Sunday, August 05, 2007

Dr. Syn: A Smuggler Tale of the Romney Marsh

Jacqueline Winspear mentioned the smugglers of Romney Marsh in her fourth Maisie Dobbs mystery, Messenger of Truth. That took me straight back to my childhood and the Disney movie, Dr. Syn, or The Scarecrow. It was a haunting movie about smugglers, with memorable music. Out of curiousity, I went exploring on the web, only to find that the movie was based on a book called Doctor Syn written by Russell Thorndyke in 1915. Dr. Syn, and the smugglers of Romney Marsh are common stories in Kent in England, but the book is not easy to find here. I borrowed it through Interlibrary Loan.

Dr. Syn is the story of Syn, the vicar of Dymchurch, a coastal village of Kent, and Mipps, the sexton. Mipps was a ship's carpenter for years, and now acts as the village's coffin maker. There are stories in the village of demon riders, and lights and sounds in the marsh. And, the fishermen and villagers of Dymchurch seem quite contented with their vicar, their squire and their lot.

When the King's Men arrive in Dymchurch, they are led by Captain Howard Collyer, a man determined to catch and hang the smugglers he suspects are sheltered in the village. Collyer seems to know a great deal about smugglers, and a pirate named Clegg, that was hanged in the area. Young Jerry Jerk watches all the proceedings with interest, because he hates his schoolmaster, and hopes to be a hangman, and hang the man. The young man is observant, and sees more than he should in the marshes one night. Suddenly he's a witness to murder, and becomes a welcome confidant of the Captain and the vicar.

Thorndyke's book is an exciting tale of opposition to the crown, smuggling and piracy. Dymchurch is the perfect area for such a story because "This corner of England is a very hotbed of enemies to the government." The book was written in 1915, so it may sound a little old-fashioned with some odd ideas about voodoo and curses, but it remains a riveting story. And, if I ever get the chance to see the Disney movie again, I'm grabbing it.

Naturally, there's no website for Russell Thorndyke, but for more information about Doctor Syn, the books, films and legends, check out

Dr. Syn: A Smuggler Tale of the Romney Marsh by Russell Thorndyke. Doubleday, Page & Company, ©1915. (hardcover), 315p.


Barbra said...

Just had to put a small comment here. I live very close to Romney Marsh and the Dr Syn legends. As Lesa knows I do paranormal investigations in my spare time and I had the privilege of carrying out an invest at the Ship Inn in Dymchurch which was used as a base for the Dr Syn books. The Ship Inn is very old and the new owner is discovering new hideyholes and cupboards, etc as he goes renovating the Inn. It was an interesting night and we had a few things happen that we couldnt explain. There is loads of Dr Syn memorabilia in the Inn and it is a very interesting place as is the whole of Romney Marsh.

Lesa said...

Oh, Barbra! I'm jealous that you had the chance to do this. I can imagine how interesting in all is. Dr. Syn was a memorable part of my childhood - so atmospheric. I can just imagine how interesting it was. Thanks!