Doctor Syn:
The Romney Marsh of the Scarecrow!

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh's Interior, St. Mary-in-Marsh, Cottage set in fields in early spring crops [Ask for #256.524.]


ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh's Interior, St. Mary-in-Marsh, Cottage set in fields in early spring crops [Ask for #256.524.]

The first thing I discovered about Romney Marsh (on the coast of Kent, southeast of London) was: It isn’t a marsh. At least not any more. It used to be very marshy indeed, but that was a long time ago. The Romans drained most of it, and the Saxon Kingdom of Kent pretty much finished it off before King Alfred’s time. A few parts are more recently reclaimed. Eight hundred years ago it had a navigable inlet running right up its center, its inland towns of Rye and New Romney were deep water ports, and its pebbly “shingle” beach at Dungeness had not yet grown to its present gargantuan size. But apart from these medieval bits, Romney “Marsh” has been level farmland for fifteen centuries.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Appledore, A windmill, converted to a private residence, sits on the downs that flank the Romney Marsh's north side [Ask for #256.461.]


A windmill, converted to a private residence, sits on the downs that flank the Romney Marsh's north side near the village of Appledore. [Ask for #256.461.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Appledore, Flowers bloom along the Royal Military Canal a mile south of the village. [Ask for #256.462.]


Flowers bloom along the Royal Military Canal a mile south of the village of Appledore. [Ask for #256.462.]

I found this a disappointment. I was expecting high rushes by still pools, herons poised on stilted legs and ducks quacking merrily in the cattails. I wanted morning mists hanging over the ponds, and evening sunsets gleaming red on reflecting waters. Okay, I also wanted masked horsemen galloping madly in the moonlight, led by an cavalier figure disguised as a Scarecrow. I wanted the Romney Marshes of Doctor Syn.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh's Interior, St. Mary-in-Marsh, Village church viewed across fields. [Ask for #256.521.]


St. Mary-in-Marsh, Village church viewed across fields. [Ask for #256.521.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh's Interior, Newchurch Area, Hawthorn in spring bloom by the side of a drainage canal [Ask for #256.447.]


Hawthorn in spring bloom by the side of a drainage canal, at the center of Romney Marsh. [Ask for #256.447.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Dymchurch, Sunset view over the marsh at Botolphs Bridge, a short distance inland from town. [Ask for #256.450.]


Sunset view over Romney Marsh at Botolphs Bridge, a short distance inland from Dymchurch. [Ask for #256.450.]

Noted actor Russell Thorndike created the fictional Dr. Christopher Syn, Rector of Dymchurch, in his 1915 thriller of that name – a breath-taking account of Romney Marsh smuggling at the close of the 18th century. Thorndike’s tale weaves together supernatural horror and blood-curdling crime as it follows the meek and beloved rector, and discovers his chilling secret. Most astonishing is the novel’s completely amoral nature, with the sympathetic characters being openly and viciously criminal, and the upright enforcers of the law given to actions as harsh as their opponents. Dr. Syn has been made into movies three times, including a 1962 Walt Disney production (The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) that made the smugglers into a sort of happy Robin Hood gang intent on social justice. Be assured that Thorndike’s characters are not at all nice, and they all get what they deserve.

Russell Thorndike, like his fictional protagonist, knew the Marsh well; he spent summers there, at Dymchurch, from the 1890's until his death in 1972. Thorndike would describe this seaside village minutely in Doctor Syn. Doctor Syn’s rectory looked out over the church, and the good doctor would compose his sermons in his front parlor, by a bay window facing the graveyard. He would preach long and restful sermons, after which his seafaring parishioners would belt out hymns as if they were chanteys. After church, Syn would dine with the local squire, while his sexton, the comical little Mipps, would mesmerize the crowd at the Ship Inn with stories of piracy and adventure on the high seas. Some evenings, the mild mannered man of the cloth would enjoy a pint at the Ship Inn with his parishioners, claiming that “a parson drinking with the men in a public inn had a good effect upon the parish, for a good parson, as a good sailor, should know when he has had enough.” And on a blowy afternoon he would walk along the seawall, deep in thought, perhaps composing a sermon – but singing softly to himself a most inappropriate sea song,

“Oh, here's to the feet that have walked the plank,
Yo ho! for the dead man's throttle,
And here's to the corpses floating round in the tank,
And the dead man's teeth in the bottle.”

