Gentlemen of the Road
During the Middle Ages, the only road maintenance carried out in
England was by monks. Pilgrim routes were cleared for the benefit
of devout travellers. When Henry VIII closed the monasteries, this
work ceased. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, there were no
easy roads in the entire country. Rutted mud tracks and overgrown
paths made journeys by coach a hazardous and slow business. They
also provided opportunities for bold robbers on fast horses. The
highwayman was born. The first on record was Gamaliel Ratsey, son
of a lord, and former soldier in the Irish campaign of the Earl
of Sussex. He roamed East Anglia with a sack on his head and slits
for his pitiless eyes. Later he constructed a mask in the shape
of a hobgoblin with enormous ears which tended to catch on branches.
He was knocked to the dirty ground in more than one forest chase.
But he eluded justice for several decades, until, typically, the
treachery of a friend delivered him to the clumsy hangman.
Another early highwayman was John Clavel, who altered his disguise for each attack.
His favourite spot for an ambush was Gad's Hill on the London to Dover road.
He bribed the landlords of local taverns and inns to shelter and protect him.
His skill at impersonating judges, bishops, nobles, ambassadors and politicians
was deemed remarkable. His luck ran out when he accidentally dressed as himself
and tried to rob a carriage near Rochester. The passenger was a distant relative
who recognised his true face and reported the incident to Clavel's stern father.
An arrest followed. But the hangman was cheated of a victim on this occasion,
for the court accepted an appeal for mercy. The prisoner was granted a Royal
Pardon on condition that he write a treatise advising passengers how to avoid
being robbed on the road. He was also required to serve a year in the army against
France. His book sold well and he retired in luxury in 1642, dying just a few
The third pioneer of this profession was Thomas Sympson, one of the few who survived
to a ripe age before his capture. He often wore a skirt and preferred to be addressed
as 'Old Mobb'. He rode sidesaddle whenever possible and enjoyed a reputation
as a gentle spirit. He rarely murdered his victims, never tortured them and frequently
blew them kisses. He was even willing to accept cheques. He once robbed Sir Bart
Shower in Devon and requested a money order for £150. Binding his victim
and storing him under a hedge, he rode into Exeter and cashed the note at a goldsmith's.
Then he returned to free Sir Shower. Although he ended his career at the end
of a rope, still garbed as a woman, his total number of hold-ups was higher than
all his competitors save one. It was noted with astonishment at the execution
that the official hangman seemed to be wearing lipstick on his collar. Sympson
had buried the majority of his loot. Potentially, he died very rich. He never
Thereafter, every disinherited son and gambling debtor wanted to try his luck
on the road. There were lady highwaymen too, highwaymanesses, angry and vulgar,
smoking tobacco and learning to cheat at cards and duel with double barrelled
pistols and sabres. Mary Frith was one; Maud Merton was another. Mary knew how
to spit across a wide room. Maud could puff eight pipes in one mouth. Very different
from this pair was Catherine Ferrers, wife of a lord, rich enough not to rob
travellers, but much too bored to resist the adventure. She used a secret passage
to move from her bedroom to the grounds of her manor house.
The Royalist highwaymen, Captain James Hind, Thomas Allen and John Cottington,
decided to combine crime with patriotism, assaulting mostly Parliamentarians
and sundry anti-monarchists. They once made an attempt on the coach of Oliver
Cromwell, but his guards killed Allen and chased Hind and Cottington off. Hind
was finally captured at Worcester in 1652. He suffered the dreadful punishment
of being hung, drawn and quartered. Gold coins spilled out of his chopped bowels.
Cottington was apprehended in 1659. He was luckier in his designated agony. He
bribed the judge at his trial and was merely sentenced to be strangled with a
cord made from the tails of twelve diseased rats.
The strangest pair of highwaymen to ever circulate around the roads of a perilous
England were undoubtedly Guy Halfaface and Double Pugh. In accordance with a
neat destiny, they paired up one midnight on Hounslow Heath. Guy lacked most
of his skull, having lost it abroad, probably in France. Pugh had a spare one
growing out of his shoulder. He was in fact two men in one body, conjoined twins,
almost completely superimposed on each other, with just the surplus head to disrupt
the alignment. There was no need for Guy to wear a mask: the mass of bandages
which held his damaged mind in place was both a disguise and a distinguishing
mark. As for Pugh, two masks were necessary.
Both men were unsuccessful at robbery until they found themselves victims of
a mutual hold-up. Neither knew where to aim his pistol. They became partners.
They shared the hatred of commoners and the mistrust of outlaws. But they operated
in tandem for a year, before Guy's bandages were caught in thorns as he rode
through undergrowth. They unravelled and his exposed brain was pecked by magpies
while he was still in the saddle. Pugh continued alone for another month, but
his forgetfulness proved to be his undoing. He neglected to mask his second head.
It was later recognised in a tavern and sentenced to be hung. His main head was
acquitted due to lack of evidence, but it eventually starved to death as he dangled
from the gallows.
