Jury. — (Here, hear)

The motion for bringing up the Petition was negatived.

The report of Peel’s speech in the Morning Chronicle makes it clear that Peel viewed the petitions as being critical of him and of the administration:27

Mr Secretary Peel observed, that a petition containing the prayer and the statements of the present [petition], was an appeal to that House against the conduct of a responsible servant of the Crown for interfering to prevent the extension of the prerogative of mercy. He was aware that in that appeal there was conveyed no other imputation against that responsible officer, than an error in judgement; but still, when it was stated that the Royal mercy was refused to a man subsequently found to be innocent, he felt it not only due to himself, but to the administration of criminal justice, to make a few observations.

He went on to describe the main points of the trial and reported, as already described, that Mr Baron Wood had changed his mind and that Wood ‘was so sure of his [Taylor’s] guilt, that if he had known at the trial of the prisoner, what came to his knowledge afterwards, he would have left him for execution.27

With the failure of these petitions  it must have seemed that there was little more that could be done, but a meeting was called in the Town Hall at Margate on 30 June by Francis Cobb ‘for the purpose of laying before them the Measures which have been adopted with the view of obtaining the Pardon of  JAMES TAYLOR, now at Botany Bay, under a  commuted sentence of Transportation for Life, but who it is believed, is guiltless of the Crime, for which he is transported ; and to adopt such further means in the Case, as shall be deemed most advisable’. 18 Daniel Jarvis addressed the meeting at some length explaining that when the meeting had heard the case ‘they would be convinced of Taylor’s  innocence.’ He reported that ‘he had made every inquiry, and left nothing unturned to arrive at the truth.’ He reminded the meeting that Cooke had been the only witness to have claimed that James Taylor was present, and that three witnesses had been called to prove an alibi for Taylor ‘but as they were engaged themselves at the time in an illicit practice, and the account Taylor had given of himself when he was apprehended, their evidence appeared to have gone for nothing.’ Further evidence in favour of Taylor had come from the four men executed: before their execution ‘they were severally waited on by Mr Agar, the Governor of the Prison, and implored to state the truth as to the guilt of Taylor, they all said that they did not know Taylor, and they were satisfied he was not there; the declaration was taken down in writing and the men signed or made their mark to it, and the Governor of the Gaol attested it.’ Also, ‘Laurence, the leader of the  gang, the man who planned the affair, who hired the others, and who paid them too, the man Laurence (a large reward was offered for his apprehension) voluntarily exposed himself to the chance of being taken, came forward and told him (Mr Jarvis) that Taylor was certainly not present at Marsh Bay on the night of the transaction, and what was sworn to by Cooke  . . . had been perpetrated by him alone; that it was he who struck him with the but-end of the gun, and that Cooke might thank  his stars that he did so, for Mears, the evidence for the crown, had the gun pointed at his (Cooke’s) head, when he  Laurence  seized the piece and struck him the blow on the back, breaking the gun! ‘

Jarvis then referred to the reply from Robert Peel:  ‘Mr Peel stated that he had taken great pains to ascertain the true bearings of the case, and that when it was  represented that words sworn to had been used in the affray were overheard by an individual at her house some distance, and which bore a tendency to operate in Taylor’s favour, he had procured the measurement of the distance between the spot referred to and the house of that person, and found the distance to be half a mile and fifteen rods, which statement was met with the cheers of many Members, evidently tending to impugn the veracity of the individual.’ Jarvis then observed that sounds could travel a long distance, and that ‘an experiment had actually been tried on the spot, and that four sentences, which were uttered in succession, were distinctly heard, and immediately acted on by the parties to whom they were addressed, although posted at the same distance, which had excited the ready cheers of the Members of the House.’

Jarvis concluded by commenting on the evidence about a gun, but asked John Cramp, of Garlinge, to address the meeting as he [Cramp] had investigated this more thoroughly than he [Jarvis] had done. John Cramp then described how

