The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


8    Jack Hawkins, Sixteen-String Jack & Gentleman James Maclean


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



This and the following four chapters will deal with specific branches of crime. Criminals were popularly classed in a hierarchy, with highwaymen at the top, pickpockets at the bottom, and footpads in the middle. As Archenholz noted in the 1770s, ‘The trade of a thief is divided into different classes, each having its particular maxims, customs, and denomination. . . . These different kinds of thieves remain faithful to their particular tenets.’ Crime was a semi-professional occupation, consisting of different trades, many of which had a system of apprenticeship. Though criminals began their careers in ‘bad company’, they quickly associated with specialized groups who regularly earned money in a particular criminal trade, and they advanced by regular stages in their career. An aspiring pickpocket would begin as a lookout, or as one who stands by to receive the stolen handkerchief or purse while the more experienced pickpocket does the actual snatching. Many pickpockets, footpads, housebreakers, and street robbers worked their way up through several levels of responsibility before being recognized by their colleagues as paid-up members of the profession. Old worn-out thieves would become ‘thieves’ watchmen’, scouting round town gathering information about events likely to attract large crowds which made pickpocketing easy, or noting houses or shops likely to be easy to break into. In writings about crime one often finds reference to ‘schools’, and the criminals themselves often spoke of themselves as being schooled in their trade. Rogues’ cant, discussed in Chapter 6, was one of the tools for communicating knowledge among the criminal professions.

            The division between highwaymen and footpads or pickpockets was quite clear in their own eyes, even though highwaymen were sometimes called ‘Gentlemen of the Pad’. Archenholz observed in the 1770s that ‘A highwayman will never condescend to become a pick-pocket: he would think himself dishonoured, in attempting to empty any one’s pockets, by a low trick. Of such a falling off there are hardly any examples.’ The 20-year-old highwayman James O’Brien, who confessed to twelve robberies before being hanged at Tyburn in November 1730, ‘said, he always disdain’d, and thought it below him to commit petty thefts, such as pick-pocketing, &c. But thought it more becoming a manly spirit to attack coaches, and such people as he met upon the highway.’

            The popular stories about Robin Hood ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’ were a powerful framework for the self-perception of highwaymen, even though it seldom held true in the eighteenth century. As James Wright said after he was sentenced to be hanged in December 1721, ‘he thought it some extenuation of his crime that he chose to rob coaches, or such whose equipage shew’d them best able to sustain a loss; that he never would rob a poor man, but pitied him as much as himself, and that sometimes even in assaulting a traveller, who made a good appearance, he had done it with remorse, and with tears in his eyes.’ But the more likely truth is that highwaymen knew full well that you would earn more guineas by robbing a gentlemen than by robbing a labourer. Woe betide a man who looked like a gentleman but who did not carry enough cash or valuables to make a highwayman’s adventure worthwhile. ‘You ought to have your throat cut for not having a watch’, two footpads told an apothecary whom they robbed in Cavendish Square. ‘Damn you,’ exclaimed a highwayman to an apparent gentleman in Epping Forest who had only a few shillings on him, ‘what signifies shooting twenty rascals such as you, who have the figure of a gentleman without any money in your pocket.’

            Only very rarely did highwaymen have any political consciousness. Thomas Neale, a highwayman hanged in 1749, compared himself to the Jacobite martyr Lord Balmerino, beheaded in 1747, regarding him as a fellow victim of an illegitimate government. But contrary to modern theories of the ‘social bandit’, it is nearly impossible to find highwaymen who felt that their actions constituted a protest against social injustice. If they felt they were engaging in any kind of class war, it was perceived as the class of criminals versus the class of the authorities who were responsible for apprehending and punishing criminals. Jack Addison, who committed 56 robberies on foot before being convicted and hanged with two associates in 1711, age 23, once came upon a Serjeant of the Poultry Compter, from whom he took forty shillings. It was a common custom for the person robbed to ask for a shilling or two to be returned to them by the highway robber, and the robber usually did give a trifle back to them so they could continue their journey. The Serjeant asked if Addison would be civil enough to follow this custom. But Addison, who knew the Serjeant’s occupation, said he wouldn’t return him anything to save his life: ‘thou art the spawn of a broken shop-keeper, who takes delight in the ruin of thy fellow-creatures! The misery of a poor man, is the offals on which you feed, and money is the crust you leap at; your walks in Term-time, are up Fleet-street, but at the end of the Term, up Holborn, and so to Tyburn; for the gallows is your purlieu, in which you and the Hangman are Quarter-Rangers, the one turns off, and the other cuts down.’

