West Lulworth

a Registered One-Place Study and part of the Dorset OPC network

Smuggling - 1832 Murder

The following account appeared in ‘King's Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855’ by E. Keble Chatterton published in 1912:


But next to the abominable cruelties perpetrated by the Hawkhurst gang related in an earlier chapter, I have found no incident so utterly brutal and savage as the following. I have to ask the reader to turn his imagination away from Sussex, and centre it on a very beautiful spot in Dorsetshire, where the cliffs and sea are separated by only a narrow beach. On the evening of the 28th of June 1832, Thomas Barrett, one of the boatmen belonging to the West Lulworth Coastguard, was on duty and proceeding along the top of the cliff towards Durdle, when he saw a boat moving about from the eastward. It was now nearly 10 P.M. He ran along the cliff, and then down to the beach, where he saw that this boat had just landed and was now shoving off again. But four men were standing by the water, at the very spot whence the boat had immediately before pushed off. One of these men was James Davis, who had on a long frock and a covered hat painted black.

Barrett asked this little knot of men what their business was, and why they were there at that time of night, to which Davis replied that they had "come from Weymouth, pleasuring!" Barrett observed that to come from Weymouth (which was several miles to the westward) by the east was a "rum" way. Davis then denied that they had come from the eastward at all, but this was soon stopped by Barrett remarking that if they had any nonsense they would get the worst of it. After this the four men went up the cliff, having loudly abused him before proceeding. On examining the spot where the boat had touched, the Coastguard found twenty-nine tubs full of brandy lying on the beach close to the water's edge, tied together in pairs, as was the custom for landing. He therefore deemed it advisable to burn a blue light, and fired several shots into the air for assistance.


Three boatmen belonging to the station saw and heard, and they came out to his aid. But by this time the country-side was also on the alert, and the signals had brought an angry crowd of fifty men, who sympathised with the smugglers. These appeared on the top of the cliff, so the four coastguards ran from the tubs (on the beach) to the cliff to prevent this mob from coming down and rescuing the tubs. But as the four men advanced to the top of the cliff, they hailed the mob and asked who they were, announcing that they had seized the tubs. The crowd made answer that the coastguards should not have the tubs, and proceeded to fire at the quartette and to hurl down stones. A distance of only about twenty yards separated the two forces, and the chief boatman ordered his three men to fire up at them, and for three-quarters of an hour this affray continued.


It was just then that the coastguards heard cries coming from the top of the cliff—cries as of some one in great pain. But soon after the mob left the cliff and went away; so the coastguards went down to the beach again to secure and make safe the tubs, where they found that Lieutenant Stocker was arriving at the beach in a boat from a neighbouring station. He ordered Barrett to put the tubs in the boat and then to lay a little distance from the shore. But after Barrett had done this and was about thirty yards away, the lieutenant ordered him to come ashore again, because the men on the beach were bringing down Lieutenant Knight, who was groaning and in great pain.


What had happened to the latter must now be told. After the signals mentioned had been observed, a man named Duke and Lieutenant Knight, R.N., had also proceeded along the top of the cliff. It was a beautiful starlight night, with scarcely any wind, perfectly still and no moon visible. There was just the sea and the night and the cliffs. But before they had gone far they encountered that mob we have just spoken of at the top of the cliff. Whilst the four coastguards were exchanging fire from below, Lieutenant Knight and Duke came upon the crowd from their rear. Two men against fifty armed with great sticks 6 feet long could not do much. As the mob turned towards them, Lieutenant Knight promised them that if they should make use of those murderous-looking sticks they should have the contents of his pistol.

But the mob, without waiting, dealt the first blows, so Duke and his officer defended themselves with their cutlasses. At first there were only a dozen men against them, and these the two managed to beat off. But other men then came up and formed a circle round Knight and Duke, so the two stood back to back and faced the savage mob. The latter made fierce blows at the men, which were warded off by the cutlasses in the men's left hands, two pistols being in the right hand of each. The naval men fired these, but it was of little good, though they fought like true British sailors. Those 6-foot sticks could reach well out, and both Knight and Duke were felled to the ground.


Then, like human panthers let loose on their prey, this brutal, lawless mob with uncontrolled cruelty let loose the strings of their pent-up passion. They kept these men on the ground and dealt with them shamefully. Duke was being dragged along by his belt, and the crowd beat him sorely as he heard his lieutenant exclaim, "Oh, you brutes!" The next thing which Duke heard the fierce mob to say was, "Let's kill the —— and have him over the cliff." Now the cliff at that spot is 100 feet high. Four men then were preparing to carry out this command—two were at his legs and two at his hands—when Duke indignantly declared, "If Jem was here, he wouldn't let you do it."


