Meet Doctor Syn: Vicar, Smuggler and Pirate

Dr Syn is one of the great over-looked characters of British literature. Vicar by day, smuggler by night, his gang called him The Scarecrow.
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Dr Syn is one of the great over-looked characters of British literature. Vicar by day, smuggler by night, his gang called him The Scarecrow.

Dr Syn owns Gummidge

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Imagine a country vicar at the end of the 1700s. He wears long black garb and a wide brimmed hat. He stoops with age and wears glasses to help his ailing eyesight. He seems an unlikely canidiate for someone with a secret life, especially one involving crime and adventure. But this man is not just any vicar, his name is Dr Christopher Syn, Vicar of Dymchurch-under-the-Wall in Kent and for Dr Syn things are not all they seem: for as the blurb on the back of the 1972 Arrow edition of one his books says – “Doctor Syn has known violence.”

Dr Syn is a vicar, this is not a disguise, this is his real life. But by night he is the leader of a gang of smugglers, he is The Scarecrow and not even his fellow smugglers know the true identity of the man beneath his fearsome mask. He is ruthless when necessary, and violent when the situation calls for it but above all he is fair – the people who cross his parisoners are punished, but to the locals of the Romney Marsh he is a Robin Hood figure who brings prosperity to an impoverished rural community.

The Doctor Syn books were written in the early years of the last century by Russell Thorndike, the actor and brother of the actress Sybil Thorndike but they harked back to an era when swash was still buckled – especially on the Romney Marsh, that otherworldly area of salt marsh flatness which straddles the border between Kent and Sussex. It is a land of which the Marshmen still say: ‘"The world according to the best geographers is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh".

But above all he is the shepherd of his people who answers that old question: what does the shepherd do, when his flock feel compelled to break the law?

Originally Thorndike intended to write just the one book: ‘Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh’ in which the Reverend’s Syn’s mysterious past as the pirate Captain Clegg was hinted at and the reason why a country parson should have such a violent and lawless streak was largely left to the reader’s imagination. All later books (of which there were seven in all) are prequels and explain how a brilliant young Oxford scholar and priest had his beautiful young wife stolen off him by a man he considered a friend and from there set off on a path of righteous revenge, following his foe over the high seas until, after defeating a pirate leader called Captain Satan he takes over his pirate hoard and becomes the pirate leader Clegg.

After many years of brutal life on the high seas Captain Clegg returns to his old parish of Dymchurch and after being shipwrecked just  yards from the coast in a violent storm swims ashore and finds that the new Vicar of Dymchurch has died trying to rescue the ship from which Syn is the only survivor and so he resumes his post as the shepherd of the local flock.

Unfortunately his dreams of a peaceful retirement from adventure are thwarted when he discovers that the local Marshmen are heavily involved in their traditional practice of smuggling in wine and brandy from France. Without a dynamic and ruthless leader some of his parishioners will surely hang and so the Reverend Syn once again reluctantly takes up his sword, this time taking on the identity of the smuggler’s leader – the mysterious Scarecrow, who’s true identity is only known to his trusty sidekick from his pirating days, Mr Mipps and the local highwayman Jimmy Bone.

From there the books progres through book after book of adventures as our Reverend anti-hero evades capture and takes his parisoners onto undreamt of prosperity – but the attraction of the books remains the same: he is the Reverend Syn, Captain Clegg and The Scarecrow all at the same time. First, there is the simple undeniable pleasure of that conceit: a country vicar who seems the friend of law and order and yet who at night bloodies the nose of the government in the victimless crime of smuggling brandy.

That would be satisfying enough. But better still is the moral ambiguity of the Reverend Syn. He is a holy man for sure, he believes in the good book and takes care of his sick and dying parishioners. But he is also possessed of a brutal moral compass all his own: he is the instrument of God’s revenge on any man who is foolish enough to cross him – he has killed many times. He is a vicar and a man of God, but he is also an avenging angel brutally correcting the wrongs he sees around him.

But above all he is the shepherd of his people who answers that old question: what does the shepherd do, when his flock feel compelled to break the law?

Like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who felt obliged to support the revolutionaries in his country who took up arms against oppression and paid for it with his life, gunned down as he held up the communion host during mass at his cathedral in San Salvador in 1980, the Revernd Syn is a man of God who is prepared to fight for his people. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German vicar who was hanged on piano wire for his part in the plot to assasinate Hitler, and like the fictional Don Camillo, the Italian priest who fought against the Nazis in World War Two, the Reverend Christopher Syn is a man of god but also a man of the world – a leader of his community who finds that if he is going to lead, then sometimes he is going to have to follow – to the gates of hell, and beyond.

As the Reverend Syn never tires of saying, “I am here for the sinners.” And what better deception is there than that? The shepherd who loves his flock so much, he is not afraid to risk his own soul that they might be saved?

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