Tag Archives: Georgian slang

Just How Romantic Were Highwaymen?

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…

 

 

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Filed under Crime, Gentlemen, Street life, Transport and travel, Travel

To Go On the Buz Gloak or We’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two

The Sami people of Arctic Scandinavia (shown here in a print of c1800) have one thousand words for their reindeer and more than one hundred and eighty for snow and ice, figures that emphasize how important those things are in their lives.

When I was researching for Regency Slang Revealed I found twenty seven words or phrases relating to the crime of pickpocking which suggests that while it might not have filled the thoughts of people in 1800 to quite the same extent, it was a significant crime and one that was encountered on a regular basis.

To go pick-pocketing, or to practice the Figging Law (the art of picking pockets) was to go on the Buz Gloak, to File the Cly or to Dive, Draw, Foist or Shake. There were categories of pickpocket. A Knuckles was a superior practitioner and a Rum Diver was particularly dexterous while a Fork used his middle and forefingers  to delve into pockets. A pick pocket who was constantly at work was said to keep his Fives A-Going.

Pickpockets generally were Buzmen, Cly Fakers, Divers, Dummee Hunters, Files or Foists. Very often they worked in groups – Bulk and File – or had associates who would run off with the stolen goods the moment they were taken – the Adam Tylers. A female pickpocket might well wear a Round-about, a large circular pocket worn under her skirts in which to stash her ill-gotten gains.

Prostitutes often acted as decoys for pickpockets and a man whose mind was anywhere but on the contents of his pockets might well find them empty after an encounter in a back alleyway. But even the most virtuous were in danger – Autem Divers operated in churches, picking the pockets of worshippers whose concentration was on higher things. An Anabaptist, however, was not a follower of that religious sect but a pick pocket who had been caught and suffered summary punishment with a ducking in the nearest pond or under the pump. In a detail from an Alken print of a race meeting (at the head of this post) the man in a blue coat is picking the pocket of another who is totally distracted by a game of dice.

Stealing handkerchiefs (Clouts or Wipers) was a particular specialty. Unlike the paper tissues of today, costing virtually nothing and instantly discarded, a handkerchief in the Georgian period was a large piece of fabric, often good linen (a Kent), fine cotton lawn (a Lawn) or silk (a Sleek Wipe, India Wipe or Fogle), and worth money. Stealing them was to go on the Clouting Lay and a Fogle, Napkin Hunter or Wipe Drawer was the specialist in this form of crime.

Gentlemen often kept their handkerchiefs in a pocket in the tails of their coats which preserved the line of the body of the coat but made the handkerchief vulnerable. Sometimes they were deliberately displayed coming out of the back pocket to perhaps show off a fine Belcher (spotted silk handkerchief) – and that was asking for trouble. The two lads in the print by Alken seem to be stealing just such a handkerchief, one distracting the mark by begging, the other taking the handkerchief.

In no time at all a stolen handkerchief would be in the hands of of a Ferret (pawnbroker) or for sale in a Bow-Wow, a secondhand clothes shop.

Theft of an article worth more than one shilling was a crime punishable by death until 1823, although juries frequently assessed stolen goods at under that value in order to save the accused from the gallows. Stealing handkerchiefs was probably a profitable form of larceny that kept the Buzmen just on the right side of that line, although they could well face transportation and/or a vicious flogging. One pickpocket who did not do too badly, despite being caught, was George Barrington, known as ‘the pickpocket of gentleman and the gentleman of pickpockets.’  He was transported to Botany Bay  in 1791. By 1796 he was the Superintendent of Convicts, and later, High Constable.

The final print, of the famous street entertainer Black Billy performing in front of the statue of Charles I, shows another handkerchief being stolen on the extreme right of the picture. The pickpocket is a most respectable-looking youth – it seems you couldn’t trust anyone!

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Filed under Crime, Street life