He was as proud of this song as if he had written it himself,” observes Thorndike.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Dymchurch, The village church, where the fictional Dr. Syn was supposed to have preached; the rectory viewed across the churchyard [Ask for #256.513.]


The Dymchurch village church where the fictional Dr. Syn was supposed to have preached. [Ask for #256.513.]

Modern Dymchurch is a seaside resort complete with caravan parks, amusement rides, and arcades – a testament to the English love of the sea, for its “shingle” beach is naught but small rounded stones piled under the towering seawall. The shingle, however, becomes a glorious thing as the resorts finally give out at the far southern end of the Marsh, at Dungeness. Here I could see the shingle extending unbroken a quarter mile from the roadside to the sea, and I could see the local fishing boats pulled up onto the stony beach, just as in Doctor Syn’s time. The shingle extends inland for miles, part of the great deposition that closed up the southern end of the Marsh in medieval times. It’s a desert, and like many deserts, remarkable in its barren beauty and surprising ecological diversity. Two lighthouses mark its end, the fourth and fifth ones built here as the shingle grew further into the ocean. A huge nuclear power plant adds a dramatic backdrop.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, The South Marsh, Dungeness, The Old Lighthouse at Dungeness [Ask for #256.486.]


The Old Lighthouse at Dungeness. This was built in 1904 when the growth of the Dungeness shingle placed the previous light too far inland. [Ask for #256.486.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Woman artist on shingle beach painting [Ask for #256.501.]


Artist finds her perfect subject on the Dungeness shingle beach. [Ask for #256.501.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, The South Marsh, Dungeness, The New Lighthouse at Dungeness, showing its remote location on the shingle. [Ask for #256.487.]


The New Lighthouse at Dungeness. This was built in 1960 when the newly built atomic power station blocked the light from the Old Lighthouse. This is the fifth lightouse on this spot. [Ask for #256.487.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Fishing boats drawn up on the shingle beach; man on boat with net; a woman artist paints the scene [Ask for #256.500.]


Fishing boats drawn up on the Dungeness shingle beach. [Ask for #256.500.]

From there stretch the empty “marshes”, flat farmlands cut by drainage channels, with some fine old villages at the higher points. New Romney was a river mouth port until the 1280s; now there’s no sign of water for many miles around (apart from the drainage canals) and the river flows miles to the south. Lydd, another substantial village, is filled with interesting architecture and a remarkable parish church with a skyscraper of a tower. In contrast, St. Mary-in-the-Marsh is little more than a church and a pub thrown together on an isolated hillock. It’s a beautiful spot, beloved of children’s author E. Nesbit, who made her final home here.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, The South Marsh, Dungeness, An ironmonger (hardware store) and red phone box at the center of the village [Ask for #256.481.]


An ironmonger (hardware store) and red phone box at the center of the village of Lydd. [Ask for #256.481.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, The South Marsh, Lydd, Village grocer in front of the village church with its 130' tower, known as "The Cathedral of Romney Marsh" [Ask for #256.475.]


Lydd village grocer in front of the village church with its 130' tower, known as "The Cathedral of Romney Marsh" [Ask for #256.475.]

Back at Dymchurch I was trying to find Thorndike’s old fishing town, hidden under the modern resort. I found walkers strolling along the high, wide wall top (once the main road into Dymchurch), following Doctor Syn’s example of enjoying the blowy May weather and exceptional sea views. The church is a delight, a fine old medieval Kentish structure with a large balcony; I could easily imagine it filled with fisher-folk, “whose voices would roll out some sturdy old tune like a giant p'an, shaking the very church with its fury, and sounding more like a rum-backed capstan song than a respectable, God-fearing hymn.”

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Dymchurch, The village church, where the fictional Dr. Syn was supposed to have preached; exterior [Ask for #256.507.]


