For as far back in history as there have been towns and villages that bred a certain individual wealth and possession, so there have been villains and vagabonds who could lurk in dark corners and lanes that connect these habitats and stop and rob unsuspecting citizens of their individual possessions!
Such times up to the eighteenth century saw the infamous highwayman, generally a brigand on horseback, and the footpads, robbers without mounts but just as lethal!
Footpads consciously played a role that seems to have been more brutal than gallant.
These accounts illustrate the extent of the problem right up to the middle years of the nineteenth century!
When two Bailiffs were returning from the races on Hampstead Heath and were robbed by three footpads of their silver watches, a mourning ring and a parcel of writs, ‘They desired very much to have the ring and Writs again, but one of the rogues made answer (with a hearty oath) I have no remorse of conscience, when I play at Rob Thief ’ (Fog’s Weekly Journal, 27 June 1730).
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Highway robberies were a daily occurrence within twenty miles of London.
In July, 1803, an account was printed in the “Gentleman’s Magazine”
On June 26th, a “Mr. Orrell, of Winsley Street, Oxford Street, with Mrs. Orrell, were passing in their chaise over Goulder’s Green, on their way to Hendon, about half-past eight, they were stopped by a single highwayman, who produced a pistol and demanded their money.
Mr. Orrell declared he would not be robbed, and after the highwayman had uttered violent oaths and threats, and put his pistol several times to the head of Mr. and Mrs. Orrell, Mr. Orrell jumped out of the chaise, and seizing the highwayman, nearly pulled him off his horse, and laid hold of the pistol; on which the highwayman struggled and spurred his horse, and having extricated himself, gallopped away towards Hampstead.
He afterwards stopped one of the Hampstead stages near Red Lion Hill, in which were six passengers, with two men and the coachman outside, and robbed them of upwards of 40l. He then rode coolly off.”
Rings, watches, purses, swords, canes were robbed from people on The Heath.
In North End, there used to be a Gibbett Tree and between this and another tree stood a gibbet on which the body of a highwayman called Jackson was suspended for murdering one Henry Miller, near this spot in May 1673. “for the fatal profession of padding on the road”!
The post of this gibbet was at one time placed as a “mantle tree” over the fireplace in the kitchen of The Castle Public House (Later Jack Straw’s Castle).
The stumps of these trees remained well into the nineteenth century.
The notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, once had a house in Hampstead, close to The Heath and Finchley Common…useful for his trade but the location is not now known for certain.
He stopped coaches and chaises at Holloway and in the back lanes of Islington, around 1737.
Legend has it that the highwayman Dick Turpin was born in the Spaniards Inn on 21 September 1705.
This may or may not be true, but what is known is that his father was a landlord of the Spaniards Inn during the 18th Century.
The upstairs room at the pub is named The Turpin Bar in his honor and is believed to be the site of his childhood bedroom.
Turpin is said to have used the Spaniards Inn as a hideout from which to plan and execute his many highway robberies.
Some even remember the highwayman’s very own pistol being fired nightly as a closing-time signal,” says one popular history of Hampstead in those golden, olden days when Dick Turpin cried “Stand and deliver” to the coaches travelling the local roads.
One of the countless stories states that he hid out with his beautiful horse Black Bess in the Tollhouse at the Spaniards Inn, before his famous 24-hour ride to York – and death on the gallows.
However, the real Dick Turpin was a pock-faced thug, an original Essex man, a notorious young butcher who became a callous burglar and horse and sheep thief.
Often, highwaymen could command a certain amount of hero-worship.
There is an account of one, DuVal (born 1643 at Domfont in Normandy), who used to frequent The Hornsey Road, often called The Devil’s or DuVal’s Lane, where there was a moated house of the same name.
Claude Duval gained the reputation of a gentleman highwayman by being impeccably polite to his victims, always raising his hat to ladies.
He was executed at Tyburn in 1669, in his 27th year, and it was noted that at his funeral attended “many flambeaux and a numerous train of mourners, whereof most were of the beautiful sex”!