Less desperate and more robust, William Davis kept his villainous activities
secret from his wife and children. They believed that he was a simple farmer
who ploughed all his fields at night with a blunderbuss and cutlass. One fateful
evening, after drinking too much ale, he tried to rob a coach with a trowel and
bag of carrot seed. He was chained to a post on Bagshot Heath and his clothes
were filled with earth and planted with root crops. He was regularly fed and
watered by his wife, but within a season he was fully crushed to death by the
growing parsnips in his shirt and breeches. Inevitably his corpse was stolen
by graverobbers and sold to vegetarian witches in Surrey.
The most glamorous highwayman of all was an import. Claude Duval was born in
Normandy and decided to work the roads of England because his accent would charm
the female passengers of the coaches he robbed into parting with their jewellery
without a fight. He was not mistaken. He quickly earned a reputation as a dancer,
singer and kisser, a dandy who charged helpless husbands £100 a time for
the privilege of watching him seduce their wives in roadside ditches. Unusually,
he retired from the job before the authorities terminated his career for him.
Unwisely he chose alchemy as his next profession, and expired after falling into
a vat of molten lead which he planned to transmute into gold with the aid of
a forged spellbook and a jar of powdered unicorn horn.
The Defaulted Wife
The only highwayman who ever amassed more loot than Thomas Sympson lived half
a century later. Unlike 'Old Mobb' he had no compassion or interest in fashion.
He was a brute of the utmost gloating, a drooling idiot who yet possessed enough
aptitude to arrange a beneficial image for himself. He was born Richard Dick,
but he instinctively understood the advantages of pilfering the identities and
achievements of other robbers. There was a local highwayman by the name of Dean
Pinter who rode a mule instead of a horse and thus enjoyed a brief career. Richard
stole his surname and rearranged its two syllables, condemning its original owner
to historical oblivion. A misspelling completed the theft. Thus Dick Turpin emerged
not from a womb but from his own unthinking head. His first act as an outlaw
was to stab the only schoolmaster in his village and abduct his pencils, which
he subsequently ate.
The county of Essex was notorious for the low level of education of its citizens.
Turpin decided that they were too clever for him and so he moved to London. By
the time he arrived, he forgot he was supposed to be a highwayman. He secured
employment as a butcher. The man who gave him the job was a smuggler of venison,
which was a meat only licensed to the teeth of aristocrats. Turpin was sent into
the forests beyond London to kill deer and bring them back hidden beneath cartloads
of vegetables. He discharged his duty admirably but not without a measure of
confusion. It later emerged that he attempted to rob the deer before shooting
them, demanding that they hand over their purses and gems. On one occasion, he
rode back on a deer, with his dead horse in the cart. His employer knew a doctor
who agreed to examine Turpin. The diagnosis was 'brain pox' and the recommended
cure was the wearing of a hat made from a hedgehog. The patient was not allowed
to remove it even in bed. Turpin used it as an extra pocket, impaling small objects
on its spines.
In June 1727, returning to his lodgings after work, he lost his way in the fog
and entered the wrong house. The woman who lived there was so shocked by the
appearance of the dirty rogue she was unable to protest. This condition persisted
for the remainder of her life. Dick Turpin was forced to assume he was her husband.
There was no other explanation for her existence in his abode. He could not remember
the wedding, but that was a minor detail and could be shrugged off. She cooked
him a meal and they slept together that night. The bedroom was full of mirrors.
In the morning, he rose and tried to demand money off his own reflection. Then
perceiving there were more of them than him, he backed away. Perhaps he slipped
on a rug. At any rate, he struck his head on the sharp corner of a chair. The
result of this blow was temporary amnesia, and a doubling of his intelligence,
for he completely forgot he was incompetent. Even so, he remained stupid and
The Lunatic Ride
Exactly a year later, his employer, wealthy on the profits of Turpin's hunting
of deer, bought his protégé his own butcher's shop. The gift was
received with panic. Turpin understood only that his responsibilities had increased.
His initial reaction was to raise money to bribe them to shrink again. Banditry
against humans seemed the only answer. He fled with his wife to the marshes of
Canvey Island, a desolate region settled by other robbers. One by one he relieved
them of their savings. Rumours filtered back to him that he was the most wanted
man in England. After sunset, lanterns fixed to long poles carried by men on
stilts flickered over the stagnant waters. Bounty hunters were searching for
him. Within a month, he amassed enough lamps to open a lantern shop. He dwelled
in a reed hut which he built with his own wife's hands. It was illuminated on
the inside by wills-o'-the-wisp which flared and moved across his sodden rugs.
By this light, she read him books.
In such a fashion, Turpin came to learn of his predecessors in the business.
The tale of William Nevison was his favourite. Nevison earned himself the nickname
of 'Swift Nick' for one daring exploit. Following a robbery at Gad's Hill, Kent,
he galloped all the way to the city of York in fifteen hours. The distance was
approximately 200 miles. Considering the average speed of 14 miles per hour for
a healthy horse, it is clear that Nevison must have changed steeds many times.