The Dymchurch village church, where the fictional Dr. Syn of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was supposed to have preached. [Ask for #256.507.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Dymchurch, The village church, where the fictional Dr. Syn was supposed to have preached; interior [Ask for #256.511.]


View from the balcony of the Dymchurch village church, where seamen belted out hymns for the fictional Dr. Syn. [Ask for #256.511.]

But the best part of Old Dymchurch is the Ship Inn. I had been in enough English beach towns to face any seaside pub with apprehension; but the Ship was a wonderful surprise. Founded in 1452 and in continuous business for over a half-millennium, the Ship is a classic two-bar pub with a separate restaurant and an upstairs b&b. I found its comfortable lounge bar packed with Thorndike and Doctor Syn memorabilia – paintings, portraits, and exhibits. And I was delighted that the current rector had escorted a church group there, twenty-four elderly couples sipping wine and pints of fine local ale, following Doctor Syn’s excellent example. The food was good, fresh pub fare, and the talk was good as well. And yes, that business about the smugglers is real; they will gladly show you the smuggler’s hole discovered during a modern renovation.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Dymchurch, The Ship Inn viewed across the village chuchyard -- locations associated with the fictional Dr. Syn [Ask for #256.514.]


Dymchurch, The Ship Inn viewed across the village chuchyard — locations associated with the fictional Dr. Syn [Ask for #256.514.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Dymchurch, The Ship Inn, favored haunt of author Russell Thorndyke and his fictional character, Dr. Syn. Interior of lounge bar, showing cask ale pumps [Ask for #256.516.]


Dymchurch, The Ship Inn, favored haunt of author Russell Thorndyke and his fictional character, Dr. Syn. Interior of lounge bar, showing cask ale pumps [Ask for #256.516.]

In fact, the wildest details of Doctor Syn are no wilder than the actual facts of Romney Marsh smuggling. Thorndike based his smugglers on an actual criminal organization of the 1820s, the notorious ‘Blues’. Like Thorndike’s fictional smugglers, the Blues were organized by a criminal mastermind, George Ransley – one of three such large-scale conspiracies in the history of Kentish smuggling. And, like Thorndike’s Scarecrow, Ransley liked to organize his large gang in a highly military style, executing large scale operations involving scores of smugglers. Individual operations would involve 200, even 250 smugglers at one time; Ransley even kept a doctor on staff to attend to the wounded. Ransley was known to use the local’s fear of the supernatural to cover his army’s movements. He was also known to engage in fierce battles with the revenue agents, much more murderously than the Scarecrow’s efforts. The Scarecrow seems fantastic, but he was small potatoes next to Ransley.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, The Upper Stour Valley, Aldington, Pub sign for the "Walnut Tree Inn", showing smugglers. [Ask for #256.497.]


Aldington, Pub sign for the "Walnut Tree Inn", showing smugglers. [Ask for #256.497.]

I was surprised and delighted to discover that Ransley and I had both chosen the same village for our headquarters – Aldington, on the high escarpment that forms the northern edge of the Romney Marsh. It’s a lush and green land, where rich farms top rolling hills. Aldington’s smugglers had supplemented their illegal income with hop farming; while hop farming is long gone their drying barns, cylindrical stone structures known as “oast houses”, remain common. Ranley’s favorite hide-out, the Walnut Tree Inn, remains as the village local.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, The Upper Stour Valley, Aldington, The "Walnut Tree Inn", an infamous smugglers' pub in the 18th cent. [Ask for #256.498.]


Aldington's The "Walnut Tree Inn", an infamous smugglers' pub in the 18th cent. [Ask for #256.498.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, The Upper Stour Valley, Aldington, Lanary Oast, View of restored oast house (hops dryer), now a luxury self-catering cottage [Ask for #256.433.]


Aldington, Lanary Oast in Aldington, a restored oast house converted to a residence. [Ask for #256.433.]

Thorndike fingered the medieval walled town of Rye as a smuggler’s den, and, as elsewhere in his book, he did not exaggerate. Rye had been an open center of the smuggling trade since the 15th century, when its piracy businesses began to fail. By Doctor Syn’s time its harbor had long-since silted up, remaining open to only the smaller craft favored by fishermen – and smugglers. Once again, Thorndike’s characters visit a real smuggler’s den, The Mermaid, now a hotel and restaurant in the center of Rye’s cobblestoned historic district. This is an area little changed in appearance from Doctor Syn’s day, save for being clean and safe.

