July 2020 ...
Lewes family: Son Hanged at Tyburn for Smuggling (1747)
When I published a list of real local smugglers in Retribution, one of whom
was named John Ashcraft of Bishopstone, I wondered if there might be members
of their families still to be found in the Lewes district today. Little did I expect
to hear from a family with such a dramatic and poignant history.
Diane Hodges of Maidstone contacted me to say she had found, in her genealogy investigations, her great grandparent x 6, Richard Ashcroft, a convicted smuggler who had suffered the misfortune of being hanged at Tyburn following a spell in Newgate prison.
Richard Ashcroft, 44, was born in Bishopstone; his parents were from Lewes. In 1747 he was convicted at the Old Bailey of being a smuggler and sentenced to death. He had been caught in the company of 30 armed men who had gathered in Eastbourne intending to carry away goods on which duty had not been paid.
Richard Ashcroft (sometimes known as Ashcraft) was a fisherman operating from Bishopstone where he lived with his wife, Jenny (nee Hide), and their seven children. Jenny died in childbirth, in the same year that Richard was hanged, leaving seven orphaned children to the mercy of their native parish.
In the court records Richard maintained that he had fallen in with the smuggling community whilst drinking in local pubs. His neighbours declared him to be a quiet, harmless man. The transcript of his trial implied that he was not a hardened criminal, but an unfortunate recent participant who did not bear firearms and had only fallen in with the smugglers as drinking companions. He declared that he just happened to be in Eastbourne on the day when the 30 smugglers met a party of five excise officers as they were trying to carry away goods with duty unpaid.
The five officers were assaulted and threatened with weapons but managed to apprehend four men and a woman who were later convicted, including John Cook, 28, who was hanged alongside Richard Ashcroft. Cook admitted to being a long-time member of the notorious Hawkhurst gang. There is no indication of what happened to the rest of the gang. Presumably they escaped, as it would have been difficult for five to hold 30 armed men.
Diane’s family tree records four generations named Richard Ashcroft and their close links to Lewes, and to St. John the Baptist Church (Southover). Richard’s parents were married and buried there, as were other members of the family.
Quite where John Ashcraft fits in I don’t yet know. He could be Richard’s brother or close relative. The report in the Sussex Advertiser advising of his arrest (published on 5.3.1746) might simply be mistaken in the Christian name. More research is needed, I think. Names were fairly fluid at that time.
I am indebted to Diane for allowing me to tell her family history.
May 2020 ... unusual times but progress is being made
First of all, I'd like to thank all my readers for buying my books over the past year or so, for supporting me and visiting my web page and Facebook page. It's good to keep in touch.
Update on my new book
The main reason for independently publishing my books is it enables me to keep control. I am a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists (SWWJ) and I could take advantage of their publishing arm, Scriptora, but like every other industry in these troubled times there is a backlog. Who knows when everything will be up and running properly again?
Other excitements in this stay-at-home environment, where even making a cup of fresh coffee has its own drama, are that I have opened an Instagram account and put up some posts that maybe of interest. My particular favourite is the bees nest in my garden. I’ve even sent it to the BBC's Springwatch! I am easily pleased nowadays. Why not have a look?
Finally, I would sincerely like to thank all the readers who tell me how much they enjoy the books and I am particularly grateful to the reader who believes in me enough to put them forward for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, which is part of Jo Whiley’s broadcast, I believe. Thank you, everyone. I can’t explain how uplifting it is to receive such positive feedback, and it gets me through these anxious days with a spring in my step.
The most exciting thing is that I have finished the first draft of book three. There's still a long way to go but I hope my readers will experience lots of different emotions as they read the final and dramatic part of the trilogy. Now it is all about editing and deciding how to publish. As many of you know I independently published Three Round Towers and Retribution, both of which have been good quality physical books, worthy of your bookshelves.