Recognising Robert Neill: Hangman’s Cliff


Hangman’s Cliff, originally published in 1956, was Robert Neill’s fifth novel in only six years which, given the extensive research that went into confirming the authenticity of each book, and maintaining the atmosphere proper to each period, is quite astonishing. None of the novels show any sense of strain, any signs of rushing, and the volume of information Neill has absorbed to ensure the implicit believability of the times never breaks through the course of the story.
After the three Stuart era novels, Neill moves to a much later period, and one in which the political background to the times, whilst pertinent, does not direct or influence the story, and is no more than an additional detail. Without an obligation to explain a specific period to us, Neill can concentrate solely upon a thrilling story, and the traditional romantic element, of course.
Thus, after two chapters designed to introduce us to Captain William Appleton and, more importantly, his 17 year old daughter Margaret, the action gets under way with a literal bang, and doesn’t cease for the remainder of this book’s 384 pages – making it Neill’s longest novel to date.
The time is March 1782 and the place is the Kent coast, between Deal and Dover: the Smuggler’s Coast. The Captain has been paid off his last command and, having gotten on the wrong side of the Admiralty Board, foresees no route back to sea. Fortuitously, he has inherited this cottage from his late Uncle Roger, a controversial, indeed ‘black sheep’ member of his family. Withdrawing Margaret from Miss Akerman’s Boarding School, to manage his household, the Captain makes a leisurely journey to his new home, only to arrive to two bombshells.
The first is that Uncle Roger was murdered, the second is a sea-battle, just off the cliffs, between the Revenue and its cutter, Caroline, and the smugglers.
Between the circumstances of their arrival, and the Captain’s expertise and sense of duty, the Appleton’s find themselves allied to the Revenuers, an unwelcome, if not positively unwise, choice of sides in a remote area where the whole of the local economy depends upon smuggling, and where there is a well-organised and very dangerous band of men running this industry, ruthlessly.
What makes matters worse is that, as more is discovered of the late Roger Appleton, it becomes plainer and plainer that he was the organiser of the smuggling until the pistol ball in the back that led to his loss. And that brings into question who was responsible for this pistol ball: a decaying corpse swings from a gibbet outside the Appleton’s cottage, adding that little something to the sea-views, but as the local courier Tom Thorn is soon perceived as the new commander of activities, it is to be questioned whether Justice has been served, or merely placated?
It should be mentioned that there is more to this story than the simple opposition of Revenue and Smugglers. At this time, England is at War with her old neighbour and rival, France, a war being conducted in the American colonies (where it has been lost) and the West Indies (where it is merely being lost). Trading with the enemy takes on a treasonous aspect, in two ways: the smugglers are not only providing gold to an enemy nation in desperate need of funds to maintain war against England, but the Smugglers Coast is also a conduit through which French spies pass.
I speak of the Appletons, but the bulk of the story falls upon the young, inexperienced figure of Margaret. To an extent greater even than Margery in Mist over Pendle (though less memorably), it is she who sees more of events and who teases out implications and outcomes. Both girls show a cool wit in matters beyond their experience and schooling, and both show depths of intelligence and, in Margaret’s case, calmness in the face of personal danger, to an extent that is unexpected, perhaps even improbable.
And whereas Margery at all times has the protection of Roger Nowell, as well as the goodwill of half of Pendle, Margaret is left alone in the middle of the story, her father summoned to London where, in the face of the news that the Government is about to fall and a new Admiralty Board to be formed, the prospect of command is once more opened up.
It’s in this interval that another William Appleton abruptly appears. This new and younger one goes by the name of Will and, though he’s sought by the law as a French spy, he is instead carrying letters from the American government to contacts in England: though technically no less a spy, his mission is implied to be aimed at negotiating peace.
Will is Uncle Roger’s grandson and confidant, and is shocked and angry to learn that Roger is dead, and especially so as to the manner of the old man’s death. In due course, he makes friends with his cousin the Captain, despite an initial enmity, whilst his opinion of his other cousin, Margaret, is somewhat other than cousinly.
Oddly, by the standards of Neill’s other romances, Margaret is more cool towards Will than any other protagonist towards his or her love. This is not to say that she is cold towards him, nor that she makes any attempt to resist being kissed, but this is one affair where the central character is caught up far more in the plot than the relief.
By the time Will returns from delivering his letters in London, to take up open residence as a guest of his new relations, Neill has established a complex web of imperatives, with strange alliances being made to further a range of not-incompatible ends, all of which centre upon the figure of the sociopathic Tom Thorn and the threat he represents to almost everybody else.
Hangman’s Cliff is a confident and complex thriller, and it achieves its stated purpose – to reflect the reality of Eighteenth Century smuggling and not its romantic fallacy – with ease. Though the good guys come out on top, and the bad folk go to the devil, the lines are refreshingly blurred as to who and what are good and bad. Furthermore, nothing is changed except individual’s lives. Smuggling isn’t defeated, nor the French frustrated. There’s no suggestion than that, after some necessary regrouping, and the discovery of a new leader, the trade will not resume.
But Neill is indeed successful in exploding the popular, romantic, but essentially false myth of the the jolly, open-hearted Smuggler, engaged in what was no more than a game with the black-hearted, joyless, cold Revenue.
It’s an image born of too much Doctor Syn, too many cheap and fanciful romances and Hollywood B-pictures. Neill, drawing extensively on historical records, was intent on showing the Smugglers as what they were: dangerous, vicious and ruthless men intent upon profit, careless of their country’s needs in time of war, willing to bully, brutalise and kill those who stood between them and their money.
All of this is laid bare in another, typically erudite, novel, and one in which the willingness to accept lawbreaking as something other than the cause for damnation marks a new sophistication in Neill’s writing.
Just as Hangman’s Cliff moved away from Neill’s early fascination with the Seventeenth Century, so too would his next novel would continue that trend by moving firmly into the Nineteenth Century, to the brink of the Victorian era, and to a time of great social change among working class folk.