An inscription was said to have existed, which read:
"Here lies Du Vail, reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart Much havoc hath he made of both; for all Men he made stand, and women he made fall. The second conqueror of the Norman race, Knights to his arms did yield, and ladies to his face Old Tyburn’s Glory, England’s bravest thief, Du Vail, the Ladies’ joy! Du Vail, the Ladies’ grief." (14th April, 1674)
At one time, Hampstead and Highgate and the Heath were all happy hunting grounds for these footpads and half-masked highwaymen.
Coaches were stopped and rifled on the roads that crossed or skirted the famous Heath, while hapless pedestrians were not infrequently stripped of money and jewels and left dead or well nigh strangled under the bushes.
The daring outlaws guilty of such crimes were, after capture and trial at The Old Bailey, strung up to prominent trees on The Heath and kept dangling there until their skins were “crackling in the sun.”
An old pamphlet describes how four highwaymen (John Williams, Francis Jackson,John White and Walter Parkhurst), having robbed four coaches, were pursued and "rode on towards Paddington, and from thence towards Kilburn and Hendon, and from thence to Hampstead-Heath; but was so hotly engag’d all the way by our Pursuers, that it was about ten or eleven a Clock, when we were at Harrow on the Hill, and it was six of the clock when we recovered Hampstead-Heath, our Powder and Shot being all gone, and some of our Swords, and most of us sorely Wounded and Bruised about two of the clock."
Highwaymen often quarreled amongst themselves and there is the unbelievable account of one, John Everet attempting to take his partner Joseph Williams to court at the beginning of the eighteenth century for not sharing his ill begotten loot!
The court was less than impressed; the case was dismissed and the two acting solicitors were arrested for contempt of court.
Williams was eventually hanged at Maidstone in 1727 and the plaintiff, John Everet suffered the same fate at Tyburn in 1730.
Hampstead was a well-known place for highwaymen,who waylaid persons returning from the Wells as they rode or drove down Haverstock Hill, or across The Heath, and towards Finchley.
The following accounts appear in Assize records for Highgate and describe a variety of incidents involving highwaymen and footpads:
22nd April, 29 Elizabeth True Bill that, on the said day, in the highway at Harnesey, co Midd., Edward Pygott, late of London, gentleman, assaulted John Robertes, with the intention of robbing him, saying to him, ‘Godes woundes delyver thy purse,’ and beating and maltreating him so that his life was despaired of.
10th December, 44 Elizabeth True Bill that in the highway at Hygate, co. Midd., on the said day, Bartholomew Turpin, late of London, yoman, assaulted Simon Fielder, and robbed him of a leather purse worth two pence, and a piece of gold worth three pounds.
Sept. 1721. – “One Isaac Drew, a drover, was lately taken at Highgate and committed to New Prison, being suspected to be one of the three footpads that assaulted, robb’d and murther’d Philip Potts, Esqre., surveyor of the Window Lights, near Pancras Church.”
June 1722. – “On Saturday night last, a Highwayman mounted on a black Horse, and in a blue Rugg coat, robb’d several passengers in Hampstead Road; from one of which he took five Guineas. The night following, two officers were stript of 40 shillings, between Tyburn and Paddington, by one Highway-man whose Garb and Horse bespoke him to be the same person that had been so busy in Hampstead Road. The same night, two citizens that had been pleasuring it in a chaise, on their return home, were robbed in the lower road of Islington. And three of these vermin were at the same time employ’d near Tyburn, where several Robberies were committed. We hear, that new Measures are actually concerting for the more effectually preventing the designs of these desperate wretches.”
July 14th, 1730. – “Mr. John Clarke, a Cadiz merchant, returning homeward in a chair with his Lady, was attacked by a single Highwayman between Muswell Hill and Highgate, who being desired not to frighten the Gentlewoman, he very civilly promised he would not, and Mr. Clarke giving him a Modoire and Three Half-crowns he returned thanks and rode off.”
