Highwaymen: capture and punishment

Dick TurpinThe word ‘highwayman’ is thought to have entered the English language in 1617, but became a more ubiquitous term after the English Civil War, when outlawed, disaffected, pistol-owning royalist officers – unskilled in trade and unable to find work – sought means of supporting themselves by robbery on the road.

Romanticised in legend, the line between romantic folklore and criminal fact has at times been blurred. But what is clear is that in 1692, an ‘Act of Parliament for the Apprehending of Highway Men’ established monetary reward for the capture of highwaymen, and immunity to those who gave away their accomplices.

Appeals for those yet to be captured were circulated in the burgeoning press. The Gazette contains descriptions of these notorious men who terrorised the country’s roads with a certain amount of flair, and the occasional show of violence.

Richard Turpin

Dick Turpin is probably the most famous of all highwaymen. An appeal for the capture of Turpin and other wanted criminals of the ‘Essex gang’, with whom Turpin began life as a serial (sometimes violent) thief, appeared in The Gazette in 1734 (Gazette issue 7379). This was for the poaching of deer, at that time a capital offence (since the passing of the Black Act, 1723, Gazette issue 6574), before he turned to highway robbery:

‘The Persons undernamed are charged upon Oath for committing several Robberies in Essex, Middlesex, Surry, and Kent, and are not yet taken, for each of whom a Reward of Fifty Pounds is advertised in the Gazettes of the 4th and 7th of January last past, and of the 8th and 11th of this Instant February.’

One member, Samuel Gregory, is described as ‘about Five Feet Seven Inches high, has a Scar about an Inch and half long in his light Cheek, is fresh colour’d, wears a brown Wig, and about 23 Years old, is a Smith or Farrier by Trade.’

Thomas Rowden was ‘a little Man, well-set, fresh coloured and full faced, has small Pockholes in his Face, wears a Blue Grey Coat, and A light Wig, a Pewterer by Trade, aged about Thirty Years’ and Herbert Haines, ‘a Barber or Perriwig maker by Trade… is about Five Feet Seven Inches high, of a pale Complexion, wears a brown Wig, and a Brick colour'd Cloth Coat, aged about 24 Years.’

And Richard Turpin, ‘a Butcher by Trade, is a tall fresh colour'd Man, very much marked with the Small Pox about 26 Years of Age, about Five Feet Nine Inches high, lived some Time ago at White-chappel, and did lately Lodge somewhere about Millbank, Westminster, wears a Blew Grey Coat, and a light natural Wig.’

The gang were far from lovable rogues, often torturing the inhabitants of the houses they broke into to force them to reveal where their valuables were hidden.

Turpin shoots Matthew King and Thomas Morris

A number of Gazette issues contain an advertisement for the capture of Dick Turpin in June 1737. By now, Turpin had escaped to his old haunt, Epping Forest, where he was hiding following the shooting of Matthew King, also a highwayman (thought to be in error). Turpin was spotted by a servant of the forest’s keepers, Thomas Morris, who he shot and killed when Morris had attempted to capture him. The reward was now a significant £200 for this wanted man (Gazette issue 7612):

‘Whereas it has been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did, on Wednesday the Fourth Day of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, Servant to Henry Tomson, one of the Keepers of Epping Forest; and that the said Richard Turpin hath, at divers Times, committed several notorious Felonies and Robberies in and near the said Forest, and other Places near the Cities of London and Westminster; His Majesty, for the better discovering and bringing the said Richard Turpin to Justice, it pleased to promise his most gracious Pardon to any one of the Accomplices of the said Richard Turpin, who shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted of any of the said Offences.

'And as a further Encouragement, his Majesty is pleased to promise a Reward of Two Hundred Pounds to any Person or Persons who shall discover the said Criminal, for as he may be apprehended and convicted as aforesaid, to be paid upon such Conviction, over and above all the Rewards to which the said Person or Persons may otherwise be entitled.’

It goes on to again describe Turpin’s appearance:

‘The said Richard Turpin was born at Thacksted, in the County Essex, is about Thirty Years of Age, by Trade a Butcher, about Five Feet Nine Inches high, of a brown Complexion, very much marked with the Small Pox, his Cheek bones broad, his Face thinner towards the Bottom, his Visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the Shoulders.’

Turpin escaped to York under the alias John Palmer. After robbing farmhouses and stealing horses in the area, he was arrested and imprisoned in York Castle, and was soon given the death sentence. Dressed in a new frock coat, Turpin was led to the gibbet and hanged, aged 34, on 7 April 1739.

