Doctor Syn

The Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn[1][2][3] is the smuggler hero of a series of novels by Russell Thorndike.[4] The first book, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh[5] was published in 1915. The story idea came from smuggling in the 18th century Romney Marsh,[6] where brandy and tobacco were brought in at night by boat from France to avoid high tax. Minor battles were fought, sometimes at night, between gangs of smugglers, such as the Hawkhurst Gang and the Revenue, supported by the army and local militias in the South, Kent and the West, Sussex.

Character biography

Christopher Syn, born 1729, is portrayed as a brilliant scholar from Queen's College, Oxford, possessing swashbuckling skills such as riding, fencing, and seamanship.[7] He was content to live the quiet life of a country vicar in Dymchurch-under-the-Wall under the patronage of Sir Charles Cobtree, the father of his best friend Anthony Cobtree, until his beautiful young Spanish wife Imogene was seduced by and eloped with Nicholas Tappitt, whom Dr. Syn had considered a close friend.

Christopher Syn set out on a quest for revenge, always managing to reach the eloped pair's destinations ahead of them just in time to terrify them against landing and facing him in a deliberate campaign of terror. While sailing from Spain to America in pursuit, his ship was captured by the pirate ship The Sulphur Pit, commanded by the negro Captain Satan. In a one-on-one fight, Syn defeated and killed Captain Satan to take command of his ship and crew; among them was Mr. Mipps, a former Royal Navy carpenter with whom Syn had become friends in England after rescuing him from the Customs men. Mipps swore loyalty to Syn from that time onward.

With Mipps at his side, Syn turned to piracy and became a great success. Later, when his crew refused to let Syn leave, Syn and Mipps slipped away in one of the ship's boats; unknown to Syn, Mipps had arranged a convenient "accident" in the ship's powder magazine with an exploding barrel of gunpowder, eliminating witnesses of Syn's piratical acts.

Mipps then joined Syn in his quest for revenge, pursuing Tappitt and Imogene throughout the thirteen American colonies (supposedly preaching the gospel to the Indians) and around the world (as part of a whaling voyage) afterwards, and was with him in the Caribbean when Dr. Syn turned again to piracy, assuming the name of Captain Clegg (taking the name "Clegg" from a certain vicious biting fly he had encountered in America), hijacking his enemy Tappitt's own ship and crew and sailing off with them (renaming the ship the Imogene) to become the most infamous pirate of the day.

However, a mulatto who escaped the destruction of Syn's previous ship stowed away in Clegg's ship and accused him before the crew; Clegg quelled the potential mutiny by having the mulatto's tongue cut out, marooning him on a coral reef and violently killing Yellow Pete, the ship's Chinese cook, who represented the crew in their wish to rescue the mulatto. Afterwards, realizing that Clegg had become too notorious, Syn decided to abandon his quest and return to England, and Mipps set up a second "accidental" explosion to destroy the Imogene and her crew.[7]

Syn returned to England on the night of a storm (13 November 1775[8]) that wrecked his brig off the English coast in sight of Dymchurch. That night he went to the house of his old friend (and now squire) Anthony Cobtree. When news came that the local vicar had drowned while trying to save victims of the shipwreck, Squire Cobtree offered the post to Christopher Syn. Syn accepted and settled down to a more respectable life as the vicar of Dymchurch and Dean of Peculiars in Romney Marsh, Kent, resuming his original name.

Mipps arrived in Dymchurch with the intent of settling down. Syn made him the village sexton upon condition that Mipps "remember to forget" (that Syn had been Clegg and that they had known each other before), and that Mipps never get involved with the local smugglers.

Syn soon became aware that his parishioners were smuggling goods from France to avoid the excessive customs duties the government charged. Learning from Mipps (who, contrary to Syn's orders, had become a leader of the smugglers) that certain townsfolk had been ambushed and captured during a smuggling run, Syn purchased the great black stallion Gehenna from gypsy horse-traders and raced to their rescue. A suit of clothing borrowed from a scarecrow made an improvised disguise, and Syn and Mipps were able to rescue the townsfolk from the Dragoons.