Nearly two centuries later, George Osbaldeston, a champion rider, duplicated
the feat using no less than 28 different horses. The point of the ride was to
exclude Nevison from suspicion. When he was arrested for the robbery in Kent,
he called witnesses who swore on oath to have spoken to him on the same day in
York. The court judged it impossible for a man to cover the distance between
the two locations in so short a time. They acquitted him. It was a ploy which
might only work once.
Turpin comprehended nothing of Nevison's reasons for the adventure. He cared
only for its superficial excellence. He decided to claim it for his own. He painted
his wife with tar, fixed a hairy tail to her rump, ordered her to walk on all
fours and started referring to her as 'Black Bess'. Then he led her back to London.
She was his horse, he insisted, and had carried him from Kent to York without
pausing at all. Although sixty years had passed since Nevison accomplished the
stunt for real, the public swallowed Turpin's version of events. Nevison was
forgotten. In 1834, the historical novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth, published
his first book, Rookwood, which supported all Turpin's lies and added a few of
its own. This story established him in the public mind as a bold and romantic
hero, an outcast only because of social injustices and the corruption of the
law. The highwayman once buried a bag of silver coins in a field. Perhaps he
guessed that any future writer who found it would regard it as fair payment for
a positive literary portrait. Ainsworth's house was constructed on that site.
Yet Another Turpin
Already the toast of London high society for his supposed sophistication and
chivalrous qualities, Turpin had a lucky encounter on Putney Heath which enhanced
the mirage of his character considerably. He tried to rob another renowned highwayman,
Thomas King, who laughed in his face at the irony. The mistake proved advantageous
to Turpin. They decided not only to team up, but also to swap identities. King
was a genuine hero of the roads, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor,
with a modest 25% handling fee. Turpin was an indiscriminate butcher and buffoon.
Both were wanted by the authorities. Clearly if King pretended to be Turpin,
and Turpin to be King, they might be safe from execution, for they would be arrested,
charged, tried and sentenced under incorrect names and thus could not be legally
hung. It was an inspired idea. Unaware that Turpin was a brute, King assumed
with everybody else he was a dashing hero like himself. The final result of this
exchange was a perfect reputation for the monster and an appalling one for the
Turpin moved to a second hut in the depths of a forest and emerged only to slaughter
travellers who alerted him by breaking dry twigs with the hooves of their mounts.
King roamed the whole of England, bowing to ladies and feeding orphans. Turpin
licked gore from his hands. King was invited to weddings and birthdays. Turpin
dressed in mud and leaves and resolved not to speak in words. King wrote exquisite
poetry and sang to a guitar. Turpin rotated all his loose teeth in their sockets
until they faced backward and went blind in one eye because he forgot to blink
it. His amnesia had worn off. He was better, and thus much worse. King felt there
was nothing amiss with men who wore pink, and encouraged families from the poorest
countries in the world to emigrate to England, helping them fill in the application
forms. Turpin grunted his wife to death. King sniffed flowers. Turpin did not.
Everything now attributed to Turpin was the work of King. The smile and manners,
sensitivity and sense of honour. King continued to sanctify the name of Turpin,
acting on the misunderstanding that Turpin was doing the same for him. One morning,
an hour before dawn, a lone horseman with a sack of gold and food deliberately
rode off the designated trail in an isolated wood. Turpin heard the snapping
twigs and leaped out of his hut with his blunderbuss. He had brought no shot
with him, so he plucked the spines out of his hat and pushed them into the barrel.
When the stranger came close, he discharged this weapon directly into his face.
The victim did not die immediately. He fell to the ground, gasped that his name
was Dick Turpin and that his blood had stopped circulating. "I have pins
and needles in both cheeks," he cried. Then he added that he had heard about
a very poor man who lived alone in the forest and that he had come with money
and cakes as a gift. He said no more.
The real Turpin stood and scratched his head, the first time he had been able
to do so without puncturing his fingertips. He decided to look for this poor
man in the hut. Perhaps he could rob him. He strode off in a northerly direction,
because he had once been told that the north was higher than the south, and he
wished to have a clear view of anybody who might be pursuing him. To his surprise,
the way was mostly downhill. The hut must have been very elusive or cleverly
disguised. After a week, he came to the edge of the forest. His hunger rapidly
increased. He saw no reason why he could not catch and cook his own meals. He
met a tinker selling kitchen implements. He licked his lips. The entire world
can be a hut, he realised, and very poor men are everywhere.
Turpin was arrested in October 1738 on the charge of stealing a grouse and trying
to boil a saucepan over it. He was deemed mad and his thumbs were severed in
an attempt to cure him, for it was widely believed that picking one's nose was
the sole cause of insanity. Showing few signs of improvement, he was sentenced
to death, together with the grouse, at the end of March 1739. The jury recognised
him as the depraved Thomas King. It was lamented that he had none of the courage,
style or decency of the famous Dick Turpin. He slept through most of his execution,
awakening in time to jump from the scaffold in order to break his own neck and
avoid a slow strangulation. The force was not great enough. It did not matter.
He was heard to snore loudly as the mob tugged at his feet to hasten his end.
He had fallen asleep again.