ENG: South East Region, East Sussex, Romney Marsh, Rye, Historic District, The Mermaid Inn; old smuggler's pub, now a hotel, fronting on a cobblestoned street [Ask for #256.528.]


The Mermaid Inn in Rye, an old smuggler's pub, now a hotel, fronting on a cobblestoned street. [Ask for #256.528.]
ENG: South East Region, East Sussex, Romney Marsh, Rye, Historic District, Rear entrance of the Mermaid Inn [Ask for #256.532.]


Rear entrance of the Mermaid Inn in Rye. [Ask for #256.532.]
ENG: South East Region, East Sussex, Romney Marsh, Rye, Historic District, Medieval water gate, overlooking the now silted harbor on the River Rother [Ask for #256.526.]


Rye's Ypres Tower (Rye Castle), an early 14th Century harbor defence overlooking the now silted River Rother. [Ask for #256.526.]
ENG: South East Region, East Sussex, Romney Marsh, Rye, Historic District, View up a cobblstoned street to the village's hilltop church [Ask for #256.534.]


View up one of Rye's cobblstoned street to its hilltop church. [Ask for #256.534.]

The Napoleonic coastal defenses, erected around the Marsh about 1805, were ultimately the smugglers’ downfall. Warships, after defeating the French, could harass the smugglers. The seventy Martello towers built along the Marsh coast, each five stories tall with a gun platform on top, could now spy out and capture smugglers. And then there was the strangest of all the coastal defenses: The Royal Military Canal, encircling the marsh on its landward side. The government meant the canal to form a final line of defense against a French army, as if Napoeon’s engineers didn’t know how to cross a moat. After the war, however, the canal became an open, easily patrolled corridor with few bridges – yet another place to capture smugglers with their goods. Smuggling was becoming too difficult, too unprofitable. By the late 19th century, the smuggling trade had fizzled out.

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh Beaches, Fishing boats drawn up on a shingle beach; woman artist is painting them; Martello Towers in the bkgd; Hythe Artillery Range visible [Ask for #256.505.]


Martello Towers, viewed from the Dungeness shingle banks. [Ask for #256.505.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Appledore, The Royal Military Canal passing along the southern edge of the village; WWI pillbox on its bank. [Ask for #256.456.]


A WW1 pillbox guards The Royal Military Canal near Appledore. Built for the Napoleonic Wars, this canal encircles Romney Marsh. [Ask for #256.456.]

“Dymchurch is very quiet again,” as Thorndike concluded, perhaps writing in a corner of the Ship Inn (which he frequented for fifty years). Since 1963, the good citizens of Dymchurch have celebrated their smuggling heritage and their famous fictional parson with an annual “Day of Syn”, in which the Scarecrow once more emerges, dogged by Mipps, to lead the townspeople to smuggling and riches. And yes, the village rector always plays the part of Doctor Syn. He even gets to recite the doctor’s song, if he dares –

“ For a pound of gunshot tied to his feet,
And a ragged bit of sail for a winding sheet;
Then the signal goes with a bang and a flash,
And overboard you go with a horrible splash.


And all that isn't swallowed by the sharks outside,
Stands up again upon its feet on the running tide;
And it keeps a bowin' gently, and a lookin' with surprise
At each little crab a scramblin' from the sockets of its eyes. ”

ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Appledore, The Royal Military Canal passing along the southern edge of the village; sheep graze on its embankment [Ask for #256.459.]


The Royal Military Canal passing along the southern edge of Appledore; sheep graze on its embankment. [Ask for #256.459.]
ENG: South East Region, Kent, Romney Marsh, Romney Marsh's Interior, St. Mary-in-Marsh, Footpath through field leads to the village church. [Ask for #256.520.]


St. Mary-in-Marsh, Footpath through field leads to the village church. [Ask for #256.520.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, September 2005
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
Copyright ©2016, James A Hargan. All rights reserved.
Contact the webmaster at maven@harganonline.com