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11 thoughts on “Recognising Robert Neill: Hangman’s Cliff

    1. Hello Julie

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree with you whole-heartedly about Neill: such a respcted author when I was growing up and now only known to fans. I hope you enjoy some of the other reviews of his work.

  1. I first read Hangman’s Cliff back in the 1970s when Robert Neill’s books were in most bookshops. It is an extremely good read; indeed, I have just read it yet again and enjoyed it as much as the first time. The historical accuracy is very good and clearly well-researched, I have always wondered, though, why the village is never named in the book – it can only be St Margaret at Cliffe. Maybe that was to avoid having to get the geographical as well as the historical details exactly right.

    I accept that most smuggling tales glamorise the subject but I would dispute that the Doctor Syn novels do. There are some parts of those books that are distinctly unglamorous.

    1. Hi Ron

      Thanks for sharing that information about the location for Hangman’s Cliff. As you may be aware, I’m part of a project to create a Robert Neill website that, eventually, will try to identify the real life locations for the novels, and that’s very useful to know. As for Dr Syn, i confess that the closest I’ve ever come to the Scarecrow was in my teens when I saw the Disney film that starred Patrick McGoohan, so I bow to your knowledge.When the opportunity coms to revise these essays, I’ll makethe appropriate correction.

  2. >>”There’s no suggestion than that, after some necessary regrouping, and the discovery of a new leader, the trade will resume.”

    It is inconceivable that the smuggling trade would end with the death of Tom Thorn. Communities such as this were remarkably poor and the income from smuggling activities kept the local economy going. Even the landed gentry benefited – apart from getting cheap luxuries for their own consumption, smuggling made it possible for tenants to pay their rents.

    I’ve always felt that Hangman’s Cliff ended far too abruptly. It’s as if Neill got a bit carried away and had to bring it to a swift end to meet a publisher’s length limit. For a long time I’ve had it in the back of my mind to rectify this by writing a sequel – not just to complete the story but to help reintroduce Neill to a modern audience.

    Work on the sequel is now underway, though it still has a long way to go. It has not proved nearly as easy as I first imagined. A vast amount of research has been needed, which leaves me in awe of Neill’s research skills in those pre-internet days. Most of his research is excellent, even down to the anonymous letter to the papers that spilled the beans on the Keppel-Palliser affair – the authorship of which Neill claimed for Captain Appleton. However, Neill wasn’t averse to tinkering with history and geography to suit the story. For example, while he was said to check the historical accuracy of the weather, he might alter the state of the moon to fit with a particular event. This raises a problem for a sequel writer: whether to follow the inaccuracies in the existing story (and risk them being spotted by today’s readers) or to put things right and hope that no-one will notice the change.

    One of the biggest problems concerns the pub on the beach at St Margaret’s. According to Hangman’s Cliff, the only building on the beach was a small stone-built hut connected with the Customs but that wasn’t quite correct. During his local researches in the 1950s, Neill would have seen that there was a pub on the beach, the Green Man, but the building he’d have seen was a modern flat-roofed one, albeit faced with flint. However, the pub had its origins in the 14th century and there were many tales of its involvement in smuggling which would have suited Hangman’s Cliff down to the ground – if only Neill had known! What he failed to discover was that during World War II, when the public was banned from St Margaret’s Bay, the area was used for battle training with live ammunition which resulted in the near-destruction of most of the buildings at the back of the beach. The new pub was built from the rubble and remains of its predecessor. Should I try to introduce the Green Man into the story?

    Inconveniently, the story was left that, with a change of government and a new Board of Admiralty, Captain Appleton was expecting to get a new ship. Neill was well-known for his feisty young heroines but at that time in history it would hardly have been acceptable for an 18-year old girl to stay in such a lonely house on her own, albeit with servants, while her father went off to sea for a few years. I hope that the way I’ve got round that little problem will prove acceptable. It is, needless to say, factually-based.

    More in due course as work progresses.

  3. Hello again Ron, and thanks for your very detailed comment.

    Looking at the sentence you quote, it’s clear to me that I meant to say the exact opposite, but somehow managed to miss out the word ‘not’. I shall promptly make the appropriate correction. Thanks for drawing this to my attention.

    I’m intrigued at the thought of a sequel and would appreciate being kept posted on progress. To be frank, I am usually violently opposed to posthumous sequels by different authors, a practice I call Literary Necrophilia, but this attracts me. I wish you every success with it, especially artistically (but don’t expect approval if you later decide to do a sequel to ‘Mist Over Pendle’…)

    I am not going to start telling you how to write your story, especially when you’re doing something I couldn’t. However, I found nothing incongruous about the idea of Margaret being left behind by Captain Appleton, since it’s quite clear – as with most Neill novels – that she’s going to be Mrs Will Appleton Junior in the not-very-distant future.

    Good luck with it, I look forward to more news.

  4. Actually, I meant to ask: is this in any way an Official sequel, approval from the Neill estate etc (and if it is, what was involved in getting approval?) If not, how are you going to deal with the copyright aspect, if Margaret is once again at the centre of the book? Of course, historical fact and persons can’t be copyrighted, but in the case of ‘Pendle’, you could use Roger Nowell how you like, because he existed, but not Margery Whittaker, because Neill created her and it’s another 40 years almost until she enters the Public Domain.

  5. No, this is not an official sequel, if such a thing can exist in the UK, In the USA the copyright owner has full rights over the creation of a ‘derivative work’ and can stop it being published but UK copyright law does not recognise the concept of ‘derivative works’ or ‘sequels’. All a UK copyright owner can do is to wait for a sequel to be published and then sue for copyright infringement, which isn’t easy. Sequels are a grey area in UK/EU copyright law and it doesn’t help that they vary considerably in form and in their reliance on the original work (some ‘sequels’ simply retell a story from a different viewpoint).

    Having said that, though, once the work is sufficiently advanced, it would be silly of me not to approach Hutchinson (now part of Penguin Random House) with a proposal that they should publish the sequel and reprint the original at the same time, and the copyright owners to seek their blessing – which is what I assume you mean by ‘an official sequel’.

    Copyright, in general, is a fraught subject. In principle, copyright does not subsist in ideas; it protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Copying an idea or a story plot does not infringe copyright unless the new expression of the idea results in a work that is the same or similar to the original.

    The Da Vinci Code case tested the line between ideas and the expression of ideas. Dan Brown was found not to have infringed the copyright of an earlier book, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, which covered much of the same ground, even though Brown admitted to using it as a source. (Ironically and awkwardly, because of various mergers, Random House ended up as the publisher of both books.) Because this case got as far as the Court of Appeal it provides a useful statement of the law.

