Delightful to be Robbed
- 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.’
The Folvilles’ plea that they were trying to right wrongs that could not be rectified otherwise was the standard justification of the outlaw. The judge robbed by the brothers was said to have ‘sold the laws as if they were oxen or cows’. In William Langland’s Piers Plowman is a reference to ‘Folvilles’ laws’, under which men were entitled to ‘ride and recover’ by force from wicked men what had been unlawfully acquired. Piers Plowman also contains references to that ‘deeply obscure figure’, Robin Hood, a hero of much legend but little substance. Spraggs notes that Robin Hood has been portrayed by Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits as the archetype of the ‘social bandit’ who championed his people against oppression and redistributed wealth to accord with his own idea of social justice. But she is unconvinced. ‘This Robin Hood’ – of legend – ‘is an imaginatively and morally satisfying figure, who has had an enormous literary and cultural influence. But he is not to be found in any of the medieval texts. The Robin Hood of the original legend is a highway robber. He is usually represented as courteous and generous, at any rate to those who take his fancy, but he is a robber just the same.’ Attempts to portray him as of noble birth are idle fiction.
The myth of Robin Hood was well established by the time the sparkish Prince Harry, the future Henry V, was engaged in mischievous highway robberies, possibly little more than royal horseplay, along with that other ‘gentleman robber’ Falstaff (as unreliably described in Shakespeare’s Henry IV). Spraggs, surprisingly, rates Prince Harry as second only to Robin Hood in the national tradition of bold robber heroes, but how much did the royal tearaway really contribute to the popularisation of highway robbery?
That it was increasingly rampant there is no doubt. By the turn of the 14th century the roads of England were so riddled with robbers, on horse and foot, that the people were petitioning the King to restrain ‘the great ones of the land’ from maintaining such rogues in their entourage, either secretly or openly. In the late 1470s a redeeming aspect to this brigandage was discerned by Sir John Fortescue, a former Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Writing on the governance of England he found occasion to compare the bravery of the English and the French. The English were obviously the braver nation, he argued, because English robbers were so much bolder than French ones, and more men were hanged for robbery in England in one year than in seven years in France. The French simply lacked the heart and stomach to rob a man face to face. These views were not just the one-off caprice of a jesting Pilate, unique in their day; Spraggs is able to show that they were echoed in near-identical terms, three hundred years later, by ‘of all people’ the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Visitors to Britain supported Fortescue, never ceasing to comment on the boldness of English robbers and even on their stout bearing on the gallows. In late Elizabethan years the Jesuit Robert Parsons conjectured that there was more highway robbery in England than probably anywhere in the world. The miscreants ‘were sometimes of no base Condition, or Quality . . . but rather Gentlemen, or wealthy Men’s Sons, moved thereunto not so much of poverty and necessity, as of light estimation of the fault, and hope of Pardon from the Prince’. That hope of a purchasable pardon cherished by the upper orders did much to keep highway robbery alive.
Traditionally the greenwood had been the refuge of the outlaw, but as cities expanded their rookeries and Alsatias offered a better bolt-hole. More and more, the well-born robber gave way to the career criminal, with no valid claim to be righting social wrongs. He worked in league with corrupt innkeepers, who informed him of the movements of wealthy travellers. Because so many were privy to his trade he was forced to lead a life of what passed for good fellowship, lavishly treating hangers-on who would otherwise not hesitate to shop him, and that included his retinue of doxies. Once the open-handedness ended, betrayal could be expected. The most famous 17th-century highwayman was Claude Du Vall, a cook’s son who assumed the graces of a gentleman. It was he who supposedly held up a coach containing a knight and his lady and invited that lady to dance a spirited coranto with him, later accepting only £100 of the £400 her complaisant husband had with him. After execution at Tyburn his body was exposed in a tavern in St Giles where ladies of fashion crowded to pay homage, until the judge who had passed sentence called an end to the entertainment. Sir William Morton, a strong foe of highwaymen, had let it be known that he would resign from the bench if a pardon were granted. The church in which Du Vall was buried seems to have raised no objection to an epitaph which began: ‘Here lies Du Vall. Reader, if male thou art,/Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.’
The complaisance shown by the husband of Duval’s partner in the coranto prompts the thought: would it not have been better if visitors to Britain, instead of praising the bravery of English robbers, had dwelled on the supineness with which English travellers handed over their possessions, resisting any inclination to ‘have a go’? It was a matter for nice judgment. As Spraggs explains, without the threat of death cast by the ‘bad’ robber, the ‘good’ robber could not operate – ‘In effect, it is the “bad” robber who does the “good” robber’s work for him.’ Dr Johnson, an absentee from these pages, was urged by his rich friend John Taylor not to go to Streatham ‘or you must shoot a highwayman . . . I would rather be robbed than do that.’ Johnson replied: ‘But I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than afterwards swear against him at the Old Bailey, to take away his life after he has robbed me.’ This may well have been the sentiment of many victims, unwilling to face the onus of identification. It is not easy to picture the shambling Doctor engaged in a roadside fire fight.
