In Thornham many must think those quaint references to a smugglers Inn and a bandits hideout are all part of a fabled history of a past time that may never have existed. Don’t be mistaken! This parts of the Norfolk Coast as captured in the book “The Lawless Coast” remember a time when villages such as Thornham were sufficiently anarchic to be of concern to parliament itself.
The Lawless Coast is a gripping account of the war between the smuggling gangs and the Customs and Excise menon the Norfolk coast, based on solid documentary evidence. Murders at Old Hunstanton, ruthless violence in Thornham, and a difficult arrest in the back streets of King’s Lynn followed by the trials of men who thought themselves above the law, make this an exciting and informative read. The book effectively sets the scene of smuggling on the Norfolk coast at the time. Shining a light on the huge smuggling trade in general and the reasons for it and, as stated, follows a couple of main threads to illustrate these points.
The bloody nature of the business isn’t flinched from, the huge profits the smugglers could make and the way they infiltrated so much of the social fabric of the time is shown and explained. Quotations from court proceedings, papers of the time and War Office records add to the air of authenticity. It also illustrates the brutality of the English penal code at the time and it is interesting to see the sorts of crimes that warranted capital punishment or transportation at this time.
For those familiar with the village of Thornham, recounting the stand-off and later confrontation between the customs officers and smugglers through the streets of Thornham is a memorable tale. Some of the ale houses around still remain as modern day pubs and the brutality of the times seems incomprehensible.
This is way before the Lifeboat Inn which claims a long smuggling history had even come into existence. It is true that less savoury characters may once have resided at a farmhouse that now forms the main part of the pub. Nevertheless, many of the chocolate box cottages and the Kings Head and Chequers of yesteryear do hide a bloody and dark past.
Little wonder that the BBC chose the old harbour at Thornham to recreate the dark days of England in their production of Great Expectations.