James Reade lay dying, shot. But who had pulled the trigger when coastguards confronted a gang of armed smugglers on a Hampshire cliff top?

On his death bed, Reade was adamant it had been one of the preventive team, William Young. But he did not stand alone in the dock.

Alongside him was his commanding officer, Lt James Pullen. Was he the victim of rough justice?

A leaked letter more than hinted biased witnesses had perjured themselves in his trial.

It was June 3, 1825 and a classic moonlit smuggling scene - a three master at anchor, five crewmen rowing ashore with contraband, and the 'Robin Hood's Gang,' as they commonly dubbed, eagerly gathered to collect it.

But a trap had been set. Coastguards knew of the plot from a tip-off, and with a pre-arranged gunshot signal, they burst out of the shadows and ran to the breaking waves at Lob's Hole, Christchurch.

The rum runners retreated to their ship, and in the ensuing mayhem, Pullen detained Reade whose trousers were soaked.

The coastguards however were outnumbered. With the horde shaking bludgeons over the head of the man holding Reade, their leader - his face blackened, a handkerchief covering his chin and a sash tied round his ragged coat - threatened to break his neck if Reade was not released.

Once freed, he and his rescuers dashed up the cliff top with the coastguards bravely in pursuit.

Daily Echo: The Black Swan Inn (right), High Street, Swanage.

There, they now faced a gang of some armed 50-60 men. Unnerved, Pullen ordered his men to draw their weapons, but the command was met by a shout: "We have pistols as well as you," the smuggler moving his hand to his breast as though he had one.

As they clashed, Pullen was struck on an arm, his life saved when a blow intended for his head was warded off by one of his men. The horde retreated into the darkness, save Reade who lay dying.

Carried to a nearby house, he gasped to a surgeon a description of the man who had shot him. It transpired to be Young.

At the coroner's inquest, it was accepted Pullen had always cautioned his men against using firearms, except in extreme necessity. Yet, he and Young were charged with murder and committed for trial at Hampshire Assizes where the following month they protested their innocence.

In a written defence, Pullen, who was in charge of the Christchurch station, told jurors how they had been laying in wait for smugglers and hearing a shot being fired headed to Lob's Hole where they were confronted by the armed gang, intent on freeing Reade.

Daily Echo: Coastguard on the lookout.

Asking the jury to bear in mind his predicament and that he bore no personal animosity to any of the smugglers, he pleaded: "I request your attention to the testimony of some gentlemen who have come forward to state what they know of me.

"They will prove most satisfactorily to you that both my private and public life will shield me from the imputation of having committed the crime of which I am accused. I trust therefore I shall be honourably acquitted."

Several officers of rank and from the clergy then testified to his "professional talent and intrepidity" as well as his good character and kindness.

In turn, Young was adamant he had nothing to add to what Pullen had said and was innocent.

In his summing up, Mr Justice Gaselee directed jurors as to the law and what Reade was doing at the time.

"Underlining their powers of arrest, he stressed: "If resistance is offered to those attempting, then they are justified in using force as is necessary to carry their intentions into effect, but they ought to be particularly cautious not to have recourse to unnecessary violence.

"I am sure, gentlemen of the jury, on the one hand, you will take care that the King's officers are supported when in the due execution of their duty, and on the other that the liberty of his subjects is not invaded. I am sure you will hold the scales of justice in both hands."

Daily Echo: A smuggler.

Referring to Reade's detention, he commented: "It does not appear he was taken on the spot, but under all the circumstances of the case, it is for you to say whether he was one of the party. If you are of the opinion he was, then Lt Pullen was justified. You recollect that Reade recognised them when he was a prisoner and the rescue followed."

The judge then highlighted his dying recollection and the contradictions in evidence. But it was clear that on the night in question, there had been an illegal assembly.

Defining the distinction between murder and manslaughter, he believed there was nothing against Young. "You however have to take into consideration the situation in which the prisoners were placed, opposed by 50 or 60 men, armed at a dead hour of the night. The death of everyone of His Majesty's subjects should be solemnly and minutely inquired into and I have no doubt your verdict will be as much to satisfy your own consciences and the justice of the country."

Following a short deliberation, the panel acquitted 30-year-old Young but convicted Pullen, 37, of manslaughter.

Daily Echo: Rum runners in the early 20th century.

It was then revealed Thomas Palk, the gang leader, was a notorious villain and a warrant had since been issued for his arrest. Later the same day, James Pitman was jailed for six months after admitting he had obstructed Pullen, Young and other offices in their duty.

Pullen was apparently freed within hours to the delight of local villagers. Then came a dramatic development. A letter left at the Hampshire Chronicle and Southampton Courier claimed he had been the victim of a conspiracy.

It stated at the morning of the trial, a note was picked up by a man opposite the Black Swan Inn in the High Street, Swanage, and forwarded to the Rev John Pullen, the lieutenant's brother. It proved to be the handwriting of one person who had been a juror at the inquest and was addressed to a witness, asking him and others giving evidence at the trial to commit perjury by swearing they had seen Pullen shoot Reade and how to conduct themselves in court.

"Palk has not been apprehended but when it is considered he was the leader of the gang, and that the witness against Lt Pullen were all of that gang, some estimate may be formed of the desperate characters with whom the officer had to contend, as well as on the coast as on his trial. It is much pleasure we add, since his liberation, gentlemen from all parts of the country, who were before unknown to Lt Pullen have expressed to him in the most flattering manner that they are fully satisfied of the correctness of his conduct."