It reads almost like fiction to have this dramatic halt in the murder scene. For just as Duke was about to be hurled headlong over the side, a man came forward and pressed the blackguards back on hearing these words. For a time it was all that the new-comer could do to restrain the brutes from hitting the poor fellow, while the men who still had hold of his limbs swore that they would have Duke over the cliff. But after being dealt a severe blow on the forehead, they put him down on to the ground and left him bleeding. One of the gang, seeing this, observed complacently, "He bleeds well, but breathes short. It will soon be over with him." And with that they left him.


The man who had come forward so miraculously and so dramatically to save Duke's life was James Cowland, and the reason he had so acted was out of gratitude to Duke, who had taken his part in a certain incident twelve months ago. And this is the sole redeeming feature in a glut of brutality. It must have required no small amount of pluck and energy for Cowland to have done even so much amid the wild fanaticism which was raging, and smuggler and ruffian though he was, it is only fair to emphasize and praise his action for risking his own life to save that of a man by whom he had already benefited.


But Cowland did nothing more for his friend than that, and after the crowd had indulged themselves on the two men they went off to their homes. Duke then, suffering and bleeding, weak and stunned, crawled to the place where he had been first attacked—a little higher up the cliff—and there he saw Knight's petticoat trousers, but there was no sign of his officer himself.


After that he gradually made his way down to the beach, and at the foot of the cliff he came upon Knight lying on his back immediately below where the struggle with the smugglers had taken place. Duke sat down by his side, and the officer, opening his eyes, recognised his man and asked, "Is that you?" But that was all he said. Duke then went to tell the coastguards and Lieutenant Stocker on the beach, who fetched the dying man, put him into Lipscomb's boat, and promptly rowed him to his home at Lulworth, where he died the next day. It is difficult to write calmly of such an occurrence as this: it is impossible that in such circumstances one can extend the slightest sympathy with a race of men who probably had a hard struggle for existence, especially when the fishing or the harvests were bad. The most one can do is to attribute such unreasoning and unwarranted cruelty to the ignorance and the coarseness which had been bred in undisciplined lives. Out of that seething, vicious mob there was only one man who had a scrap of humanity, and even he could not prevent his fellows from one of the worst crimes in the long roll of smugglers' delinquencies.


The following entry appears in the Bishops Transcipts of Melcombe Regis St Mary's
Burials 1831-1840 transcribed by Bob Stone:


4 Jul 1832; Thomas E. KNIGHT Age 42 (Coast Guard at Lulworth - supposed to be thrown over the cliff)


On a tombstone in Weymouth's Bury Street cemetery there is the following inscription:

Sacred to the memory of Lieut Thos Edward Knight, RN, of Folkestone, Kent, Aged 42, who in the execution of his duty as Chief Officer of the Coastguard was wantonly attacked by a body of smugglers near Lulworth on the night of 28th of June 1832, by whom after being unmercifully beaten he was thrown over the cliff near Durdle Door from the effects of which he died the following day.



The following extract is provided courtesy of Bob Sanders:


30 July 1832

Summer Assizes, Western Circuit, Dorchester, Saturday, July 28


James Davis and Charles Bascombe were indicted for having, on the 28th June last, at West Lulworth, feloniously assembled, with other persons unknown, armed with fire-arms and other offensive weapons, in order to aid and assist in the running and carrying away of certain prohibited goods - namely, 88 gallons of brandy, which are liable to pay cerain dues to the customs.


This case excited very great interest here, as the prisoners were supposed to have been in company with, and forming part of the gang of smugglers who attacked Lieutenant Knight and his party, when the former was thrown over a terrific cliff by the smugglers and killed.


List of witnesses etc

Thomas Barrett Brewer, a commissioned boatman in the West Lulworth Coast Guard - witness

James Lifton - Coast Guard chief boatman at West Lulworth - witness

William Ralph - Coast Guard boatman at West Lulworth - witness

Thomas Teed - Coast Guard boatman at West Lulworth - mentioned by Brewer as being present

Lieutenant Stocker, Chief Officer of the Coast Guard at Osmington-mill station - witness

William Jolliffe, warehouse-keeper at the Custom-house at Weymouth - witness

John Duke, commissioned boatman in the Coast Guard at West Lulworth - witness

Mr. Adamson, Inspector of Police, London - investigating officer - witness

Colonel Rowan - mentioned in evidence

James Carter, coach-guard - witness


The Jury found "Not Guilty".