Good or bad, highwaymen somehow had to be extirpated. At the end of the 17th century an Act of Parliament offered rewards as high as £40 for the capture of highway robbers and immunity to those who gave away their accomplices. The second of these offers brought steady results, since honour played little part in good fellowship. The appointment of thief-takers brought additional success at the expense of much double dealing. Among the new century’s leading highwaymen was Dick Turpin, described here as a ‘particularly vicious criminal’, who began as a violent housebreaker. By the time he was seized at York for horse stealing his reputation as an elusive daredevil with a gift for horsemanship was such that an admiring mob snatched his body from the anatomists. He died in 1739, a decade after John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera had audaciously set up the highwayman as a figure of romance. In his original version Gay had destined his dashing and wildly promiscuous Captain Macheath for the gallows, but when informed that this would offend ‘the taste of the town’ he laid on a happy ending. The Beggar’s Opera with its mock-heroics may have been intended as a satire on a corrupt state, but for a century or so Gay was accused of encouraging the young to take the road of crime. Dr Johnson, now quoted for the last time, seemed uncertain as to its evil influence, but then pronounced, by way of a ‘heavy stroke’: ‘There is in it such a labefactation of all principles as may be injurious to morality.’
The popularity of the opera did nothing to diminish the turbulent swarms of Londoners who jeered or cheered the Captain Macheaths on their way to Tyburn, where they were expected to display either that fortitude or insouciance so much admired by foreigners. Sometimes the scene at the gallows took on an unexpected form. In 1777 when Dr William Dodd was hanged for forgery, involving a sum of £4000, his companion on the scaffold was a youth called Joseph Harris who had robbed the Islington coach, his booty consisting of two half-sovereigns and some silver. The sight of this 15-year-old, clutched by his grey-haired father, a swooning Lear-like figure, almost upstaged the spectacle of the town’s most fashionable divine being turned off. It was a dark irony for Dodd. Five years earlier, when his coach was attacked by a highwayman, his evidence had led to the culprit’s execution.
In the early 19th century, thanks to improved policing and safer ways of transmitting money, Shooters Hill and Hounslow Heath were losing much of their terror. The end of the wars with France freed thousands of soldiers and sailors, many of whom in other times might have been tempted into highway robbery; as it was a number of the hardier spirits indulged in a late orgy of piracy, harassing the West Atlantic and the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, and displaying little of the gentlemanly approach in the process. The tale now takes on a new twist. Though the days of ‘Stand and deliver!’ were numbered, the legend of the high tobyman was about to receive a powerful and enduring new stimulus. In 1830 Edward Bulwer-Lytton published his novel Paul Clifford, featuring ‘one of those accomplished and elegant highwaymen . . . by whom it would have been delightful to have been robbed’, not so much a highway thug as a gentil, parfit knight. The popularity of Paul Clifford inspired William Harrison Ainsworth’s hugely successful Rookwood, renowned for its thrilling account of Dick Turpin’s ride to York. Ainsworth turned out his hundred-page description of an event which never happened in 24 hours, experiencing a ‘singular delight’ in so doing. Like Gay, he was heavily attacked for putting a smiling face on villainy and setting the worst example to youth. In turn, Rookwood was the release signal for an extraordinary flood of highwayman-based ‘penny dreadfuls’, which Spraggs mentions but does not investigate. The literary pirate Edward Viles wrote Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road in 254 weekly parts, a total of 2028 pages, believed to be the longest penny-issue publication on record, following it up with a second series, The Black Highwayman. A rival penny shocker, The Blue Dwarf, in which Turpin was the tool of a dilapidated goblin of Gothic provenance, had a preface pointing out that many modern ways of making money were infinitely more nefarious than taking it by force: ‘The cheating done by lawyers and bankers whose clients trust them, the hundred and one ways of levying blackmail by men in power and with influence in any place of trust, the disgraceful sweating exercised on professions where such mean tricks were never supposed to have been heard of, are infinitely more despicable than highway robbery.’ Such were Folvilles’ laws, brought up to date for the masses, the noodles who were content to dig and plough while their masters wallowed in greed and extortion. The mainstream press from time to time raged about this subversive stuff, which probably had no more of a criminalising effect than Westerns in a later age. The Quarterly Review complained that the women followers of these ‘Captain Midnights’ and ‘Moonlight Jacks’ were represented as ‘queens of beauty and romance, whose venal caresses are the rightful guerdon of skill, daring and dash’, a reminder that in real life the dazzling Letitia Lade, a former mistress of John Rann, or ‘Sixteen-String Jack’, hanged at Tyburn, was a popular figure in the train of the young Prince of Wales (George IV) at Brighton. It was left to an eminent man of letters to acclaim the cult of the high tobyman in the loftiest of terms, with scarcely a glimmer of reservation. In a passage which Gillian Spraggs has done well to disinter, Thomas de Quincey, in the grip of a severe bout of nostalgia, described highwaymen as members of ‘a liberal profession, which required more accomplishments than either the Bar or the pulpit; from the beginning it presumed a most bountiful endowment of heroic qualifications – strength, health, agility, and exquisite horsemanship, intrepidity of the first order, presence of mind, courtesy and a general ambidexterity of powers for facing all accidents.’ All this and more. How many of us, if offered this passage in a quiz and invited to name the occupation described, would have come up with the correct answer? Outlaws and Highwaymen encourages us to think twice about our attitude to crime and criminals. Was there not a widespread admiration for the boldness and prowess of the Great Train Robbers – and particularly for the one who escaped? Are not florists’ emptied for miles around for an East End thug’s funeral? Have cinema and TV bred in us an unhealthy admiration for Mafia godfathers? At least there seems little risk of the latest Booker winner being charged with labefactation of the public morals by his revisionist study of the Kelly gang.