Film makers shed light on Hadleigh's murky past

A TEAM of student film makers have uncovered the dark side of a market town and the gang leader whose smuggling exploits led to England's Age of Violence.

While Dick Turpin and Robin Hood dominate the history pages as the nation's most notorious robbers – few will have heard of John Harvey of Pond Hall, Hadleigh.

But now, thanks to a documentary soon to be released by Silk Purse Productions, his large-scale smuggling prowess as leader of the Hadleigh Gang should propel him to the top of the country's legendary outlaws.

The four students from the University of Lincoln have been filming and researching the town's reputation as the centre of the smuggling frenzy that took place along the east coast during the 18th century under Harvey's leadership.

Lewes Gemmill, 24, the film's director, said: "It's incredible that he is not recognised for the extraordinary feats of smuggling that he organised from Hadleigh. There was nothing small scale about it – on numerous occasions he took more than 100 men and horses on raids of the Suffolk coast, especially at Sizewell Gap, to steal tea and dry goods before distributing them inland on a route through Hadleigh."

Research for the film has led to numerous interviews with historians and town record keepers to uncover the rumours of smuggling tunnels under Hadleigh and why a place nearly 40 miles from the sea should have become a smuggling capital.

Jan Byrne, a town councillor interviewed for the film, said: "The town's fortunes had tumbled by the 18th century and there was poverty and starvation everywhere. People will do anything to make sure they are fed and, with someone as intelligent and charismatic as John Harvey taking a leading role, I guess it is not surprising the town became a centre of a smuggling operation.

"It has never been truly established if there are tunnels under the town but I wouldn't be surprised. They were a very organised and determined gang and probably included some high-profile figures in the town."

Cameraman Philip Stevens, 28, said their research on Hadleigh had given them enough material for another 20 documentaries.

He said: "The place is dripping with history and the story of John Harvey has been utterly absorbing. His gang were so powerful that often customs officers watching their smuggling activities on the coast were too afraid to interfere."

When he was eventually caught and tried, Harvey's quick-thinking and intelligence in the courtroom ensured he avoided execution on account of a technicality and he was transported to America for seven years, said Mr Stevens.

"It has been very interesting to film in Hadleigh – so much of it still looks as it did in the 1700s – and you can imagine the smugglers hiding in rooftop rooms in the High Street before making a quick exit in secret passageways out of the back and into the countryside when soldiers came to find them," he added.

The Free Press will announce when the film is released and where it can be seen in the New Year.