After this, Syn decided that he could only protect his people by becoming their leader. He created a more elaborate scarecrow costume, with eerie luminous paint. At night riding Gehenna, the respectable Dr. Syn became "The Scarecrow", the feared head of the smugglers. Together with Mipps, he organized the smugglers into a well-organized band of "Night Riders", also called "The Devil Riders" with macabre disguises and code-names.

Syn's cunning was so great that the smugglers outwitted the government forces for many years. A hidden stable watched over by Mother Handaway, the local "witch" (who believed the Scarecrow to be The Devil in living form), was the hiding place for the horses of the Scarecrow and his lieutenants, Mipps and the local highwayman Jimmie Bone (who, being as good a horseman as Syn and of similar build, was sometimes called upon to impersonate the Scarecrow when Syn either had to be elsewhere or seen in the same place.).

Shortly after the first appearances of the Scarecrow, Nicholas Tappitt (using the name "Colonel Delacourt") and the ailing Imogene returned to England, ending up in Dymchurch. Recognizing Syn as Clegg, Tappitt realized that Syn and the Scarecrow were the same and helped the authorities set a trap for him, hoping to both rid himself of his enemy and claim the reward for his capture. The trap was sprung, but Squire Cobtree's daughter Charlotte, who had fallen in love with Syn and also learned his secret identities as both Clegg and the Scarecrow, was the tragic victim when she dressed in the Scarecrow's disguise and was fatally wounded as a result. Tappitt was then suspected of being the Scarecrow, and a Customs officer and three constables came to arrest him. In the ensuing fight, Tappitt killed the Customs man and the constables subdued and arrested Tappitt for murdering the Customs officer.

After Imogene's death in Syn's arms (during which she revealed to him that he had a son by her who was missing somewhere in America), Syn fought a final duel with Tappitt in his jail cell, defeating him. Syn then struck a bargain with Tappitt: If Tappitt confessed to being the notorious pirate Clegg, then Syn would look after and care for Tappitt and Imogene's new-born infant daughter (also named Imogene). Tappitt agreed, and "Captain Clegg" was hanged and later "buried without benefit of clergy at a cross-roads hard by the Kent Ditch."

Many years later, Captain Collyer, a Royal Navy officer assigned to smash the local smuggling ring, uncovered the deception and Dr. Syn's true identity, thanks in part to the tongueless mulatto (who had been rescued by Collyer years before and who had been serving Collyer as a "ferret" seeking out hidden contraband) who recognized Syn as Clegg. Syn evaded capture while at the same time making sure that Imogene and Squire Cobtree's son Denis (who had fallen in love with Imogene) would have a happy life together (they were eventually married), but was murdered in revenge by the mulatto, who then mysteriously managed to escape, leaving Syn harpooned through the neck. As a last mark of respect, Collyer ordered that Syn be buried at sea, rather than have his body hung in chains.

Mipps escaped in the confusion of Syn's death and disappeared from England, but it is said that a little man very much like him is living out his days in a Buddhist Monastery somewhere in the Malay Peninsula, delighting the monks with recounting the adventures of Doctor Syn and the eerie stories of the Romney Marsh and the mysterious Scarecrow and his Night Riders.

Publication history

The Dr. Syn books detail his adventures and attempts to help the people of Dymchurch and the surrounding area evade the Excise tax. There are:

Note that the "first" book, Doctor Syn, is actually the final story chronologically; the others proceed in published sequence.

An expanded version of Doctor Syn Returns titled The Scarecrow Rides was published for the US market by The Dial Press in 1935.

