In Search of the 1790s
‘The past is a foreign country’, L.P. Hartley famously declared in The Go-Between. ‘They do things differently there.’
Standing on the Dymchurch Wall and looking out over the English Channel towards France on a bright sunny spring morning, that statement never seemed more true. Behind us, a golf course lay serene in the sunshine. People strolled along the beach, children picked up seashells, dogs barked as they ran in the shallow surf. All was blissful and peaceful.
Things were a bit different in 1796. Britain and France were at war, and Britain faced the threat of imminent invasion. Rebellion was brewing in Ireland, and there were real fears it would spread to England too. The Romney Marsh smugglers, who for decades had carried silk and brandy and lace across the Channel into England, now had other more sinister cargo: secrets, and spies.
The Marsh itself was a different place too. The flat fields were fit for little but grazing, and the people were poor. It was probably poverty that led many of them – most of them – into smuggling. It was, as Reverend Hardcastle says at one point in The Body on the Doorstep, easier to list those members of his parish who were not involved in smuggling, than those who were.
Opinions among modern historians differ about the smugglers. Some see them as entrepreneurs, others as criminal gangs akin to the mafia. The real truth is probably somewhere in between, but there is no doubt that the smugglers were armed and dangerous. The penalty for those convicted of smuggling was death, and both men and women were hanged for this crime, every year.
People were poor, life was cheap. The Marsh was also malarial, and many people suffered from ‘marsh fever’. People in the uplands of the Weald of Kent knew this and shied away from the Marsh, feverish and unhealthy in summer, bitter and windswept the rest of the year. Evil in summer, grievous in winter, and never good, was how one proverb of the day put it.
Standing on the Dymchurch Wall that day, it felt like the peace of the day was an illusion. The real Romney Marsh lay underneath. The real picture was one of those centuries of hardship, of trying to wrest a living from the poor ground and the unforgiving sea, of defying danger and death to run smuggled goods into the country so the wealthy of London could have their luxuries; all against a backdrop of war, espionage and invasion.
That is the Romney Marsh we saw as we stood in the sunshine that morning. We hope that in The Body on the Doorstep, you will see it too.