Lynn Man Gets Away With Two Murders

Even the father-in-law of the murdered Customs Officer was persuaded to provide Kemball with a spurious alibi for the time the murders were committed.

William Kemball – King’s Lynn Smuggler

Gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary’s at Old Hunstanton testify to the murder of two men in the early hours of the morning of 26 September, 1784. They were killed by William Kemball, notorious smuggler from King’s Lynn, and by members of his gang. The victims were William Green, a Customs Officer, and Private William Webb, a soldier of the 15th Light Dragoon Regiment.

The Early Years

William Kemball was the eldest of four sons born into the family of minor borough officials. His father, also called William, was a sergeant-at-mace who often officiated at the town court at the Guildhall. The son’s upbringing was comfortable.

However, by his early twenties Kemball was employed regularly as a first mate and pilot aboard smuggling vessels importing illegal cargoes from the Continent to the Norfolk or Lincolnshire coasts. By 1777, aged only 25, he owned his own vessel, the “Lively”, in conjunction with another Lynn smuggler, Thomas Franklyn. He recognised that vast profits were to be made importing otherwise highly-taxed commodities, and he also recognised that there would be a willing workforce to help in the operations in the villagers of North Norfolk, many of whom existed frugally in damp hovells. And an evening spent smuggling paid more than a week’s wages for most of the workers.

Both Kemball and Franklyn had been losing money because of the Excise Officers’ effectiveness (see here), and Kemball had considered breaking up his partnership with Franklyn who was getting into a lot of trouble. However, up to the year 1784 Kemball had managed to keep himself out of trouble. At the age of 32 Kemball was part of an elite community of smugglers, mainly English, living as part-time residents in Dunkirk where he rented an expensive house. He lived comfortably. The only minor disruption was a clash with a Customs Officer, for which he was fined 6d, much to the embarrassment of his father.

The First Landing

On Friday 24 September 1784 Kemball had waited in his loaded boat off Burnham Flats before moving to Thornham Beach for 10 o’clock. At 11 o’clock the required signal was given from the shore and the longboat with the first consignment was landed. While the goods were moved to an appropriate hiding place in Thornham, the empty rowing boat had returned to the “Lively” for a second load.

At this point Kemball decided to abandon future operations for the night. He had heard a pistol shot from a nearby village and had assumed it was a warning from one of his lookouts that revenue officers were close. He returned to Burnham Flats and would unload the remainder of his cargo at Old Hunstanton on the following night.

Christopher Stangroom’s Party

Christopher Stangroom had been an Excise Officer for 12 years. On hearing the pistol shot while he was near Thornham his experience told him that a smuggling landing was taking place. When he arrived at the scene the smugglers and their goods had gone, but their footprints convinced Stangroom that he had been correct. Stangroom’s experience also told him that a second landing would be made, probably at Old Hunstanton, on the following night.

Now that the war with America was over, there were more Dragoons available to assist the Excise Officer and he was able to commandeer thirteen well-armed men on fast light-weight horses to meet at Ringstead. They were joined by two more Customs Officers – Samuel Rennett and William Green.

The Attack

Hunstanton Cliffs Photo
© James Rye 2021

Stangroom kept the Dragoons in a field near the lighthouse and positioned himself on top of the cliffs looking down on the beach. At about midnight a flash was received from a boat offshore and the landing started. Stangroom ordered the Dragoons to get ready.

As the first load was being moved onto the beach a warning shot went off from one of the lookouts. This was soon followed by a shot from Kemball aboard the “Lively”. It was his signal to abandon the operation and to get any unloaded goods back to his boat. It was also imperative to get the 14 barrels of gin and brandy and the 21 bags of tea off the beach and into hiding as quickly as possible.

Stangroom’s party moved across the dunes to the water’s edge and then galloped at full speed towards the smugglers who dispersed in panic over the dunes and into the village.

Anxious to protect the captured goods, Stangroom ordered them to be taken by cart to a local farm-house.

