The Setting |Notorious Local Highwaymen Series

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Part One: The Setting

The Highwayman by Derek Charles Eyles / Credit: © Look and Learn
The Highwayman by Derek Charles Eyles / Credit: © Look and Learn

The first traceable use of the word ‘highwaymen’ was in 1617, although it was between the

restoration period (1660) and the early 1800s that highwaymen thrived in England.[1]


The perfect storm


Forgetting poverty, social class divides, housing, and many of the issues that still exist today, there were other factors that encouraged disorderly behaviour.


Coaches began to appear on the roads in large enough numbers to make such an occupation profitable. The level of traffic on the outskirts of London meant that areas such as Finchley Common, Hounslow Heath, Bagshot Heath, and Blackheath were particularly frequented by robbers. As a result, all these places gained a bad reputation.


Blackheath, yet again, was in for more mischief and mayhem, despite being a village that Charles Dickens once described as having:


A wonderful romance about this old green London lung.[2]

The age of the highwaymen was an age where travel was already hazardous due to the lack of decent roads. No sensible person rode alone without fear of being robbed, and people often hired escorts and wrote their wills before they travelled. Imagine having to write your will every time you jumped on a tube into London, although perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all.


And then there was the invention of the flintlock pistol.


French 1763 flintlock dragoon pistol / Credit: Don Troiani
French 1763 flintlock dragoon pistol / Credit: Don Troiani

By the end of the eighteenth century, stagecoaches travelled with armed guards. Yet despite this, highwaymen soon became popular heroes, often romanticised as gentlemen. Somehow, they achieved a secret admiration, like Robin Hood, as if they were stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Their exploits were often turned into bawdy verse, sold in broadsheets and ballads, and were usually accompanied by a woodcut of the final gallows’ scene. The romanticising of such men was generally unfounded, especially with the likes of Dick Turpin (a blog to come soon on his Blackheath antics).

Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Blackheath was quite a barren wilderness in places.

View of Old London from Blackheath. The Antiquarian Repertory by Edward Jeffery, 1807) / Credit: © Look and Learn
View of Old London from Blackheath. The Antiquarian Repertory by Edward Jeffery, 1807) / Credit: © Look and Learn

Situated on the Roman Road, it had the perfect terrain for a bit of horseback thieving: woods, caves, and gravel pits. The terrain was wild, un-policed, and dark. Also, as one of the main roads into London, lots of wealthy people travelled through it. These days, we would call it a perfect storm, and in those days, that’s exactly what it was.


It didn’t take long for some of the more notorious highwaymen to find our lovely village and all the spoils that travelled through it, but they usually paid with their lives if they were caught.


It was clever of them to think of turning highwaymen on Blackheath, where there are lonely places and carriages belonging to wealthy citizens, and very few policemen.[3]

Henry Marchant, the Attorney General of Rhode Island, visited Blackheath in 1771 and wrote home to his friend, stating:

As I approached London, the fields became gardens, & here & there elegant seats of the Great…At Length London itself appeared from a high Hill just entering upon black Heath—no agreeable Place at Night.[4]

Bow Street Runners Horse Patrol

The Bow Street Horse Patrol 1836 (Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
The Bow Street Horse Patrol 1836 (Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Bow Street Runners were formed in 1749 by Henry Fielding, a magistrate and writer. When Henry died, he was succeeded by his half-brother, John, in 1754.


John took his brother’s concept and refined the runners into an effective police force. In 1763, there was a bit of a highway crime pandemic, so John created a horse patrol to deal with it. The horse patrol got the nickname 'Robin Redbreasts' for their red coats (hard to tell, but they are blue in the photo above – taken in a much later period).


The first horse patrol didn’t last beyond eighteen months, despite being set up specifically to deal with the ongoing bandits who were kicking up a storm along the highways while being romanticised by the press.


The Bow Street Runners didn’t stand a chance against the wild men, and the horse patrol was reinstated in 1805, although most notorious highwaymen had been dealt with by then.


Quite a bizarre side-note from my research – John Fielding was known as the ‘Blind Beak of Bow Street,’ and wore a black band just above his eyes to show his disability (after being wounded at 19 in a navy accident). He didn't let his blindness stop him, though, and rumour had it that he could identify over 300 criminals just by their voice.

