I have a vested interest in that question because two of my ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century – fortunately for me, they had married and left children by then. Not so fortunate for their families. So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it.
But the highwayman was a popular figure (at least, if you weren’t one of his victims). The crowd loved a villain, especially one who robbed those better off than themselves, carried out daring raids and escapes and, when almost inevitably brought to justice, “died game” on the gallows. Reality was less romantic – even the famous Dick Turpin, shown here on Black Bess, was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers. The dashing Frenchman, Claude du Vall was hanged at Tyburn January 1670 despite (according to legend) gallantly sparing the possessions of any pretty lady who was prepared to dance with him. Presumably the plain ones just got robbed. The Victorians loved him and he was immortalized in a painting by Frith.
So, what was the risk of encountering a highwayman? Up until the third quarter of the 18th century the danger was significant. Roads were bad, so travel was slow and out-running a mounted attack virtually impossible. There was no effective policing of highways and the response of the law was to react to incidents, not to prevent them. The London Gazette in 1684 carried an advertisement offering a reward after the Northampton stage was, ‘set upon by four Theeves, plain in habit but well-horsed,’ and in one week in 1720 every stagecoach into London from Surrey was robbed by highwaymen.
However, as I discovered when I was researching Stagecoach Travel, although rapid improvements to roads in the later 18th century meant that there were far more vehicles moving over them it also meant that the coaches – increasingly better designed – became faster. Stage and mail coaches were now major businesses with a lot to lose and the guards were better armed and trained. The authorities put mounted patrols on the roads and eventually made the whole business too risky to be worthwhile.It took a while, though – the last incident of highway robbery on Knightsbridge, the road between Hyde Park Corner tollgate and the village of Kensington, was in 1799.
Today as you travel along that route, perhaps on the top of a London bus, look north as you pass the Royal Albert Hall, built on the site of Gore House. Opposite Gore House was the infamous Halfway House Inn (below). There the spies for the highwaymen of Hounslow Heath would congregate to see who was travelling and pass the word on to alert the highwaymen about fine carriages or vulnerable riders. The wall behind the inn is the boundary of Hyde Park.
Highwaymen did persist longer in Ireland where the roads were less good and the slower coaches made easier pickings. In 1808 a coach lined with copper and advertised as bulletproof was tried on the Dublin to Cork road, an indication that highwaymen were not afraid to shoot into the body of the vehicle at the passengers as well as threaten the guard and coachman.
The highwayman and his less glamorous compatriots were sufficiently significant in Georgian society to have left their mark on the slang of the time as I discovered when I was researching Regency Slang Revealed: Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The mounted highwayman was “on the High Toby” the footpads were on the “Low Pad” or “Low Toby”. I found eleven general terms for a highwayman – a Gentleman’s Master being one that perhaps gives a clue as to why they were popular with the common people. A Bully Ruffian was a very violent highwayman whereas a Royal Scamp preyed on the rich in a most gentlemanly fashion. It seems that equipment was important – a Rum Padder was particularly well-armed and well-mounted and a Chosen Pell was a highwayman operating inside a town, riding a horse with leather covers on its feet to muffle the sound of hoof-beats.
A highwayman’s mistress was his Bloss or Blowen and she may have waited for him at inns like the Halfway House when he went “on the pad” advised by his Carriers or Cruisers – the informants. They would all have hoped for a Catching Harvest – a time when the roads were thronged with travellers going to some event or another. Fairs, boxing matches and races gave particularly good pickings.
Just remember, when you are held up by a highwayman – mention the Music. That’s the universal password that will see you safe.
I’ll leave you with a watercolour portrait that I own. I have no idea of date, artist or subject, but he haunts me. I just have the feeling that he’s a highwayman, no longer in his prime. Should he mount up and take to the High Toby tonight? Or would that be one time too many…