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The history of Dymchurch began with the gradual build-up of the Romney Marsh.
The New Hall was rebuilt in 1575 after an earlier wooden structure was destroyed in a fire. It was used as a court room for the Romney Marsh area. The head magistrate was known as Leveller of the Marsh Scotts. It was there that the so-called Scot tax was introduced, levied on residents to fund maintenance of the sea wall. Those directly outside the boundaries and thus not eligible for the tax were said to have got away "Scott Free". Residents with land were required to grow thorn bushes for building of the wall, as thorn twigs were believed impervious to sea water. Failure resulted in an ear being cut off.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, smuggling was rife all along the south-east coast of England. Due to its remote location, Romney Marsh and the surrounding areas were amongst the busiest locations for illicit trade. Inspiration from this gave rise to Dymchurch being the setting of the Doctor Syn novels, based on smuggling, by Russell Thorndike. Every two years a celebration of the novels is held, usually on August Bank Holiday.
Dymchurch played a significant rôle in the Anglo-French Survey (1784–1790), which linked the Royal Greenwich Observatory with the Paris Observatory using trigonometry. There were two base-lines for the English part of the survey, on Hounslow Heath and on Romney Marsh. The Romney Marsh base-line extended from Ruckinge to High Nook, on the sea-wall near Dymchurch.
Dymchurch Martello towers.
Several Martello towers were built in the nineteenth century as part of an Empire-wide coastal defence programme: most have since fallen into the sea or become dilapidated. Tower 23 was restored externally in the early 1970s and is currently a private residence. Tower 24 has undergone renovation and using Tower 23 used as a guide: in 1969 it became the first Martello tower to be opened to the public and remains as a museum of Martello Towers, owned by English Heritage. Tower 25 is possibly the only empty tower that is regularly maintained.
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Christopher Syn, born 1729, is portrayed as a brilliant scholar from Queen's College, Oxford, possessing swashbuckling skills such as riding, fencing, and seamanship. He was content to live the quiet life of a country vicar in Dymchurch-under-the-Wall under the patronage of Sir Charles Cobtree, the father of his best friend Anthony Cobtree, until his beautiful young Spanish wife Imogene was seduced by and eloped with Nicholas Tappitt, whom Dr. Syn had considered a close friend.
Christopher Syn set out on a quest for revenge, always managing to reach the eloped pair's destinations ahead of them just in time to terrify them against landing and facing him in a deliberate campaign of terror. While sailing from Spain to America in pursuit, his ship was captured by the pirate ship The Sulphur Pit, commanded by the negro Captain Satan. In a one-on-one fight, Syn defeated and killed Captain Satan to take command of his ship and crew; among them was Mr. Mipps, a former Royal Navy carpenter with whom Syn had become friends in England after rescuing him from the Customs men. Mipps swore loyalty to Syn from that time onward.
With Mipps at his side, Syn turned to piracy and became a great success. Later, when his crew refused to let Syn leave, Syn and Mipps slipped away in one of the ship's boats; unknown to Syn, Mipps had arranged a convenient "accident" in the ship's powder hold with an exploding barrel of gunpowder, eliminating witnesses of Syn's piratic acts.
Mipps then joined Syn in his quest for revenge, pursuing Tappitt and Imogene throughout the thirteen American colonies (supposedly preaching the gospel to the Indians) and around the world (as part of a whaling voyage) afterwards, and was with him in the Caribbean when Dr. Syn turned again to piracy, assuming the name of Captain Clegg (taking the name "Clegg" from a certain vicious biting fly he had encountered in America), hijacking his enemy Tappitt's own ship and crew and sailing off with them (renaming the ship the Imogene) to become the most infamous pirate of the day.
However, a mulatto who escaped the destruction of Syn's previous ship stowed away in Clegg's ship and accused him before the crew; Clegg quelled the potential mutiny by having the mulatto's tongue cut out, marooning him on a coral reef and violently killing Yellow Pete, the ship's Chinese cook, who represented the crew in their wish to rescue the mulatto. Afterwards, realizing that Clegg had become too notorious, Syn decided to abandon his quest and return to England, and Mipps set up a second "accidental" explosion to destroy the Imogene and her crew.