In 1960 American author William Buchanan used the character in his novel Christopher Syn. This is essentially a reworking of Further Adventures of Doctor Syn with a different conclusion and some conflation and renaming of the supporting characters. Christopher Syn became the basis for the 1962 Disney production (see below). There was also a novelization of the Disney theatrical version, titled Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow and written by Vic Crume.

In other media


Three film adaptations have been made of Dr. Syn's exploits.

Doctor Syn (1937)

The first, Doctor Syn (1937), featured noted actor George Arliss in the title role and was its star's last film.

Captain Clegg (1962)

Captain Clegg (1962), known as Night Creatures in the U. S., was produced by Hammer Film Productions with actor Peter Cushing in the lead role, directed by Peter Graham Scott. In the screenplay by Anthony Hinds, the main character's name was changed from Doctor Syn to Parson Blyss to avoid rights problems with Disney's forthcoming version, and Captain Clegg's screenplay follows the novel Doctor Syn and the screenplay of the 1937 film closely with the exception of a tightening of the plot. In the Arliss movie Doctor Syn, Syn escapes to sea with Mipps and the rest of the Dymchurch smugglers, whereas Captain Clegg ends more faithfully to the novel, with Parson Blyss being killed by the mulatto (who is then killed by Mipps) and then being carried to and buried in Captain Clegg's empty grave by Mipps. Night Creatures was never released on videotape in the United States, but is included in the two-disc DVD collection The Hammer Horror Series.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963)

Another version, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963), was produced for the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color TV series. It was shot on location in England and was directed by James Neilson. It stars Patrick McGoohan in the title role, with George Cole as Mipps and Sean Scully as John Banks, the younger son of Squire Banks (Michael Hordern) and Dr. Syn's second lieutenant. Part One dealt with the arrival of General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen), who had been ordered by the War Office to smash the smuggling ring and the efforts of The Scarecrow to rescue a Dymchurch man who had been captured by the Naval Press-gang and used by General Pugh as bait in a trap; Part Two centered around how The Scarecrow dealt with the traitorous Joe Ransley (Patrick Wymark); and Part Three showed how The Scarecrow rescued Harry Banks (David Buck) (Squire Banks' eldest son, a press-ganged man who had escaped from the Navy) and American Simon Bates (Tony Britton) from General Pugh's clutches in Dover Castle.

While originally conceived and edited for American television (and announced in an advertisement by NBC in the Tuesday, July 9, 1963 issue of The Hollywood Reporter), The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was re-edited for a British theatrical run before the American television debut. Titled Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, the British theatrical version was released on a double bill with The Sword in the Stone, and ran during the 1963 Christmas season (advertised in the January 1964 issue of Photoplay). This version was shown in Europe as well as Central and South America through 1966.

In the 1970s, the production was re-edited again for its first American theatrical release, on double bills with both Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Treasure Island. (The VHS version of the 1980s, sharing the removal of the Scarecrow's laugh from Terry Gilkyson's title song, was expanded to include the story material from all three TV episodes, while retaining feature film structure and credits; it was available for a relatively short amount of time.) Shortly after the US theatrical run, it was re-edited once more for a two-part presentation on Disney's television series in the 1970s, simply omitting the middle segment. The original three-part version was first shown as part of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on February 9, 16 and 23, 1964. Later it was included in a late 1980s Wonderful World of Disney syndication rerun package, and cablecast in 1990s on the Disney Channel. This version generally followed the storyline of The Further Adventures of Dr. Syn and made it clear that Syn did not die or stage his own death: at film's end, he is having a cup of tea with the Squire, who admits to now owing a debt of gratitude to the Scarecrow.

On November 11, 2008 The Walt Disney Company released a limited pressing of 39,500 issues of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh in DVD format for the first time as a part of the Disney Treasures collection, and was now called Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. The issue sold out in three weeks, but as of February 17, 2009 the DVD was made available for members of the Disney movie club for $29.95. The two-disc set includes the American television version and the original British theatrical version Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow in widescreen format. It also includes the original introductions by Walt Disney (in which he erroneously indicates that Dr. Syn was an actual historical figure) and a documentary on Disney's interest in the property.