John ‘Swift Nick’ Nevison

Yorkshire-born John Nevison, also known as William Nevison, was a notorious robber and highwayman, about which there are many conflicting stories. What separates him from Dick Turpin is that he is said to have shunned violence and only robbed the rich.

The nickname ‘Swift Nick’ was coined (allegedly by King Charles II) after Nevison had ridden a remarkable 200 miles to York from Kent in one day in 1676 to enable him to have an alibi after he had carried out a robbery. Once in York, he left his exhausted horse at an inn and laid a bet at a bowls match in clean clothes, making sure to engage the Lord Mayor of York in conversation. As travelling such a distance in a day was unthinkable at the time, this alibi was believable enough for him to be found not guilty.

Nevison’s gang of six outlaws met at the Talbot Inn at Newark and robbed travellers along the Great North Road in the years that followed. He was arrested several times, and his escape from jail in 1681 led to a public call for his capture. He had been sentenced to transportation to Tangier before his escape, when he went on to murder a constable, Darcy Fletcher, who was trying to arrest him (Gazette issue 1664):

‘Whereas John Nevison, committed at York Assizes in the year 1676 for Robbery and Horse stealing, was afterwards reprieved, upon promise to discover his Accomplices, and continuing in Goale for some years after, without making any such Discovery, he was at length ordered to be transported, and being taken out of Goale and listed in Captain Grahams Company designed for Tangier.

He immediately ran away, and has ever since absconded himself, and subsisted by Stealing and Robbing upon the High Ways, especially in the Countys of York, Derby, and Nottingham, and hath lately Murdered one Fletcher, who had a Warrant from a justice of Peace to apprehend him.

This is to give notice that His Majesty hath been pleased to Order the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury to cause the sum of Twenty pounds, to be paid to such Person or Persons as shall apprehend and secure the said Nevison to bring him to justice.’

Perhaps this call helped to enable his capture – after which he again escaped in 1681, this time by playing dead and procuring an accomplice to pretend to be a doctor and pronounce him dead of the plague. He was arrested for the final time in 1684, and was hanged at the Knavesmire, York.

Claude Duval

Reputedly the most gallant of all highwaymen, Duval was born in Normandy in 1643 and moved to England to become a footman to the Duke of Richmond. At some point he turned to highway robbery, operating roads leading to London from the north.

During one robbery attempt, Duval the charmer took only a small amount of loot when the gentleman victim allowed him to dance a coranto with his wife, later accepting only £100 of the £400 her husband had on his person. This incident was immortalised in a painting by William Powell Frith, but the story has many versions. Nevertheless, the authorities offered a large reward for Duval’s capture, and on 20 January 1669 (Gazette issue 437), confirmation of the execution at Tyburn of this courteous rogue for six robberies was published:

‘London, Jan. 21 On Monday last at the Sessions held at The Old Bailey for the City of London and County of Middlesex, was condemned that notorious highway man and Robber Claude de Val, Six Indictments having been found against him, of many more that were there ready to be proved if it had been necessary; this day he was publickly executed at Tyburn, His Majesty having immediately upon his first being taken, excluded him from all hopes of pardon, upon what intercession soever, He having notwithstanding His Majesties Proclamations, persevered in his infamous course of life in defiance of justice and in great affront to His Majesties Government.’

An excerpt from the inscription on Duval's gravestone at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, reads:

‘Here lies Du Vall: Reader, if Male thou art/Look to thy purse; if Female, to thy heart.’

Philip Twysden

Kent-born Philip Twysden was consecrated as Bishop of Raphoe from 1747 to 1752, having been nominated by King George II. An Oxford graduate and doctor of civil law, he is said to have become bankrupt after spending the family’s savings in London. The story goes that he was killed when he turned highwayman and carried out the stagecoach robbery of a doctor one November night on Hounslow Heath in 1752.

His promotion appears in The Gazette on 28 February 1746 (Gazette issue 8619): ‘And also for the Promotion of the Reverend Dr. Philip Twysden to the See of Raphoe’.    

The Gazette documents no wrongdoing on Twysden’s part, perhaps in line with the cause of death being circulated that it was due to an inflammation. Notification of his death and his successor appeared on 1 January 1753 (Gazette issue 9229): ‘The King has been pleased to order Letters Patent to be passed under the Great Seal of the Kingdom of Ireland, for the Translation of the Right Reverend Father in God, Doctor Robert Downes, Bishop of Down and Connor, to the Bishopric of Raphoe, vacant by the Death of Doctor Philip Twysden, late Bishop thereof.’