Syn returned to England on the night of a storm (13 November 1775) that wrecked his brig off the English coast in sight of Dymchurch. That night he went to the house of his old friend (and now squire) Anthony Cobtree. When news came that the local vicar had drowned while trying to save victims of the shipwreck, Squire Cobtree offered the post to Christopher Syn. Syn accepted and settled down to a more respectable life as the vicar of Dymchurch and Dean of Peculiars in Romney Marsh, Kent, resuming his original name.
Mipps arrived in Dymchurch with the intent of settling down. Syn made him the village sexton upon condition that Mipps "remember to forget" (that Syn had been Clegg and that they had known each other before), and that Mipps never get involved with the local smugglers.
Syn soon became aware that his parishioners were smuggling goods from France to avoid the excessive customs duties the government charged. Learning from Mipps (who, contrary to Syn's orders, had become a leader of the smugglers) that certain townsfolk had been ambushed and captured during a smuggling run, Syn purchased the great black stallion Gehenna from gypsy horse-traders and raced to their rescue. A suit of clothing borrowed from a scarecrow made an improvised disguise, and Syn and Mipps were able to rescue the townsfolk from the Dragoons.
After this, Syn decided that he could only protect his people by becoming their leader. He created a more elaborate scarecrow costume, with eerie luminous paint. At night riding Gehenna, the respectable Dr. Syn became "The Scarecrow", the feared head of the smugglers. Together with Mipps, he organized the smugglers into a well-organized band of "Night Riders", also called "The Devil Riders" with macabre disguises and code-names.
Syn's cunning was so great that the smugglers outwitted the government forces for many years. A hidden stable watched over by Mother Handaway, the local "witch" (who believed the Scarecrow to be The Devil in living form), was the hiding place for the horses of the Scarecrow and his lieutenants, Mipps and the local highwayman Jimmie Bone (who, being as good a horseman as Syn and of similar build, was sometimes called upon to impersonate the Scarecrow when Syn either had to be elsewhere or seen in the same place.).
Shortly after the first appearances of the Scarecrow, Nicholas Tappitt (using the name "Colonel Delacourt") and the ailing Imogene returned to England, ending up in Dymchurch. Recognizing Syn as Clegg, Tappitt realized that Syn and the Scarecrow were the same and helped the authorities set a trap for him, hoping to both rid himself of his enemy and claim the reward for his capture. The trap was sprung, but Squire Cobtree's daughter Charlotte, who had fallen in love with Syn and also learned his secret identities as both Clegg and the Scarecrow, was the tragic victim when she dressed in the Scarecrow's disguise and was fatally wounded as a result. Tappitt was then suspected of being the Scarecrow, and a Customs officer and three constables came to arrest him. In the ensuing fight, Tappitt killed the Customs man and the constables subdued and arrested Tappitt for murdering the Customs officer.
After Imogene's death in Syn's arms (during which she revealed to him that he had a son by her who was missing somewhere in America), Syn fought a final duel with Tappitt in his jail cell, defeating him. Syn then struck a bargain with Tappitt: If Tappitt confessed to being the notorious pirate Clegg, then Syn would look after and care for Tappitt and Imogene's new-born infant daughter (also named Imogene). Tappitt agreed, and "Captain Clegg" was hanged and later "buried without benefit of clergy at a cross-roads hard by the Kent Ditch."
Many years later, Captain Collyer, a Royal Navy officer assigned to smash the local smuggling ring, uncovered the deception and Dr. Syn's true identity, thanks in part to the tongueless mulatto (who had been rescued by Collyer years before and who had been serving Collyer as a "ferret" seeking out hidden contraband) who recognized Syn as Clegg. Syn evaded capture while at the same time making sure that Imogene and Squire Cobtree's son Denis (who had fallen in love with Imogene) would have a happy life together (they were eventually married), but was murdered in revenge by the mulatto, who then mysteriously managed to escape, leaving Syn harpooned through the neck. As a last mark of respect, Collyer ordered that Syn be buried at sea, rather than have his body hung in chains.
Mipps escaped in the confusion of Syn's death and disappeared from England, but it is said that a little man very much like him is living out his days in a Buddhist Monastery somewhere in the Malay Peninsula, delighting the monks with recounting the adventures of Doctor Syn and the eerie stories of the Romney Marsh and the mysterious Scarecrow and his Night Riders.
It was widely reported that both Syn & Mipps bought their buckets and spades from The Smugglers Chest on their days off....