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Railroads England - Adventures With Highway Men

( Originally Published 1927 )

There were plenty of highwaymen to be met with in coaching days, for these gentry frequented every main road in England. Hounslow Heath on the Great West Road and Finchley Common on the Great North Road were their favorite resorts, but on every open common and steep hill coaches might be held up by masked men armed with pistols. Robberies were of daily occurrence and often it was suspected that innkeepers were in league with the highwaymen and gave the latter information as to wealthy travellers. Mail coaches were plundered of money; in 1814 the Stroud Mail was robbed of bank-notes amounting to two thousand, eight hundred pounds, and the following year the Buckingham stagecoach was robbed of a large quantity of bills and notes.

Sometimes the victims of highwaymen advertised for the return of articles of special value to the owner. This notice appeared in the Salisbury Flying Post in 1696 :

"Whereas six gentlemen (all of the same honourable profession), having been more than ordinary put to it for a little pocket money, did, on the 14th instant, in the evening, near Kentish Town, borrow of two persons (in a coach) a certain sum of money, without staying to give bond for the repayment, and whereas fancy was taken to the hat, peruke, cravat, sword, and cane of one of the creditors, which were all lent as freely as the money; these are, therefore, to desire the said worthies, how fond soever they may be of the other loans, to unfancy the cane again, and send it to Will's Coffee-House in Scotland-yard, it being too short for any such proper gentlemen as they are to walk with, and too small for any of their important uses, and withal only valuable as having been the gift of a friend."

It does not appear whether the highwaymen were as politely good-humored as their victim and returned him the cane.

These "knights of the road," as the highwaymen were commonly styled, seem to have been regarded by the public as rather romantic characters and were often admired for their daring. When George II was king they reached the height of their fame and all the roads in the neighborhood of London were infested with them. Dick Turpin carried on business along the Great North Road and in Epping Forest, in company with Captain Macheath and Jerry Abershaw, while other celebrated rascals frequented other heaths and commons near the city, all of which were over-grown with thick furze bushes and were undrained and uncultivated. Dick Turpin was what was known as a "flying highwayman," because of the speed with which he rode and his quickness in evading capture ; there were also "gentlemen highwaymen", such as Thomas King and Maclean, who were impecunious gentlemen of good families, seeking to retrieve their fortunes at the expense of the travelling public. The celebrated Claude Duval was a "knight of the road" famed for his gallantry and politeness towards those whom he robbed, especially towards ladies. He would request them with the greatest courtesy to "favor" him with any valuables they carried and make the most abject apologies for any inconvenience or alarm he might have occasioned. Sometimes he would even return certain articles that were specially prized by their owners and he always made a graceful bow when he closed the coach door, accompanied by the salutation "good night and a pleasant journey to you."

Of course there were brutal highwaymen, and all of them were rascals, but the debonair dash of such as Dick Turpin and Claude Duval, together with the stories that some of them, like Robin Hood, shared with the poor what they took from the rich, cast a halo of sentiment about them in the eyes of the simple and ignorant and made them the object of sympathy and adulation when they were captured by the king's officers and put on trial for their crimes.

Even in the streets of London highwaymen abounded, and as late as 1750 carriages were stopped in Hyde Park and Piccadilly at noonday and pistols thrust at the breasts of the occupants. Sometimes the robbers were bamboozled by fashionable ladies. Lady Walpole writes in her letters : "Lady Browne and I were, as usual, going to the Duchess of Montrose's at seven o'clock. The evening was dark. In the close lane, under the park pale, and within twenty yards of the gate, a black figure pushed by between the chaise and the hedge on my side. I suspected it was a highway-man, and so, I found, did Browne, for she was speaking, and stopped. To divert her fears I was going to say, `Is not that the apothecary going to the Duchess V when I heard a voice cry 'Stop!' and then the figure came back to the chaise. I had the presence of mind before I let down the glass, to take out my watch and stuff it within my dress under the arm. He said,

" `Your purses and watches?'

" `I have no watch,' I replied.

" `Then, your purse.'

"I gave it to him ; it had nine guineas in it. It was so dark that I could not see his hand, but I felt him take it. He then asked for Lady Browne's purse, and said,

" `Don't be frightened, I will not hurt you.' " `No, you won't frighten the lady,' I said.

" `No, I give you my word I will not hurt you,' he replied.

"Lady Browne gave him her purse, and was going to add her watch ; but he said,

" `I am much obliged to you ; I wish you good night,' pulled off his hat, and rode away.

" `Well,' said I, `you will not be afraid of being robbed another time, for, you see, there is nothing in it.'

" 'Oh! but I am,' she said ; `and now I am in terror lest he return, for I have given him a purse with bad money in it, that I carry on purpose.' "

There was in 1761 a "knight of the road" known as the "Flying Highwayman" who plied his trade on all the roads outside London. He rode three different horses, a gray, a sorrel, and a black, and the last had a black face, over which he customarily hung a black cat's skin for concealment. Hawkes was the name of this man, and he was known by sight to most of the turnpike men and did a lucrative business, especially on the Bath and Oxford roads. He behaved politely to those he robbed, as did another of his trade who, after having stopped two travellers on horseback near Maidenhead and then taken thirty guineas from them, learned that they were going to Bath and courteously returned them a couple of guineas to pay their expenses. Another highwayman, Captain McClean, accidentally wounded a gentleman when halting a coach, and not only sent him two letters of apology but wrote him that if there were any valuables he particularly wanted to regain he should be happy to meet him by Tyburn Gate at midnight and sell them to him for a small sum. An Irish gentleman writing an account of his journey through England in 1752, spoke with satisfaction of his having traversed "the large open plain called Finchley Common, so celebrated for the frequent murders and robberies committed there," and related how an apothecary to cheer the coach company told them how five stage-coaches had been robbed by a single man, "and they all together." The Irishman continues, "We travelled here under some anxiety, and suspected every bush for a tory. Many gibbets are up over all this common, and I saw no less than five within a pistol-shot of each other, which made me wonder it did not deter these villains from such practices."

So easily did single highwaymen succeed in robbing stagecoaches that it was often suspected that the coachmen and guards were friends of theirs and perhaps shared some of their ill-gotten gains.

The newspapers of the period are full of the deeds of the "knights of the road." Two will suffice for examples. The Public Advertiser records on April 22, 1790:

"Saturday last, at noon, a most daring robbery was committed by four highwaymen, well mounted, on the common about a mile and a half beyond Maiden-head. They stopped and robbed a lady and gentleman in a postchaise, although there was another chaise, one of the Oxford post coaches, and other carriages, besides gentlemen and servants riding on horseback on the Common at the same time, and not many hundred yards from the spot. After having done their business, they galloped off down the Common in a direction for Windsor. The robbers had crape over their faces."

The Morning Chronicle on January 14, 1797 states:

"A very gallant highway robbery was lately committed on Wimbledon Common upon the person of a young married lady. After receiving her purse, the robber politely demanded an elegant ring which he discovered on her finger. This she peremptorily re-fused, saying, `She would sooner part with life'; the hero of the turf rejoined, `Since you value the ring so much, madam, allow me the honour of saluting the fair hand which wears it, and I shall deem it a full equivalent!' The hand was instantly stretched through the chariot window, and the kiss being received, the highwayman thanked her for her condescension, and instantly galloped off perfectly satisfied with the commutation."

In spite of such gallant encounters, however, highwaymen were more agreeable to read of in romances or see enacted on the stage than to be met with on lonely roads, and the multitude of these gentry, masked, well armed, and mounted on fleet horses, was the chief drawback to travel in coaching days.

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