Sir John Fielding / Credit: Nathaniel Hone the Elder – National Portrait Gallery
Sir John Fielding / Credit: Nathaniel Hone the Elder – National Portrait Gallery

Executions


Until 1783, executions were done at the Tyburn gallows (also knowns as the Tyburn Tree, although it never was an actual tree). Prisoners were made to walk in a public procession from Newgate Prison via St Giles in the Fields and Oxford Street (known as Tyburn Road). Marc Almond (along with John Harle) wrote a song about the Tyburn Tree:


The tyburn tree I weep for thee The tyburn tree I weep for thee Blood in the roots Tis not a dream with bark and leaves of spring awakening Tis not a dream with blossom and fruits Tis not a dream No boughs to bend beneath the unruly breath of winter No memories of woods warmed by spring’s sweet touch Tis not a dream Take a ride to tyburn and dance the last jig


I don’t suggest listening to it unless you want to lose five minutes of your life to something far beyond the peculiar-cool genre (you’re going to have to Google it now!).

The Tyburn Tree Gallows / Credit: The National Archives
The Tyburn Tree Gallows / Credit: The National Archives
The Tyburn Tree Stone at Marble Arch
The Tyburn Tree Stone at Marble Arch

The Tyburn Tree was retired from its deathly duties, and the highwaymen caught in or around London were hanged at the new neck-snapping gallows built at Newgate prison. It was seen as an 'advancement' in the process of capital punishment – at least the convicts didn't have to do the walk of shame anymore...

The gallows at Newgate Prison / Credit: Look and Learn / Bernard Platman Antiquarian Collection / Bridgeman Images
The gallows at Newgate Prison / Credit: Look and Learn / Bernard Platman Antiquarian Collection / Bridgeman Images

Public hangings were extremely popular (when the highwayman Jack Sheppard was hanged, the audience reached around 200,000).


Hanging days were public holidays, and the large crowds came not just for the spectacle or the death but also for the dramatic speeches of those being hanged – or the last-minute confessions.


Several phrases from those hanging days still live on, like ‘one for the road’ (the last pint before the prisoner starts his journey) and ‘hangover’ (hanging days were raucous and boozy undertakings so onlookers wouldn’t always feel too great the next day).

 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing blogs on the individual local highwaymen so we can get to know them better.


If you’d like to get in touch about anything you’ve read or have more information you’d like to share, please contact Julie at blackheathandgreenwichhistory@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to subscribe to keep updated, scroll to the footer and sign up.


The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.

 

Footnotes

  1. William Fennor, The Counter’s Commonwealth, ed. A. V. Judges in The Elizabethan Underworld (London, George Routledge, 1930), p. 446.

  2. Charles Dickens, A London Suburb. All the year round; Dec 17, 1887; 41, 994; pg. 533

  3. The Blackheath’ Bandits Bold’ in The Spectator, June 16, 1877

  4. Law and History Review > 2011 - Volume 29 > Issue 1, 1 February > Articles > A Legal Tourist Visits Eighteenth-Century Britain: Henry Marchant’s Observations on British Courts, 1771 to 1772 – Law and History Review February 2011, Vol. 29, No. 1, 133–179

Sources

  • Henry Simms Commonly Called ‘Gentle-Man Harry,’ Highwayman.” The New Newgate Calendar, vol. I, no. 12, 1864, p. [177]

  • Simms, Henry. Hanging no dishonour. Being a modest attempt to prove that such persons as have the honour to make their exit at the Tripple-Tree are not always the greatest villains in the nation. In a letter from Gentleman Harry, Now under Sentence of Death in Newgate. Address’d to villains of all denominations in Great Britain. Printed for Henry Roberts; and sold by the booksellers of London and Westminster, [1747?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online

  • Robert B. Shoemaker (2006) The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690–1800, Cultural and Social History, 3:4, 381-405,

  • The proceedings on the King’s commissions of the peace, and oyer and terminer, held for the city of London, and county of Middlesex, at Justice-Hall in the Old-Baily, on Friday December 5, Saturday 6, Monday 8, and Tuesday 9. In the 20th Year of His Majesty’s Reign. Being the First sessions in the Mayoralty of the Right Honourable William Benn, Esq; Lord-Mayor of the City of London. Number I. Great Britain. Sessions (City of London and County of Middlesex) [1746]-47 J. Hinton, at the King’s-Arms in St Paul’s Church-Yard (London)

  • McKenzie, Andrea. “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 4, 2006, pp. 581–605.

  • Durston, Gregory J. Whores and Highwaymen : Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis, Waterside Press, 2012

  • Law and History Review > 2011 - Volume 29 > Issue 1, 1 February > Articles > A Legal Tourist Visits Eighteenth-Century Britain: Henry Marchant’s Observations on British Courts, 1771 to 1772 – Law and History Review February 2011, Vol. 29, No. 1, 133–179

  • https://lookup.london/tyburn-tree-hidden-history-marble-arch/