Murder on the marshes


One of the best known 'residents' of Dymchurch, Dr Syn, was inspired by a real murder, witnessed by his creator, Russell Thorndike. Pat Ribbits retells the tale

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Murder on the marshes

Russell Thorndike was born at Rochester on 6 February, 1885, where his father was a canon at the cathedral. Both he and his sister wanted desperately to be actors and applied to audition for the Ben Greet Academy after they left school. Sybil was told that she had the makings of a good actress, but Russell could not make the audition. Sybil was asked if he was any good as an actor. “Oh he is far better than I am,” she said loyally. “He’s absolutely frightening. He could make your flesh creep.”

He got the job and they both joined the academy and toured America, visiting every state of the union. He was a mercurial actor with eyeballs that stood out like organ stops. One of his marvellous roles was Death in the medieval morality play Everyman, and he riveted the audiences. Writing, generally, took second place but his parents were friends of the children’s author Edith Nesbit and it is thought possible that she may have influenced, or at least encouraged, him with his writing.

The birth of Dr Syn

The character who dominates Thorndike’s seven best-known novels is the smuggler-parson Dr Syn. He was conceived in dramatic circumstances, as told in Russell’s biography of Sybil when they, before the war, found themselves on tour in Spartanburg, Carolina:

We arrived on the Sunday and had to rehearse The Tempest that evening in the hotel. During the rehearsal, a revolver shot sounded outside the window. That shot turned out to be a momentous one in my life, as you shall hear. Following the shot came a great shouting and the noise of many feet. We heard the word ‘murder!’ called by the gathering multitude on the sidewalk. I dropped the prompt-book and dashed to the window followed by Sybil and the company…

Well, it was murder. A young man had shot his stepfather dead for being unkind to his mother. The murdered man was

left lying on the sidewalk and when we went to bed, the corpse, with a bullet hole in its hard-boiled shirt, was still gazing with glazed eyes up at Sybil’s window. Sleep was impossible for Sybil, and she asked me to go and sit with her. We had pots of tea and talked, and that night the first idea of Dr Syn was born. That dreadful night we piled horror upon horror’s head, and after each new horror was invented, we took another squint at the corpse to encourage us.

Although Dr Syn was inspired by a frightening corpse on an American sidewalk, he was set firmly in Romney Marsh (where the Thorndike family had a holiday home) for his pirate and freebooting activities. Dr Syn was a thorough gentleman and anti-hero, a caring and respectable man of the cloth by day and by night the infamous Scarecrow, leader of the Marsh Men. The first book in the series, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh was published in 1915, based on true smuggling tales in the area from the 18th century, when brandy and tobacco were brought in at night from French boats. Minor battles were fought, sometimes at night, between gangs of smugglers, such as the Hawkhurst Gang and the Revenue men.

Russell had intended the book to be a one-off, and killed off his hero at the end. Such was its popularity, though, that the subsequent six novels had to be set backwards in time.

Once he started, Russell had such wonderful stories to tell of his own adventures: to him, happenings were never enough on their own and he turned every event in his and other people’s lives into a romantic adventure.

A legend comes to life

The holiday home was kept on by the family until 1930 and Russell brought his own family to live in Sycamore Gardens, Dymchurch, ‘a big rented house on the corner of a field’, his son, Daniel, recalls. “He loved the place and we loved the house. We could look out to sea and my father could dream up pirates and all manner of smuggling adventures.”

Russell Thorndike also loved the pub where, when he was not working as an actor, he could be sure of an audience for his tales. “We had the greatest difficulty getting him out of the pub and back home for lunch. He wasn’t a great one for parties but he loved to rivet cronies in the pub with a story when he could,” Daniel said.

The Dr Syn stories were so popular that, in 1964, Russell Thorndike gave SS Peter and St Paul Church in Dymchurch the rights to hold a Day of Syn and use his wonderful swashbuckling character to raise funds for the church roof. There is a plaque to record this on the right hand side of the church as you walk in and Russell is a patron of the church. The event has grown over the years and is now held every two years.

It is often difficult to convince people that Dr Syn is a fictional character – he fits the mythology of the marsh and its heritage of smugglers and excise men perfectly. Like his creator, Dr Syn is the last of the great romantic barnstormers.

If you have any memories of Russell Thorndike, why not share them with other readers? Write to Andrew Rootes, Bygone Kent, Shaftesbury House, Neton Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8DZ, or email: