IT was a conspicuous act of bravery that saved them from a hefty prison term, if not exile.

Charles Woolgar, James Brown and Joseph Andrews had been nationally honoured and locally feted for their courage in endeavouring to rescue crew and passengers after a mail boat had capsized in the Solent.

But now they faced a judge after trying to free a notorious smuggler from the clutches of a law enforcer who had displayed remarkable heroism in tackling a gang without resorting to his firearm which ironically had probably saved the trio's lives.

"Otherwise you might be mouldering in the grave," Lord Chief Justice Denman observed.

It was late evening on March 7, 1837, when Customs officer Francis Higginson chatting with a colleague suddenly observed a 'distance light,' favourably used by smugglers, in The Solent.

The two men, stationed at Sconce Point on the Isle of Wight, kept avid watch on the narrow stretch of water between Yarmouth and Lymington and their suspicions were confirmed by two further lights.

Directing instructions to his team, Higginson saw a four-oared boat easing its way to a muddy bank at Yarmouth. Within seconds, there came a bright flash and turning in the direction from which it came, he saw a group of about 20 men standing by a tree.

He recalled: "When the boat neared the eastern end of the town, a whistle was used on board the boat, such as a dog whistle, which was answered by a party of 10 men who were 50 or 60 yards distant from the others. They proceeded down towards the beach along the wall and when the whistle was heard, the boat made for the shore."

Higginson drew his pistol, intending to board the boat before the smugglers reached it but immediately clashed with their leader Edward Cooper who yelled: "Pull away, pull away, he will be in the boat."

Higginson fired his pistol into the starless sky as an order to stop, shouting out: "I am a coastguard officer on duty."

But Cooper would not yield, bawling: "You are not going to let one man frighten the lot. Knock his bloody brains out."

Higginson was immediately kicked by a second smuggler, dragged away by a third who had grabbed his collar while a fourth took hold of his sword belt. Astonishingly however he managed to detain Cooper who was manhandled to the coastguard station.

It was at this point that Woolgar, Brown and Andrews intervened in trying to free him but having failed, they disappeared into the night.

Woolgar and Brown were arrested and brought before magistrates within a week but almost a fortnight had elapsed before Higginson caught up with Andrews who pleaded for leniency, all too aware his fate would be determined at the assizes.

"When will it be necessary for me to be at Winchester. I hope it will not be too hard for me this time."

Indeed the judge was not, impressed by the testimony of a character witness who described them as "quiet orderly men" who had risked their lives after the Lymington mail boat had capsized, for which they were honoured by the Humane Society.

Their actions were also endorsed by the prosecution who urged the judge to be merciful.

Denman began his sentencing comments by praising Higginson for his bravely in a highly dangerous situation.

"In the performance of his duty, he distinguished himself both by the courage and humanity he displayed. He would have been justified in firing at any one of you and instead of appearing before this court on a comparatively light offence, you might be mouldering in the grave."

Having dwelt on the necessity of punishing wrongdoers, he said it was also right to temper justice with mercy, telling the no doubt astonished trio they would be bound over.

"You are at liberty to return home to pursue peaceable and lawful occupations. I hope for your sakes, as you have displayed such praiseworthy conduct in rescuing your fellow creatures in peril, you will abandon for the future these lawless courses, the consequences of which no men can be more fully aware of than yourselves.

"Avoid then, I repeat, these evil pursuits and in future conduct yourselves in such a manner that you may be looked upon with that degree of respect and goodwill which your recent laudable conduct cannot fail to ensure."