August 1740. – “On Tuesday John Shorter was committed to Newgate by Sir Edward Hill for robbing Mrs. Evans on the Highway between Highgate and Caen Wood.”
October, 1740. – “On Wednesday night two Gentlemen coming from Highgate in a Chaise were robbed by two footpads in sailor-habits, with masks over their faces, who took from them their watches, and about £7.”
26th July, 1741. – “On Sunday evening as a Gentleman belonging to the Custom House and his friends were coming from Highgate, they were accosted at the bottom of the hill by a single highwayman with the usual ceremony; they endeavour’d to overthrow him and his horse by theirs in the chaise, which the fellow observing, dextrously avoided, and at the same time fir’d his pistol, lodg’d two slugs in one of the Gentlemen, and then rode off.”
March 12th, 1759. – “On Monday as two Gentlemen belonging to the Temple were coming to town from Highgate they were stopped by six footpads armed with pistols, who swore if they did not immediately deliver their money they were dead men; having got what cash they had, demanded their watches, which accordingly delivered to them. They then obliged them to dismount, cut the girths of their saddles, turned their horses loose, and then ran off in the fields towards Hampstead. There seemed to be a desperate gang of them, as they were more at a distance.”
14th May, 1748. – “A gentleman’s servant was stopped on the road between Highgate and Finchley by two footpads; on demanding his money and catching the horse’s bridle, he knocked one down, on which the other shot him through the hat, and he escaped from them.”
April 9th, 1766. – “On Wednesday two footpads attacked and robbed several persons near Whittington’s stone, Highgate Hill, particularly a Post-chaise, and a Gentleman on horseback, of a considerable sum and his watch; they returned him two shillings to pay his expenses to London. They remained on the spot some time, and obliged several persons to dismount.”
Jan. 1751. – “On Saturday night a Gentleman was robbed of his watch and five guineas near Highgate by a single Highwayman with a crape on his face. A journey-man carpenter, with his bag of tools on his shoulder, seeing the action, told the gentleman that if he would lend him his horse he would pursue and take him; to which the Gentleman consented. The carpenter came up with the Highwayman at the entrance of Gray’s Inn Lane, and with the butt end of the whip knocked him off his horse and secured him. He was afterwards sent to the Gate House.”
August 24th, 1770. – “This morning the Post Boycarrying the Chester mail was robbed at the foot of Highgate Hill by a single highgwayman, who took out of his cart a small mail containing twelve bags; £200 reward are offered for the discovery of the robber.”
17th May, 1777. – “Sunday evening a Gentleman returning to town from Highgate, was attacked by three footpads near Kentish Town, who carried him out of the road into a field, where they robbed him, stripped him quite naked, and then made off.”
1779. - “Friday evening about seven o’clock Mr. Hart and his wife were returning to town from Hatfield; three footpads stopped their post-chaise at the bottom of Highgate Hill, when the villains obliged them to get out, took what money they had, and examined the inside of the chaise, where they found a turkey and a hare, which they carried off, saying they should have a good Sunday’s dinner.”
1779. – “Yesterday as – Nendick, Esq., and his lady were returning from a visit from Hornsey Lane, they were attacked in their chariot at half-past nine at night, in the middle of the town of Highgate, by two highwaymen, who each with a case of loaded pistols demanded their money, and after robbing them of their purses, watches, etc., rode off.”
1770. – “On Monday towards evening as Robert Jackson , Esq., his Lady and Daughter were coming to town, they were stopped at the bottom of Highgate Hill by two highwaymen; one held a pistol to the servant behind, while the other presented a pistol to Mr. Jackson and demanded his money; at which Mrs. Jackson was much alarmed, whereupon the highwayman took his pistol away, when Mr. Jackson delivered his purse with ten guineas, Mrs. Jackson gave hers without being asked for, and the young lady was feeling for her money, but some horsemen coming along, the highwayman rode off full speed up the hill.”