in an interview with Sir Edward Knatchbull on the subject, in which he (Mr Cramp) stated his conviction of Taylor’s innocence, Sir Edward . . . observed, that perhaps Mr Cramp had not heard of the circumstances of the gun. Mr C. acknowledged he had. Well then said the Member for the County, what would you say Mr Cramp if the gun, which was broken over Cooke’s back, could be traced into Taylor’s possession? Say! Replied Mr. C., why, instantly he would give up all the favourable opinions he had hitherto entertained in favour of Taylor. Sir Edward assured him, that such was the case, and he, (Mr C.)  really felt that the affair was really settled, and the man guilty; but on returning to  the country, he instituted some enquiries respecting the gun; and on questioning Lawrence, found that he had  purchased the gun of a gardener, at Canterbury; and on application to the gardener, with some difficulty, in consequence of the man’s fears of being identified with the transaction; the man at last confessed that he had sold the gun to Lawrence, and that he should know any part of  it —having been very many years in his possession; some marks were described by him, and found to correspond with those on that part of the gun, in [the] possession, (he would not mince names) — of Mr Boys, the Agent to the Solicitors of the Admiralty; he said, found to correspond, for he had found persons who were then present, and who were willing to attest the similitude of marks; as when he applied to Mr Boys, to be allowed to look at the gun, the Agent turned on his heel, and refused to have any communication with Mr Cramp on the subject. Mr C. concluded by stating, in the strongest terms the impression on his mind of the poor fellow’s innocence.

Mr George Yeates Hunter then spoke, saying that he believed in Taylor’s innocence and ended by referring to the ‘uniform support Mr Jarvis had given to Ministers [of the Government] since his residence [in Margate], and the little likelihood that he would be found in any cause to be opposed to Ministerial purposes, but in the cause of innocence oppressed, and truth violated.’ The meeting ended by the appointment of a Committee to raise a subscription for the wife and children of Taylor.  An account of the meeting was published as an advertisement in the local newspapers (Appendix IV).

A final curious sidelight on the case is thrown by the  correspondence about how to  distribute the £500 reward money amongst those who believed themselves to have played a role in the capture of the smugglers.28

Thomas Avis, one of the first claimants, had been once keeper of St. Augustine's Gaol at Canterbury from whence he was dismissed; and from being supposed to be acquainted with most of the loose characters about Canterbury, was employed, in the early part of the business, in helping to apprehend one of the accomplices, who afterwards turned witness for the Crown. But as Mr Avis appeared, on one occasion, at the magistrate's office in a state of intoxication, his further services were dispensed with. As he had already received an honorarium of £5 2s 4d, his claim for further remuneration was disallowed.29

The next was John Wixson, who was employed in the apprehension of several of the smugglers, and was chiefly instrumental in the discovery of John Buffington and James Rolfe; "but," observes the solicitor appointed to adjudicate on these claims, "it has been represented to me that in eight instances Wixson connived at the escape of several of the offenders whilst the officers were in pursuit." Mr. Wixson's occupation, when not engaged on amateur detective work, was that of gardener, earning about three shillings per diem. While assisting the police, however, he was paid at the rate of ten shillings per diem. But as he had already received about £20, besides compensation for some windows, "alleged to have been broken," cautiously observes the man of law, his claim was considered to have been satisfied in full.

The next is a lady, Mrs. Everitt, of Canterbury, who contributed by her information to the apprehension of three of the convicted persons, viz. James Rolfe, Francis Carden, and Thomas Stokes, for which she was paid "at the time" she furnished the information, "as a sine qua non before giving it." Cautious Mrs. Everitt! These sums, amounting in the aggregate to £17 15s, were thought to be sufficient.

Having struck these rather shady claimants off the list, there remained the more deserving ones to be dealt with; and in adjudicating on their respective claims the solicitor observes: “The persons to whom the discovery and conviction of most of the offenders was due, were four accomplices: viz. James Justice, Samuel Kirby, Thomas Meers, and Thomas Powell. These men are therefore entitled to share in the reward offered."

Amongst those who, by their exertions, had contributed to the apprehension of the men, the most active was Mr. Robert Stride, officer of Excise at Canterbury. As, however, he had already received £250, his claim was thought to have been amply met. Another was a Peace Officer, William Meers, who was reported to have lost his life owing to his exertions, and whose widow and family were reported as "deserving of reward." John Reynolds, too, "has been ruined in business," ran the report, "through the displeasure of his neighbours at the assistance he rendered."

That official consideration of the claims was conducted with no unseemly haste may be inferred from the fact that the "Scheme of Distribution " was not completed till November 8th — more than seven months after the conviction of the offenders.  The £500 was to be divided amongst twenty-eight persons, in sums varying from £100 to £5; the largest sum being awarded to the widow of constable William Meers who died of cold, caught in consequence of his activity in apprehending the offenders: viz. £100. James Justice, an accomplice, who made full disclosure of the names of the gang, and did not carry arms on the occasion, received £50. Two other accomplices who assisted by their evidence to convict, £40 each. Thomas Cook, a seaman of the blockade who received a gunshot wound, and recognised Taylor, £10. The only other participator deserving of mention was a constable of Margate, "who was the means of getting several arrested by the conversations he overheard amongst those under arrest."

