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The Death of a Local Hero
Smuggler shot dead by Excise man

William Cowerson died as his gang smuggled a large cargo through Worthing. One thousand people attended his funeral in Steyning.

St Andrew's Church graveyard
St Andrew's churchyard in Steyning, with Cowerson's headstone (centre)

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:

Death with his dart did pierce my heart
When I was in my prime.
Grieve not for me my dearest friends
For it was God’s appointed time.
Our life hangs by a single thread
Which soon is cut and we are dead.
Therefore repent, make no delay
For in my bloom I was called away.

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.

Some Facts About

The Smuggler's Sword
If you can visit Steyning Museum, look out for the smuggler’s sword. It was found hidden in the thatch of Smugglers, an old Steyning cottage. A tiny gable window was where the resident smuggler, William Cowerson, would light a candle to signal a warning that the coast was not clear – the Excise men were on the prowl.

Community Resources
The resources of a wide community were available to the smugglers - horses from local farms, chamber tombs in or outside the churches, houses with cellars, inns and even shepherds as lookouts on the hills.

Preventative Measures
From 1820, a Customs ship at Worthing was part of the coastal blockade for the prevention of smuggling (the origin of today's coastguards). After Cowerson's death, dragoons were stationed in Worthing to prevent smuggling. But the only effective way to stop it began in the 1840s - reduced Customs duties.

Awash With Gin
Sometimes it seemed as though the coastal towns and villages were awash with supplies of cheap gin. It was said that people even used it to clean their windows.


Smugglers' Britain
An extensive history of smuggling, including the story of William Cowerson

Freddie Feest's
Worthing History

A detailed account of the night's dreadful events

The maritime history of Worthing, with a link about the Teville stream

Findon Village
Were they heading for Findon? An article about Cowerson's gang plus more stories about local smuggling

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