St Clement's Church in Old Romney doubled as Dr Syn’s Dymchurch parish church in the production and Walt Disney funded the repair of the building in order to use it as a filming location.[9]

Other adaptations

Made in 1974, Carry On Dick, of the celebrated Carry On series of films, followed the same premise of a country vicar (Sid James) who is secretly an outlaw, in this case the highwayman Dick Turpin.


In 2001 a stage adaptation titled Doctor Syn was performed at churches throughout the Romney Marsh, the final night being performed in Dymchurch itself. The cast featured Daniel Thorndike (the author's son), Michael Fields, Steven Povey and Ben Barton, along with various amateurs from the area.

Audio adaptations

Doctor Syn

Rufus Sewell read a 10-part audio adaptation combining and abridging Doctor Syn on the High Seas and Doctor Syn Returns for BBC Radio, broadcast on BBC Radio 7 in December 2006 and repeated in June 2007.

The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn

A 10-part audio adaptation of The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn (combining and abridging The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn and The Shadow of Doctor Syn) read by Rufus Sewell was performed on BBC Radio 7 in December 2007.

The Last of Doctor Syn

In April 2009, a third series was announced for broadcast later in 2009. BBC Radio 7 broadcast the six-part series, an abridged reading by Rufus Sewell of the original Doctor Syn novel, from January 4, 2010 to January 11.

No Quarter

John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin reinterpreted elements of the Doctor Syn story as his "No Quarter" fantasy sequence in Led Zeppelin's concert film The Song Remains the Same.

Comic books

A three-issue adaptation of the Disney production was published by Gold Key Comics under the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh title, spanning April 1964 through October 1965.

A much abridged revision of the adventures of Dr. Syn appeared as a short comic serialized in the monthly publication Disney Adventures. The new story features the heroic Doctor and his young sidekick protecting innocent villagers from corrupt government officials and soldiers.

Doctor Syn appears in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series as a member of the league gathered by Lemuel Gulliver. His alter ego, Captain Clegg, also makes appearances, where he is mentioned to have had a brief romantic liaison with future teammate Fanny Hill. In the 2003 film adaptation of League, Dr. Syn can be spotted in one of the portraits hanging on the wall in M's library.

Cultural legacy

A "Days of Syn" festival is held even-numbered years by Dymchurch residents for fund-raising. The 2006 "Days of Syn" was on 26–28 August (UK August Bank Holiday weekend) and featured a talk on Dr. Syn at the Anglican church at 6:30 p.m. On Sunday at 3 p.m. there was a church service where Dr. Syn and the cast appeared in period costume. On Monday, starting at the Bowery Hall, scenes were reenacted from Doctor Syn, and again during the day along the Dymchurch shoreline and in the Ocean pub.

In 2009, discussions took place to build a 100 ft high statue of "The Scarecrow" on a site in the centre of Romney Marsh.[10] This had not been done by 2016.

Doctor Syn is also the name given to one of the locomotives on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.

Doctor Syn also inspired novelist George Chittenden who captures smuggling on the Kent coast in his highly praised debut 'The Boy Who Led Them', which follows the rise and fall of a smuggling gang leader further down the coast in the notorious town of Deal.


  1. "The Reverend Dr Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh".
  2. "The Life and Times of Doctor Syn".
  3. "The Peculiar Dr. Syn".
  4. "Russell Thorndike". IMDb.
  5. "Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh". Facebook.
  6. "Smuggling on Romney Marsh, East Sussex".
  7. 1 2 Thorndike, Russell (1935). Doctor Syn on the High Seas. London: Rich and Cowan.
  8. Thorndike, Russell (1935). "Chapter 1". The Scarecrow Rides. New York: Dial Press.
  9. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Dr Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh Film Focus".
  10. "Scarecrow of the South", 4 June 2009

External links

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