Lesser-known highwaymen

Other highwaymen who may not have made it into folklore but were no less infamous at the time, were also documented in the Gazette, with some particularly lively descriptions, such as these two men awaiting trial at Newgate Prison in 1679 for whom there is a call for witnesses (Gazette issue 1446):

‘Two notorious Highwaymen, viz Thomas French, formally convicted for Robberies on the Highways at Oxon; he is a tall lusty black Man, short black hair, black hat, a white camlet Coat lined with serge of the same colour, a strait well limbed man speaks a little through the nose, his strait coat of a dark grey colour, and a pair of Buff Breeches, aged 30 years or thereabouts. Benjamin Penrin, a thick, well-fed Man, light brown short hair, pock-broken, with several Cuts in his face, viz. the forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin; he is a reputed Fencer he wears a brown camlet Coat, lined with, blew serge, a light coloured Hat, a strait Coat and Breeches of a cinnamon colour, a Waistcoat underneath of flowered Silk, laced the Sleeves with a silver or counterfeit Lace, aged betwixt 30 and 40.’

Another ‘felonious’ highway robbery, this time of Elizabeth Watson by two men on foot, is described in an advertisement in The Gazette, 11 April 1741 (Gazette issue 8005). The detail goes as far as to describe a wart on one of the men's fingers:

‘Elizabeth Watson, Wife of William Watson, of Helmsley Blakeamoor, in the County of York, on Thursday the Twenty Sixth Day of March last, between the Hours of Seven and Eight of the Clock in the Morning, was set upon assaulted and robbed in the King's Highway by two Men on Foot, to the said Elizabeth unknown, the one a middle sized Man, with a round full Face, strong made and a little Bulky, with a large crook'd headed Stick in his Hand, having on a dark Moor Grey Coat, light coloured Stockings, and a white Cap under his Hat, seemed to be about Thirty Years of Age, but had then his Face black'd; the other a tall slender Man, long visaged, having on a Drab coloured double breasted Coat, with a pretty large Cape, dark blue worsted Stockings, and a white Cap under his Hat, had a large seeded Wart upon his Right Hand near the low Joint of his fore Finger, and a large round headed Stick in his Hand, seemed to be about Thirty Years of Age, but had his Face then also black'd'

It goes on to describe the treatment doled out to the unfortunate victim: 'after they had so robb'd her they tyed her Hands behind her Back, and both her Legs together, and wrap'd up a Stone in her Handkerchief and put the same into her Mouth, and so left her'.

There is sometimes a sense of the victim’s turn of phrase in the descriptions, such as of these two highwaymen armed with pistols who robbed brandy merchant James Smith in 1795, for example (Gazette issue 13853): ‘One of which Men was about five Feet Eight Inches high, stout made, and rather inclinable to be fat; appeared to be about Thirty-five Years of Age, dark coloured Hair cut short, and wanted shaving very much’. 

In once instance, a community rallied round to assist in the capture of John Shrimpton, a highwayman who had extensively pillaged the area of High Wycombe and who was hanged in 1713 for robbery and murder (Gazette issue 5028):

‘Whereas John Shrimpton, formerly Soap-boiler in the Town of High Wiccombe, in the County of Bucks, a lusty brown Man, generally wears a Wig, has lost the Sight of one eye, but not much disfigured therewith, hath committed several Robberies on the High Ways between London and Oxford (for several Months) to the great detriment of the said Town of Wiccombe: the Inhabitants of the said Town have, besides the 40 l allowed by an Act of Parliament, raised by Contribution the Sum of 20 l more; which said 20 l is lodged in the Hands of Thomas Philipson at the Amsterdam Coffee house behind the Royal Exchange in London, and shall be paid by him to any Person or Persons that shall, before the 25th of December next, apprehend to take the said John Shrimpton, so that he may be brought to justice.’

From John Hawkes, a yeoman who was 'violently assaulted' in November 1814 by two men who 'cut off a part of his left ear' before taking money (Gazette issue 16963), to a  post boy carrying the Norwich mail in March 1757 told to hand it over to a man on horseback 'otherwise he would blow his Brains out' (Gazette issue 9684), these were far from pleasant encounters. Post boys would ride alone between inns to collect post, often carrying cash, and were easy targets for highwaymen (Gazette issue 7920). Additional rewards for capture of attackers were frequently offered by the General Post Office over and above the amount offered by the Act of Parliament. 

The last mounted highway robbery in England is said to have taken place in 1831, with documenting of incidents in The Gazette rare from about 1818.

Image: 'Dick Turpin shoots fellow highwayman, Tom King', Mary Evans Picture Library