Mention the South East of England and one of the features of significance, most think of is the White Cliffs of Dover. This outstanding landmark has been used in several films and is an image that is synonymous with arriving within the South East. Mention a character of the South East and sooner or later someone will mention Dr Syn. Dr Syn was a local vicar by day, a smuggler by night who operated out of Dymchurch-under-the-wall. Locals in Dymchurch celebrate this connection in a bi-yearly festival on August bank holiday.
The festival takes the form of a village fete along with local bands providing entertainment. In addition to this visitors are given the opportunity to witness a re-enactment of the capture of Dr Syn. On the local Dymchurch beach, visitors can observe him being arrested and then presented through the high street. All the characters within the re-enactment are played by local people.
The legend of Dr Syn was initially the concept of the writer Russell Thorndike. His first book was published in 1915 called Dr Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh. Today it is the only book in the collection that has been republished and which can be discovered in booksellers today.
Thorndike first conceived the notion of a smuggling vicar whilst on a theatrical tour of America with his sister. Whilst on holiday a body was dumped just below their hotel room window. Unable to leave the room and unable to sleep the siblings started telling each other stories. This is where Thorndike first introduced the character of Dr Syn. Thorndike based his main character in Dymchurch, as he himself had purchased several houses in the little village and could often be found in the local pub The Ship Inn. The Romney Marsh also had a close link with smuggling during the 17th and 18th century, due to how close the coast was to the continent.
Dr Syn was said to be a smuggler who when his boat ran into problems in the channel, in sight of Dymchurch, waded ashore and took on the persona of the local vicar. The previous vicar had been drowned whilst trying to save other passengers from the boat. Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn was, however, the alias of another famous pirate; Captain Clegg. According to the novels, Dr Syn was vicar by day and smuggler by night along with his trusted sexton, Mipps, a fact the local church at Dymchurch pertains to now with nothing listed under the names of vicars between the years of 1776 to 1793, the years covered by the books. It was said that the local mist aided the smugglers to travel through the countryside. At times they were observed as ghostly figures as the mist swirled around their feet.
The first novel would captivate most locals imagination with references to local areas not just in Dymchurch but also in Rye, another close fishing town and the surrounding marshlands. It is said that tunnels ran under Dymchurch-under-the-wall in several locations to aid the smugglers. One of these was from The Ship Inn. This is a fact visitors can verify for themselves as there is a door marking the entrance to this tunnel still. A second tunnel was said to run from the Church to Mipps’s house, Old Tree Cottage, a fact that can neither be verified or denied. Previous owners have reported a hollow stone under the fireplace that could be the entrance to a tunnel as well as strange noises and phenomenon within the house.
So popular was the first Dr Syn novel that Thorndike then went on to write another six novels detailing the life of the infinite Dr Syn. Three film adaptations have also be made of these stories. In addition to this, Disney made a three part mini-series depicting the story, which was shown during the Christmas of 1963. Although Thorndike wrote several other novels, none proved as popular as his Dr Syn series.
The popularity of Dr Syn has however not died. In November 2008, Dy Syn the Scarecrow of the Marsh was released onto DVD. The 39 500 copies of the film adaptation sold out within three weeks. Dr Syn has also appeared in the comic book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If you are lucky enough to own edition two you will encounter the introduction of The Scarecrow based on the Dr Syn character.
How much of Dr Syn was fiction and how much was local folklore, that Russell Thorndike heard whilst frequenting The Ship Inn, remains a mystery which he took to his grave in 1972? It is not hard to imagine smugglers riding the marsh when the mist settles. Historically smuggling of tobacco and alcohol was a popular occupation during this time. Boats could regularly be found bringing their contraband ashore along the coastline, the Hawkhurst gang being the most notorious of the time. Whether fact or fiction Dr Syn will remain a popular character throughout Romney Marsh.