The Counter-Attack

Although only a small part of his cargo had been lost Kemball was enraged and determined to seize it back. He arrived back on the beach with pistols, muskets, and carbines and managed to arm eight men.

At about two o’clock in the morning Kemball moved his men towards the farmhouse with the intent of capturing it and retrieving their goods. However on hearing sounds of people and horses approaching where they were, Kemball ordered his men to kneel behind the hedgerow adjoining the lane.

As some of Stangroom’s party approached, Kemball’s men fired six shots at close range. Four lead balls pierced the body of Private William Webb and he was killed instantly. Another ball hit the Customs Officer, William Green in the chest. He lingered until 30 September, but eventually died. A smuggler later pointed a gun at Stangroom and pulled the trigger, but fortunately for Stangroom, the gun never fired. Another officer was seriously wounded in the thigh and a horse was shot from under one of the soldiers.

Reinforcements arrived from the farmhouse and gave chase to the smugglers. Kemball was finally caught crouching in a backyard. He was then transported to Norwich Castle to await trial at Thetford in March 1785.

Several of the weapons seized from the smugglers had the Tower stamp on them and may have been taken from soldiers by the smugglers on earlier encounters.

The Thetford Trials

The Customs Board was determined that Kemball and his associates should end their days at the end of a rope. However, they were also aware of the difficulties they faced. They took five steps to try to ensure that Kemball was made an example of.

First, no expense was spared. Robert Whincop of Whincop House (29 Tower Street), an eminent solicitor in King’s Lynn, was engaged with a team to prepare the Prosecution. Second, great care was taken over the selection of the jury – and any with likely sympathies for smugglers were rejected. Third, one of Kemball’s accomplices, Thomas Williams, was spared prosecution in return for ‘turning King’s evidence’. Fourth, the authorities feared that any jury would not convict Kemball for murder so they planned to have him immediately arrested for smuggling if that eventuality came about. Fifth, extra dragoons were supplied to prevent escape attempts from Norwich Castle, during transit, and from the Thetford Court Room. The authorities were nervous but were very well prepared.

On Monday 21 March 1785 the trial began for the murder of William Green. Several creditable witnesses (and Thomas Williams) gave accurate and detailed accounts of what happened. This was then followed by witness after witness for the defence (either handsomely paid or in fear of retribution) who claimed that they never heard gunshots that night and/or that Kemball and his associates were not in the precise area of the murders on the date in question. Amazingly a Daniel Frostwick, who was father-in-law to the murdered Customs Officer, declared that he was up in the early hours of the morning in question, that he met Kemball in a pub drinking, and that while Kemball was present with him, Frostwick then heard shots outside. The judge summed up the conflicting views but left the jurors in no doubt that he expected a guilty verdict.

After three hours of consideration, a unanimous verdict of not guilty was declared. The Prosecution Counsel raged: “If a Norfolk jury was determined not to convict smugglers guilty of the most atrocious crimes, there was an end to all justice.” Despite having a different jury, the trial for the murder of Private William Webb, held the next day, delivered an identical verdict of not guilty.

Kemball was immediately re-arrested and returned to Norwich.

The London Trial

On 12 April 1785 Kemball was taken to the Court of the Exchequer in Westminster and on the next day was tried for smuggling. The charge was that import duty to the value of £351 had not been paid. The Prosecution demanded the statutory forfeit of three times the amount (£1053 – equivalent to around £100,000 today).

Due to the failure of vital witnesses to arrive (possibly by chance, but probably by intimidation) the proceedings were adjourned until another day. Kemball was fined £303 and bail was set at £299. The bail was paid, though the fine never was, and Kemball was again a free man.

Within a few days Kemball was back in France and back in business. However, his boat was captured by a warship off Wells in 1786 and he was taken to Hull (possibly because he would have been too well-known in Norfolk ports). What happened we don’t know as there appear to be no further records of him.

© James Rye 2022

See also

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