Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh

Dr Syn is the Robin Hood of Romney Marsh- a mild-mannered rural clergyman, vicar of Dymchurch-under-Wall, who, by night, dresses up as a scarecrow to lead a ruthless band of smugglers in thrilling, swashbuckling exploits. Before "settling down" he did a spot of piracy under the name of Captain Clegg- but that's not the essential part of the legend. Pirates- real and fictional- are two a penny but men of the cloth who stand in the pulpit levelling flintlock pistols at the congregation? Well, there's only one.

Dymchurch-under-the wall is a real place but you wouldn't be surprised to learn (though Walt Disney apparently was) that Dr Syn isn't/wasn't a real person. He was invented by an actor-cum-writer called Russell Thorndike- brother of the more famous Dame Sybil. The first book in the series chronicles his unmasking and death- and was so popular it was followed by a considerable number of prequels. I don't believe anyone has ever claimed the Syn books are particularly good (think Scarlet Pimpernel and water)- and if they're still in print it's news to me. I tried reading one when I was midway through my teens and abandoned it because I got bored. But then the original Robin Hood ballads aren't much good either and neither is Harrison Ainsworth's huge gothic romance Rookwood which launched the legend of Dick Turpin. 

Syn is fictional but his world isn't. Clergymen may not have headed up smuggling gangs but they allowed their churches to be used to store contraband and they- and other local bigwigs- were happy to buy their luxury goods duty-free.  Romney Marsh in the 18th century was a bit like Chicago during Prohibition- remarkably relaxed to find itself in the grip of organised crime. Not everyone was a smuggler or related to a smuggler but people of all classes benefited from the underground economy. 

Smuggling gangs were ruthless. They fought with the revenue men- by sea and land,  terrorised the uncompliant, tortured and executed people who got on the wrong side of them.  The infamous Hawkhurst gang- who were seriously bad dudes- got a bit too swaggery and high-handed  and were finally broken in a pitched battle with an unofficial local militia in the pretty Wealden village of Goudhurst. 

There have been movies about Syn. The earliest starred George Arliss.  Another- produced by Hammer and starring Peter Cushing- changed the names to avoid infringing copyright. The best known is a Disney production with Patrick McGoohan. It isn't as good as it should be but it has its moments- and was actually filmed on Romney Marsh. The church at Dymchurch is one of the least photogenic on the Marsh and St Clement's Old Romney was used instead. The white box pews dazzled under the lights so the film people painted them pale pink- and the parishioners liked the new colour so much that they kept it- and the pews are still pink today. 

Syn is a great character.  He deserves a new iteration.  Someone out there should purchase the rights and do something with them.
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