Friday, October 8, 2010

The Highwayman Came Riding, riding, riding...

The stuff of poetry and music, romanticized by fiction authors from Georgette Heyer to Jo Beverley, the highwayman has loomed large in Georgian and Regency mythology. The legendary Dick Turpin from the early 1700s was the most notorious in that century which was rife with thieves scouring the roads. Despite the glamour and the romance, however, the reality was that the highwaymen were desperate characters, driven by destitution and disillusionment with society, to steal and sometimes to kill.

Actual accounts from the period tell the real story. Highwaymen were thieves; they made travel hazardous, they were feared and despised, and there is no sign of the gentleman robber so beloved of fiction writers.

From The Year 1800, a volume of 'historical' newspaper extracts published in 1861, come these news items:

"A gentleman and a lady were robbed yesterday forenoon, on their way to town from Clapham, by two highwaymen."

"Tuesday, as Mr. Levien, of the City, was returning to town from Slough in a post-chaise, he was stopped in Butcher's Grove, on Hounslow Heath, about two o'clock, by two highwaymen, who robbed him of his watch, six guineas, and some loose money."

The Edinburgh Review of 1813 details several instances of robbery and retribution:

 "Yesterday, Joseph Gibson, convicted of highway-robbery, was executed at the ordinary place of execution in this city."

"Between seven and eight o'clock as Mr. Samuel Bayley, cotton-merchant, was riding towards home, on the Rusholme road, he was suddenly entangled by a rope stretched across the road for the purpose of robbery....They proceeded to rifle him of his property, and told him to proceed and make no alarm, or his life should pay for it."

"A gang of highwaymen, five in number, supposed to be the same who lately infested the neighbourhood of Wigton and Carlisle, made their appearance at the Candlemas fair of Dumfries, on Wednesday week; and betwixt seven and eight o'clock that evening, no less than nine different persons were attacked, seven of whom were unhorsed, and robbed of their pocket-books, watches, etc. betwixt the one and three mile-stones on the Galloway road. The villains were well armed with bludgeons, pistols, etc. and all escaped. Several of the people who were attacked are much hurt, and the cash taken amounts to upwards of 1000l. besides bills, etc."

Not romantic at all, I think. The decline of the trade of the highwayman was brought about by several causes. Improvements to roads, policing, and banking systems, led the way, aided by--surprisingly--land clearances, which offered fewer hiding places for thieves.

Despite the realities of the highwayman's profession, the aura of romance surrounding the villains will no doubt continue. Highwaymen, pirates, and outlaws--I must confess to a sneaking affection for the rogues, and I will read their fictional stories with enjoyment, ignoring the actual facts of their existence.

'Til next time,


1 comment:

Charles Bazalgette said...

Yes, in fact Turpin was an overall Bad Egg. He started out as a butcher, then moved on to sheep-stealing and it just got worse after that. I suppose we have to thank the Victorians for romanticizing him.