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  • Clyve Rose

Stand & Deliver

In keeping with my posts on Regency-era crime, I've looked further into the phenomenon of highwaymen. While Dick Turpin rode Black Bess across the wild woodlands of Essex in the early 1700s, these 'knights of the road' were active well into the mid-1800s. If required to travel in darkness, carriages and coaches were escorted by armed 'out-riders'. Out-riders were armed, mounted men who rode alongside, in front of, and behind, these vehicles. Charges for these services were shared among the passengers for public coach services. Private travellers hired trustworthy men or used fellows from their own households.

Between 1775 and 1785, Lord North the Prime Minister was robbed while travelling on the Bath road. So was the Prince of Wales, and his brother the Duke of York. The Lord Mayor of London and the Neapolitan ambassador were also relieved of their valuables by highwaymen. In 1805 horse patrols were introduced to counter the prevalence of these 'gentlemen thieves'. Despite this, highwaymen continued to rob (and charm), with impunity. So, who were these determined men? Were they, as is so often depicted in popular fiction, gentlemen?

Gentleman, or rogue?

Turns out - yes, many of them were. Highwaymen were considered to be members of a criminal elite, which may account for their romantic reputation. Alexander Smith penned an interesting little work in the 1700s, titled Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, etc. Of the 59 highwaymen he wrote about, 32 had attended the best schools in England. Many were second sons of well-to-do families, including those with strong clerical or military traditions. Gambling debts, drinking, and idleness led them into this line of work. As a rule most highwaymen were not killers, which is not to say they were not violent, but most only hurt their victims if they attempted to hold on to their possessions, or to capture their thief.

Newspapers of the time recorded accounts of genteel manners in these thieving rogues. One gentleman victim (the novelist Horace Walpole - who was also a magistrate) lost his purse, but appreciated that "the whole affair was conducted with the greatest good breeding". It should be stated however, that no few highwaymen were indeed thugs. They were not above beating the out-riders or cold-cocking the coachman in any given situation.

Risks of the road

So, what happened when a 'gentleman of the road' was caught? Once captured, a highwayman would be tried for theft (and other connected crimes - some were murderers of course, and there were more than a few cases of battery in the course of their robberies.) The penalty for robbery was the same, whether the guilty party was a regular thief or a gentleman thief: death.

The accused man would be held until trial (usually in Newgate Prison), and tried at the Old Bailey before a London magistrate. If found guilty he was usually sentenced to be executed. His remains were suspended in gibbets near the scene of his most infamous crimes, as a deterrent to other young men who may be leaning towards such a life of crime. The practise of rotting corpses suspended in gibbets above roadways ceased in 1834. One of the most notable factors of this criminal fraternity, was how very young these men were. Most highwaymen were aged in their late teens to early twenties. One of the most gallant was James McLean, who would occasionally return a lady's booty in exchange for a kiss. He was executed at age 26.

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