            Highwaymen were generally proud of their exploits. They would brag about their adventures in the pubs and disorderly houses where they spent much of their time, and they enjoyed being able to play to a larger audience once they were arrested. Thomas Cross alias Phillips, who unusually attained the old age of 33 before being hanged (in February 1721), was, according to Villette the Ordinary of Newgate, ‘the most audacious rogue, that ever stretch’d a halter. He took a particular pride in his villainies: He swore that once about ten o’clock at night, he and Spiggot, robb’d a hundred passengers, whom they took out of several waggons, and, having bound them, set them all a’ row in the road.’ He swore and cursed while others were at prayers in the Chapel of Newgate, and sang ‘a reprobate ballad’. He kicked the other prisoners up and down the Condemned Hold till they asked that he be separated from them. His partner William Spiggot admitted to more than a hundred robberies, mainly on Hounslow Heath, sometimes towards Kingston. Two other men of their gang were transported to America. James Hogg, the regular receiver of their stolen goods, was tried but acquitted for insufficient evidence; he had previously been acquitted for the same offence a year earlier.


Gentlemen of the Road


Many highwaymen made an effort to live up to their role in the public imagination as ‘Gentlemen of the Road’. Thomas Butler, a highway robber hanged on 8 February 1721, went by the name of Squire Becket and ‘wore black velvet, laced ruffles, and every thing else answerable’, and his accomplice pretended to be his footman. He told the Ordinary of Newgate that he was Irish, age 42, and had worked in the Duke of Ormond’s house before committing a vast number of robberies in Kent and Essex. ‘I always affected to live generously upon what we got with so much hazard. I hired lodgings genteely furnished, sometimes in London, and sometimes in a considerable country-town. My dress was uncommonly rich. I never wanted good horses, and at proper times my companion Jack wore a livery, and attended me in quality of a footman, and thus wherever I came I appear’d as a man of fortune. ... It has been reported that I have had eight wives; but the report is entirely false, for I was never lawfully married to one.’ Isaac Darkin, another highwayman dandy, was very good-looking and always very well dressed. He was polite and witty and alluring to the women he robbed. He was convicted just before his twenty-first birthday. Many women visited him in the condemned cell to pledge their undying affection, and a huge crowd came to witness his execution in 1761, the ladies especially lamenting the sad end of such a fine young lad.

            William Page, a highwayman famous in the 1750s, took smart lodgings in Grosvenor Square and robbed fashionable people including the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Page lost most of his money gambling at Bath and Scarborough. He worked in partnership with William Darwell for three years, and they were said to have committed three hundred highway robberies during the preceding three or four years, mainly in the counties of Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, and Hertfordshire. Page made detailed maps of all the roads around London, and when he and Darwell decided where to commit that day’s robbery, they would ride out in smart phaeton, dressed in laced shirts and embroidered frock coats, then stop a short way out of town and change into their work clothes, of which the primary feature was a dark silk crape covering the face and shirt. After completing the robbery, they would return to the phaeton hidden in the woods and change back into gentlemen’s clothes. Highwayman and victim were sometimes quite civil towards one another. When Page and Darwell stopped the coach of John Webb, Esq., and took Webb’s gold watch and a purse containing nine guineas, Webb, fearing that he would be searched and the paper notes he carried would be discovered, pulled out twenty or thirty shillings in silver, and said, ‘I have got some silver if you'll have it.’ But Darwell said he ‘scorned to take any silver. Then I desired him to take a crown for a bowl of punch, so he took it.’ Page preferred robbing women, but the victim of his most famous hold-up was Lord Ferrers, who would become famous in 1760 for being the only nobleman hanged for murder. Page was twice acquitted at the Old Bailey, once on the technical defence that Lord Ferrers had been excommunicated for contempt of court previous to Page’s trial and therefore could not legally testify against Page. But Page was caught once again and hanged at Maidstone in April 1758. Darwell was tried for murdering a man in the course of robbing the Warrington Coach in February 1761. Instead of the usual ritual invocation ‘Stand and deliver’, on that occasion he demanded ‘Your money directly, or I'll blow your brains out’ – which he did, and was convicted of manslaughter.

