Delightful to be Robbed

E.S. Turner

  • Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the 19th century by Gillian Spraggs
    Pimlico, 372 pp, £12.50, November 2001, ISBN 0 7126 6479 3

The last time a ‘gentleman of the road’ cried ‘Stand and deliver!’ on an English highway is thought to have been in 1831. High tobymen, or horsed robbers, had yielded the field to low tobymen, or footpads, and roadside thieving had lost its traditional panache. By coincidence 1831 was the year the robber fraternity that had given the word ‘thug’ to the language came under terminal assault: the British in India, showing a zeal never displayed against England’s home-bred highwaymen, rounded up in six years 3266 devotees of thuggee, hanged 412 and imprisoned or transported hundreds more, extinguishing a centuries-old cult. The method of this religious fraternity had been to ingratiate themselves with travellers, strangle them suddenly with a scarf, then rob and bury them. By contrast, the English highwayman behaved, or tried to behave, like a gentleman, boldly confronting the victim at whose head he levelled a pistol, and refraining from shooting him unless he showed unreasonable resistance. This open method of challenge was held to show a manly courage on the part of the robber, such as a soldier might display in battle. Dr Johnson, praising the quality of courage, told Boswell: ‘We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch and knocks you down behind your back.’ Barabbas as a footpad was contemptible, but Barabbas armed and riding a fine horse was up for admiration. Similar standards did not exist elsewhere in a world much beset by brigandage, freebooting, dacoity and the insolence of outlaws. Hairy ruffians in the mountains of Italy, Greece and Turkey might have their peculiar codes of honour, but by no effort of imagination could they be described as gentlemen, or knights, of the road. Still less could Ireland’s rapparees.

Why, then, did the English show such respect for the armed robber on a horse? Why did they boast, jestingly or otherwise, that their highwaymen set an example to the world? Was the career of the highwayman – to think the not utterly unthinkable – perhaps a legitimate one for a well-born, high-spirited younger son unwilling to accept the discipline of Army, Church or Law, a man too proud to beg and too refined to dig? Was it equally an acceptable opening for the cast-off serving man of ambition who had seen enough of the good life to wish to share the pleasures that boldly seized wealth might bring? Was it fair that death on the gallows should be the reward of intrepid and sometimes prankish feats – especially if the victims were mere usurers, lawyers, bankers or tax-gatherers? These are some of the questions, not necessarily posed in those words, pondered by Gillian Spraggs in her scholarly, close-textured Outlaws and Highwaymen, which began as a thesis on the robber in Tudor and early Stuart times. Outstanding among her early villains is the Folville gang, headed by a rascally rector, who murdered a Leicestershire magnate and robbed one of Edward I’s trailbaston judges, before going on to commit numerous robberies in Lincolnshire. The gang were brothers, well-connected enough to buy pardons from the Crown, or to atone by serving in the King’s Army, but fatally drawn to highway robbery. The rector, Richard de Folville, was eventually dragged from his church by armed men and beheaded on the spot. ‘The records reveal so many thugs in holy orders,’ Spraggs writes, ‘that it has even been suggested that the astute professional malefactor may well have regarded clerical status as a useful qualification. A cleric could not be executed, though he might be jailed.’

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