Tag Archives: Stagecoach Travel

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

Curricle Crashes and Dennet Disasters – The Dangers of the Regency Road

On the road 1

In April 1811 Jane Austen was staying with her brother Henry and his wife Eliza at their home 64, Sloane Street and working on the proofs of Sense and Sensibility. Not that this prevented her from getting out and about in London and occasionally borrowing Henry’s carriage: ‘The Driving about, the Carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, & was ready to laugh all the time, at my being where I was – I could not but feel that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a Barouche,’ she wrote on a later visit.
But delightful as travel by coach might be, horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous and accidents were numerous, even if most were minor. In a letter home on 25 April 1811 Jane blames an inciHyde Park pike0001dent at the gates for giving her sister-in-law Eliza a chest cold. ‘The Horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate – a load of fresh gravel made it a formidable Hill to them, & they refused the collar; I believe there was a sore shoulder to irritate. Eliza was frightened, & we got out & were detained in the Eveng. air several minutes.’ You can follow Jane’s London travels in Walking Jane Austen’s London.
The wonderful Henry Alken snr. excelled at drawing horses, but he had a mischievous side and produced numerous prints of carriage accidents. [His Return From the Races is at the top of this post]. These are light-hearted, often mocking the young sporting gentlemen of his day and their ‘boy-racer’ equipages, but the potential for an accident to cause death or serious injury was very real. In one hideous stage coach crash in 1833 the Quicksilver coach overturned as it was leaving Brighton. Passengers were flung out into the gardens along the Steine and impaled on the spiked railings. Alken’s third plate in his Trip to Brighton series shows a stagecoach crash as a result of young bucks bribing the coachmen to let them take the reins and race. Discover more of the dangers of travel by stage or mail coach in Stagecoach Travel.accident

Alken’s ‘comic’ drawings show people thrown onto the rough stones of the road, against milestones or walls, at risk of trampling by the horses or of being injured by the splintering wood and sharp metal fittings of their carriages. One has to assume that like cartoon characters walking off a cliff they all bounce back safely with only their dignity ruffled. Real life would not have been so forgiving.  In this post I am sharing some of the Alken carriage disasters from my own collection.

In  Learning to Drive Tandem (1825) learning to driveAlken shows a young gentleman who has got one of his pair turned around and one wheel off the road. The vehicle is a cocking cart used to transport fighting cocks and below the seat is a compartment ventilated by slats and a small image of a fighting cock on the armrest. In The Remains of a Stanhope (1827) the crash has already occurred, showing just how fragile these vehicles could be. A carpenter has been summoned and the owner is drawling somewhat optimistically, “I say my clever feller, have you an idea you can make this thing capable of progression?”

Stanhope

One of my favourite images is this one of a Dennet gig with the horses spooked by a passing stagecoach. The passengers’ faces as they watch the driver struggling with his team are priceless. Dennet accident sat

Several prints of the time show accidents at toll gates. Either the horses bolted or the driver wasn’t paying attention or perhaps they thought the gate keeper would fling the gate wide as they approached. This one is captioned “I wonder whether he is a good jumper!”

accident at toll gate Young men crashing their vehicles was obviously commonplace, and then as now, showing off to the ladies was also part of the joy of owning a sporting vehicle. Alken was not above titillating his audience with a glimpse of petticoat or a shapely leg, even when the owner of the leg was about to get seriously hurt. In “Up and down or the endeavour to discover which way your Horse is inclined to come down backwards or forwards” (1817) the driver takes no notice at all of his fair passenger vanishing over the back of his fancy carriage. There are some nice details in this print – the two-headed goose on the side panel is presumably a reference to the driver not knowing which way he is going and the luxurious sheepskin foot rug is clearly visible. backwardsIn the same series is an awful warning about the dangers of not choosing your horses with care. Captioned “Trying a new match you discover that they are not only alike in colour weight & action but in disposition.” One young man is heading out over the back of the carriage while his companion is poised to leap for safety amidst flying greatcoats, hats and seat cushions.

Bolting

 

 

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Filed under Accidents & emergencies, Gentlemen, Regency caricatures, Transport and travel, Travel