            The families of most highwaymen seem to have been of the middling classes, and to have given their sons a good education and to have started them off as apprentices to a reasonable trade. But many of them were dissatisfied with low earnings from artisan trades, and many of them never completed their apprenticeships. They were often dissatisfied because their taste for women and extravagant living was greater than their more honest colleagues. Quite a few highwaymen took to the road after their small businesses went bankrupt, or to satisfy gaming debts. Men who robbed coaches had a history of more genteel occupations than common street robbers. Though their social and educational backgrounds were higher than that of most other sorts of thieves and criminals, they seldom came from the highest social stations. John Freelove, who was hanged for highway robbery in December 1733, at an earlier period had been Under-Gardener at Lord Gore’s. He and a companion, his brother-in-law, not captured, had been accustomed to staying at the stable where they kept their horses, and riding out about 8 p.m. and returning four or five hours later after finishing with their business. Several highwaymen were either parsons’ sons or parsons themselves, including James Maclean, to be discussed shortly. A highwayman apprehended for a robbery near Finchley was said to be the son of a gentleman of fortune. ‘He was much in liquor when he did the fact, and not in want of money, having at the time 70 guineas in his pocket. On being asked what induced him to commit the robbery, he replied, to shew his valour’ (London Chronicle, 7–9 Sept. 1766).

            William Wreathock, a well-educated and respectable attorney who lived in Hatton Garden and kept two clerks and a footman, plus women servants, was the leader of a gang of highwaymen who called him ‘the General’. As an attorney, Wreathock was skilled in assembling evidence to defend any gang members who were brought to trial. Thomas MacCreagh or Maccray, who robbed Nathaniel Lancaster, Doctor of Law (i.e. a parson) on the Chelsea Road in June 1735, was acquitted because Wreathock provided a false alibi; four men who testified on behalf of Maccray were themselves members of Wreathock’s gang. A month later, however, Maccray was found guilty of another highway robbery and sentenced to death. Around the time of that trial, Wreathock had lain in wait in Leicester Fields to ambush and murder Colonel Thomas de Veil the Court Justice (equivalent to the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police), but failed, and de Veil succeeded in breaking up the gang by the end of the year. In December a member of the gang turned King’s evidence, and Wreathock together with four other men were convicted of either assisting Maccray in the robbery of Lancaster, or of committing perjury, and sentenced to death; they were later reprieved and transported. Several of the men had earlier given evidence on behalf of other thieves, so by an examination of recurrent names in otherwise unrelated trials, one can see that the gang consisted of about twelve men.

