South Coast Athletico might be Hastings’ newest senior football team but they have dipped deep into the murky history of the town to come up with their nickname, ‘The Chopbacks’.
When we started publishing the team’s match reports in March one reader emailed to say that he hadn’t heard the term ‘chopbacks’ for many years while other emails indicated that while people knew the term had some link to Hastings’ smuggling past they did not know the full story.
South Coast Athletico chairman Neil Sutcliffe explained that the team deliberated for a long time before coming up with ‘The Chopbacks’ and he confirmed the name is derived from the smugglers of Hastings. But the details of the story of how those smugglers became known as ‘the chopbacks is a gruesome one. It was a specific group of smugglers – Ruxey’s Crew – who became known as ‘the chopbacks’ and they earned the nickname after one of them split the spine of a Dutch sea captain sometime during the 1760s.
Neil says the team did a fair bit of research around the name. While after two centuries stories of inland smuggling gangs are the simplest to identify it has become easy to overlook the vast amount of small-scale smuggling that went on all along the local coastline.
Wholesale customs evasion was considered nomal in the time, it was not until much later that more serious efforts to prevent evasion were stepped up.
Neil says: “We found out that while it was safe to land goods openly – Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne beaches were all widely used – there were dozens more suitable sites to the west, these included Pevensey Bay and Norman’s Bay which in those days was known as Pevensey Sluice.”
So during the early 1760s Hastings smugglers also known as ‘privateers’, ‘Ruxey’s crew became particularly notorious. The gang was headed by Stephen Bourner, known as Ruxey. His gang would board ships in the English channel with the pretence of doing legitimate business – then a common practice. Once on board they would lock up the crew, kill anyone who resisted, then remove the cargo and scuttle the boat with all hands still on board. In hindsight it seems amazing, but behaviour of that kind was not considered outrageous in those days. Neil says that during their research they discovered that at the time you could buy a licence to attack foreign vessels directly from the government and this was why Ruxey’s Crew are also known as ‘privateers’.
Ultimately the gang bit off more than they could chew when they attacked a Dutch ship and were ultimately beaten off. However, in their haste to escape, Ruxey’s Crew left behind one of the gang, Stephen Taught.
Neil picks up the story again: “The Dutch captain decided on summary justice, and prepared to hang Taught from the yard-arm. This so enraged the other members of the Ruxey’s crew that they attacked the vessel again. On this occasion they won the fight, they cut down Taught, and then took their revenge by breaking the captain’s back with an axe.”
But Ruxey and his crew were unable to keep quiet about what they had done and once back on land they started to brag about “How the Dutchman wriggled when they cut him down the backbone”.
Local people were outraged and the Hastings population demanded that something had to be done about Ruxey and his crew. When the mayor of Hastings could not come up with what local people considered a satisfactory solution he was attacked and at this stage the the government decided it was necessary to station a man-of-war offshore, and also sent 200 dragoons to the town.
Ultimately Ruxey and his gang were arrested.
The trial of Ruxey and his crew took place in London. There was a concern at the time within government circles that a local jury would not dare convict the gang for fear of retribution.
But ultimately Ruxey’s Crew was found guilty and were hanged as pirates at Execution Dock on the banks of the Thames near Wapping and their brutal actions in breaking the ship captain’s back with an axe was where the term ‘chopbacks’ was born.