Vicar by Day, Smuggler by Night

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Mention the South East of England and one of the features of significance, is the White Cliffs of Dover. This outstanding landmark has been in several films. It is an image that is synonymous with arriving in England.

Mention a character of the South East and sooner or later someone will mention Dr Syn. Dr Syn was a vicar by day and a smuggler by night. He operated out of Dymchurch-under-the-wall.

Smuggling in Romney Marsh

The Romney Marsh had a close link with smuggling during the 17th and 18th century. The coast is very close to the continent and a short boat trip between the two meant goods was smuggled easily. Smuggling of tobacco and alcohol was a popular occupation during these times. Boats could be found bringing their contraband ashore. The Hawkhurst gang being the most notorious of the time.

The Birth of Dr Syn

Locals in Dymchurch celebrate this character in a bi-yearly festival. August 2020 is the next one. Visitors at the festival will witness a re-enactment of the capture of Dr Syn. Arrested on the beach, he is then paraded through the high street. All the characters in the re-enactment are played by local people.

The legend of Dr Syn was the concept of the writer Russell Thorndike. His first book published in 1915 called Dr Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh. Today it is the only book in the collection that has been republished.

Thorndike first thought of the smuggling vicar, during a tour of America with his sister. Whilst on holiday a body was dumped below their hotel room window. Unable to leave the room and unable to sleep, the siblings started telling each other stories. This is where Thorndike first introduced the character of Dr Syn.

Thorndike based Dr Syn in Dymchurch, as he himself had purchased several houses there. His main house was the house I grew up in, Old Tree Cottage. I have written about this place before.

Thorndike was was also a regular in the local pub, The Ship Inn. This location is also pivotal to the Dr Syn stories. The pub is a popular tourist attraction to this day.

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Dr Syn

Dr Syn was a smuggler who’s boat ran into problems in the channel. In sight of Dymchurch, he waded ashore and took on the persona of the local vicar. The previous vicar had drowned whilst trying to save other passengers from the boat. Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn was also, the alias for Captain Clegg.

Fact or Fiction

The local church has nothing listed under the name of vicars between the years of 1776 to 1793. These are the years covered by the books, leaving many to ask is it fact or fiction. The local mist aided the smugglers to travel through the countryside. At times they were observed as ghostly figures as the mist swirled around their feet. The mist still occurs today.

In the books tunnels run under Dymchurch to aid the smugglers. One of these was from The Ship Inn. Visitors can verify this for themselves as there is a door marking the entrance to this tunnel still. A second tunnel was said to run from the Church to the sexton’s house, Old Tree Cottage. Under the fireplace was a hollow stone which could have been an entrance to a tunnel. The house also had its share of strange noises and phenomenon. It was a house steeped in history and where my obsession with mystery started.

Dr Syn’s Legacy

So popular was the first Dr Syn novel that Thorndike then went on to write another six novels. There are also three film adaptations as well as a mini-series made by Disney. Although Thorndike wrote several other novels, none proved as popular as his Dr Syn books.

The popularity of Dr Syn has never died. In November 2008, Dr Syn the Scarecrow of the Marsh was released onto DVD. The copies of the film adaptation sold out within three weeks. Dr Syn has also appeared in the comic book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If you are lucky enough to own edition two of the comic, The Scarecrow, Dr Syn appears.

How much of Dr Syn was fiction and how much was local folklore no one knows? Russell Thorndike heard tales of smuggling in The Ship Inn and may have included them in his books. The extent of this remains a mystery, which he took to his grave in 1972. To this day it is not hard to imagine smugglers riding the marsh when the mist settles. If you listen very careful on a still day, you can still hear the sound of horses running.

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UK writer & writing coach - views on writing, parenting, mental health & more. Want to improve your writing —

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