The most edifying part of the correspondence, however, was that concerned with the damage sustained by a Margate gentleman owing to his zeal on behalf of the Crown: a dangerous role to play in those stirring times, as the sequel proves.

Under date February 20th, 1823, the Crown solicitors wrote — with reference to the affray of September 1st, 1821, at Marsh Bay: "The gang was chiefly composed of the same persons concerned in the murder of Mr Snow in the preceding April. It consisted of fifty-nine persons, the names of all of whom were discovered through the active agency of Mr. Boys, solicitor of Margate. . . . The result of the measures taken on that occasion has been that, since then, the coast blockade have met with no serious interruption to their work, nor has there been any running of contraband goods under the protection of armed bands, as had repeatedly before taken place, to the destruction of many lives.

"In prosecutions of this kind," the writer goes on to say, "the offenders are only to be discovered by the evidence of accomplices, because the offences are committed at night, by numbers combined, all strangers to the officers and men of the coast blockade; consequently, unless the offenders are apprehended there are no means of identifying them. Thus the prosecution of Mr Snow's murderers failed for want of corroborating testimony; but in the present case the difficulty was overcome through the diligence of Mr Boys, Clerk to the Justices of the Peace at Margate, who zealously cooperated with my agents and discovered corroborative evidence to sustain the testimony of four accomplices, who it was found necessary to admit as witnesses for the Crown. By this means an alibi one of the prisoners falsely set up was defeated and the conviction of the whole nineteen prisoners secured.

"In this respect Mr Boys’ conduct was entirely the reverse of that of many professional gentlemen on the coast, one of whom not only refused to render me his professional assistance, when sought, but actually defended a smuggler prosecuted by me at the same Assizes, under similar circumstances, and obtained his acquittal.

All this successful result, observes the writer, “is attributable to Mr Boys."

As regards the loss and damage sustained by Mr Boys, owing to his zeal in the cause of justice, the Crown solicitors point out that, "as a solicitor, carrying on business for the past twenty years in Margate, Mr Boys must have many clients more or less engaged in smuggling, who would feel that his action with the Crown would tend to the prejudice of their interests. I also know," continues the writer, ''that several of these joined in the obloquy cast on him at Margate for thus embarking in the service of Government. One of his clients, who was supposed to have great influence over him, was actually engaged under instructions of the solicitors for the defence of one prisoner, to try and obtain from Mr Boys a copy of the evidence of private examinations which had been taken against the prisoner, in order the better to enable the solicitor to shape his course at the defence."

The writer than goes on to notice the several departments of business in which Mr Boys suffered losses, amounting, in the aggregate, to at least £300 per annum; and thus concludes the report:

"Mr Boys was during the proceedings the object of almost general hatred in the town and neighbourhood of Margate — that he was placarded on the walls as an informer and hunter after blood-money — that his house was frequently assailed and his windows broken and his person assaulted in the dark and the fruit trees destroyed in his garden in the night, all of which has been confirmed to me by the Rev Mr Baylay, the Vicar of Margate, and the Justice by whom most of the convicted persons were committed for trial."



1.The Times, September 6 1821.

2. Morning Chronicle, September 10 1821.

3. National Archives HO/17/1/12.

4. United Service Journal, Part 3, pp 26-35, 194-203, and 477-490, 1839.

5. Kentish Chronicle, copied in The Times, September 6 1821.

6. Morning Chronicle, December 25 1821.

7. London Gazette, September 15, 1821.

8. Kentish Gazette, September 28 1821.

9. Morning Chronicle, October 14 1821.

10. Morning Chronicle, December 6 1821.

11. Morning Chronicle, December 25 1821.

12. Kentish Chronicle, December 28 1821.

13. Kentish Chronicle, December 28 1821.

14. National Archives, DL/50/2/12.


16. Kentish Gazette, March 25 1822.

17. Dictionary of National Biography.

18. Kentish Chronicle, July 2 1824.

19. The Examiner, April 14 1822.

20. Morning Post, December 19 1822.

21. G. E. Clarke, Historic Margate, 2nd edition, Margate, 1967.

22. The Times, June 10 1824.

23. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Journals of the House of Commons 9 June 1824.

24. The Law Times, February 9 1861.

25. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

26. Morning Post, June 10 1824.

27. Morning Chronicle, June 12 1824.

28. Lord Teignmouth and Charles G. Harper, The smugglers; picturesque chapters in the history of contraband, Vol. II, Cecil Palmer, London.  

29. National Archives HO/44/10.