The Death of a Local Hero
William Cowerson died as his gang smuggled a large cargo through Worthing. One thousand people attended his funeral in Steyning.
William Cowerson was born and bred in Steyning. By day he was a stonemason, which gave him the opportunity to scan the horizon from many a church tower in the area. By night he led his smugglers’ gang as they travelled the lanes from the coast to Steyning, carrying off their duty-free goods and distributing them at greatly reduced prices around the neighbourhood and as far as London.
On 21st February 1832, William Cowerson was working on the tower of West Tarring Church, an excellent lookout position. That night he led his gang of two hundred men on a particularly lucrative smuggling run. They gathered at a Worthing inn and local cellars until there was a light signal in sight.
Down on the beach, they unloaded three hundred barrels from a boat drawn up on the water's edge. It was a valuable cargo of Dutch gin, French brandy and perfumes. The contraband was passed along the lines of men, defended by around fifty ‘batmen’ armed with cudgels, staves and firearms to keep the Excise men at bay.
This night the authorities were alert and called men out to intercept the gang. Of course, Cowerson was well prepared for a violent confrontation and there was a running battle along the High Street. At after two o'clock in the morning, this was quite a disturbance.
However, the gang met with a padlocked gate in their path, which dangerously slowed them down. The gate was at the Teville Stream bridge, a mile or so inland on the way to Broadwater.
William Cowerson was soon at the gate to help his men and wrenched it off its hinges. But he was also confronted there by a Customs coastguard, Lieutenant Henderson. Cowerson struck the officer with a staff, breaking his arm. Henderson immediately took up his pistol and shot the smuggler at close range.
The body of William Cowerson, aged 31, was carried home to Steyning. The sexton dug his grave seven feet six inches long, three feet six inches wide and seven feet deep. This was an unusually large grave, suggesting a man of great stature.
Cowerson's funeral was attended by more than one thousand people and the bells rang for four long hours. William Cowerson had become a popular hero. His grave stone is still in Steyning church yard. It is now quite worn, but once read clearly:
Most of the goods smuggled that night were never recovered by the Excise men, although many local people knew they had found good homes. Cowerson's last act of defiance against the high Customs and Excise taxes of the time was justified in the minds of a vast majority.
Local smugglers are said to have greatly exaggerated the tales of highwaymen in the area, to put people off travelling on the highways and byways, especially at night. Yet thanks to local support, the smugglers largely succeeded in their illicit trade until the government began to adopt more enlightened free-trade policies.