    Of course, where a plot relies on historical facts and events that are widely covered in other sources, it will be difficult to claim that a story based on similar facts and events is a breach of copyright. For example, it is a matter of fact that there was smuggling in 18th century England and spies were carried to and fro by the smugglers; that America was newly-independent and England was at war with that country and France; and that Lord North’s government did indeed fall in March 1782 because of that war. Ironically, a writer of historical fiction is threatened by a double-edged sword as far as copyright is concerned: the more detailed and accurate your research and the more closely you stick to historical facts, the more difficult it becomes to assert plot copyright – you are simply recording history; but, on the other hand, if there are historical inaccuracies in your original work and these are not present in the new work, if suggests that your work has not been copied.

    My book will move the action on to a subsequent period of time and will be based on historical events not touched upon in Hangman’s Cliff and the plot will take a considerably different direction to Hangman’s Cliff. There will, of course, need to be some scene setting, though I intend to limit this to a passage – scarcely longer than your resumé above – in which a new character is brought up to date with all that has happened.

    As to characters, UK copyright law does not protect them; in 1991 a court rejected a claim by the Conan Doyle estate to copyright in the Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson characters, saying that English law did not recognise such a concept. In any case, in Hangman’s Cliff it is the plot and historical details that drive the story more than the characters. Details of ships and the way they are sailed, the smuggling techniques, the food eaten, and other historical facts are as (if not more) important in the book than details about the characters.

    Neill actually gives us very little detail about the characters. How old is Captain Appleton? What sort of hat does he wear? What colour is Margaret’s hair? Is she thin, fat, tall, short? In fact, Neill leaves it to our imaginations to fill in these details and create our own mental pictures of the characters – a writing technique I thoroughly approve of, as it involves readers rather than spoon-feeding them.

  6. >>>I’m intrigued at the thought of a sequel and would appreciate being kept posted on progress. To be frank, I am usually violently opposed to posthumous sequels by different authors…

    Yes, I share your aversion to sequels by other authors, though there have been some excellent Sherlock Holmes sequels and a few of the James Bond sequels have been quite worthwhile. Hangman’s Cliff, though, was just too tempting given my fascination for the smuggling scene in that period and by what I have always regarded by far too abrupt and inconclusive an ending to the book.

    >>>However, I found nothing incongruous about the idea of Margaret being left behind by Captain Appleton

    Don’t forget that Margaret was only 17 at a time when the age of majority was 21. The chances are that she’d have gone back to Miss Akerman’s (!) or been found a position as a governess in a posh house, rather than being left to run the house on the cliffs by herself. If she marries Will, she’ll be off to America and out of the story.

    1. There are some cases, Holmes being one of the most prominent, where the battle against Literary Necrophilia is well and truly lost. Not having been a great Holmes enthusiast ever, I’ve barely read any non-Doyle stories. As for Bond, I’ve read the Fleming ouevre but none of the others, saving the Daily Express strip, where Jim Lawrence was doing such a good job, the Estate authorised him to create original tales.

      It’s the ones like the Wodehouse Estate authorising a new Jeeves & Wooster, the Christie Estate a new Poirot, the Austen estate an official Pride and Prejudice sequel (the unofficial ones are bad enough): how fucking greedy do you have to be? Is the money the authentic books make not enough that you actually WANT to prostitute them for a new book?

      I think one of the reasons I’m ok with your sequel is that it’s an evident labour of love, not of greed to grab the cash. Just be good enough, ok?

  7. Interesting. I used to be a lawyer for thirty years, though never a copyright lawyer, so you’re more advanced on that subject than me. The 1991 Doyle case intrigues me: I’ve always understood fictional characters to be copyrightable. Holmes and Watson would have slipped into the Public Domain in 1980.. According to Wikipedia, the term extension to life plus seventy (not seventy-five) years didn’t come into effect until 1995, so the Doyle estate had no legal leg to stand on in 1991, and even the renewed period ended in 2000.

    I remember the Dan Brown case well: I used to own the Holy Blood book (conspiracy theory books are great, especially for long train journeys: just don’t do around believing them) and I was disgusted that Brown ripped off so much without reward to Baigent, Leigh & Lincoln.

    No, based on what you’ve said, your ‘sequel’ would certainly be a good 90% plus composed of non-copyrightable material. If you are including Margaret, albeit many years later and thus much changed, I would still consider approaching the Neill estate for approval, for goodwill purposes, whether it’s needed or not. Combined with the suggestion of reissuing the original, it might be a sensible move.

    I look forward to progress reports.

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