            If highwaymen robbed ‘from necessity’, it was only because their expences were so high. John Villette, Ordinary of Newgate in the 1770s, said that ‘From the business of a gamester to that of a highwayman is a common and very easy transition.’ John Molony, hanged for street robbery, with three or four in his gang, on 18 July 1722, was a typical example: ‘His delight was to haunt taverns, bawdy-houses and gaming-tables, and at such places he scattered away his money in less time than he had gathered it.’ Another example of a man who turned highwayman not out of ‘necessity’ but because he wanted to maintain an extravagant lifestyle was the famous highwayman Benjamin Child, who was executed in 1723 for robbing the Bristol Mail. He earned a sufficient income of 40 per year as a writing master, but after he took up residence in Bow Street, Covent Garden he soon lost all his money by consorting with gamblers and prostitutes. After exhausting his income on mistresses, he was himself supported by the procuress Elizabeth Hawkins, under whose guidance he learned the art of cheating at gaming houses. He then joined two men, Spicket and Lindsay, in highway robbery, and together with his gambling managed to take enough to live in some grandeur, dressing in velvet and supporting two servants, plus three mistresses and their children. He frequently robbed mercers by trickery or con tricks, and often ran into debt buying fine clothes and wigs. He would stop at inns with his servant, don his silk damask nightgown and cap and slippers, and order fowls to be dressed for supper and a pint of Old Malaga, while his servant bragged of his pedigree and the famous noblemen he was related to so the host would be proud of entertaining him. He had three other accomplices who came to the inn to wait upon him. He gathered useful information from the innkeeper about his wealthy customers or neighbours. He would con the innkeeper to give him bonds by way of an investment, then cash the bonds and disappear. His earlier accomplices Lindsey and Spicket were arrested for divers robberies. Fearing that Lindsey might turn evidence against him for one robbery, Child gave him 100 ‘hush-money’ to maintain him in prison and a note for 100 to be paid to him upon his release. Accordingly Lindsey informed against several others, but not against Child. Together with his servant Wade, Child took up robbing mail coaches as an easy option, as they contained many bills of exchange that were easily portable. But both men were arrested on information from someone else and committed to Salisbury Gaol. Wade, to save himself, turned evidence against Child, who was capitally convicted at the assizes in Aylesbury. Child distributed large sums of money to his fellow prisoners, and to objects of charity just before his execution. It was reported that he died worth more than 10,000 (equivalent to more than a million pounds today), and he gave several bequests of 100 to 300 to several women and bequests of 500 to 1,000 to each of their children. At the place of execution he handed out a paper saying that he died in communion with the Church of England and apologizing for his crimes. ‘I think myself likewise obliged in conscience, in this my last hour, to declare, not only my guiltiness as to the crime I am now brought hither to suffer for, but many others of the same ill tendency, and heartily ask pardon of all that have been injured by my means, either by open assaults on the road, or collusory practices in private, to defraud and cheat them; and particularly of a gentlewoman of this country, whom I drew aside, and borrowed a large sum of money of, under promises of marriage.’ He was denied a Christian burial, and was hung in chains after execution.

            Many highwaymen were trained as butchers; many ran pubs or their parents ran pubs; and many were unemployed. Matthias Keys’s father kept an inn in Essex, gave his son a good education, and bred him up to be a vintner. But Keys was ‘a very gay spark, fond of company, and grand living; very much addicted to women, and a constant resorter to all places of public entertainment’ though he could ill afford them. After exhausting all his money at horse-races, cock-matches and gaming, he was arrested for debt in 1744 and sent to the King’s Bench Prison, Southwark. There he met William Russell, with whom he ‘became very intimate, so that they both lay in one bed’. When released, they agreed to go on the highway, and swore fidelity to each other. Despite innumerable successful highway robberies in Dartford, Surrey, Kent, Camberwell, Barnes Common, Epping Forest and the bye lanes in Essex, they only just made shift to pay for their horses and their whores (Keys had three women, Russell had two), and to maintain themselves like gentlemen, in gaudy clothes, laced waistcoats and good linen. In the commission of their robberies, Russell appeared as a gentleman, attended by Keys as his servant, in livery, with a portmanteau behind him. They often wished the passengers good night as they rode off with their booty, and on one occasion they generously returned a diamond ring to a military man who said it had sentimental value. Their spree together lasted for less than a year. Russell was apprehended late March 1745, but Keys escaped. Russell was tried, convicted and hanged in June 1746, aged about 32. He went in a mourning coach to Tyburn, and afterwards his body was decently interred in the Burial Ground in Chick Lane, belonging to St Sepulchre’s Parish. Keys carried on alone, but was captured and convicted in August 1747. Many of the most honourable and substantial Roman Catholic families in Essex appeared as character witnesses on his behalf, but the Judge sentenced him to death. Nevertheless his respectable friends managed to obtain a pardon from the King, on condition that Keys transport himself to the East Indies. But he returned after a short spell, and was captured and hanged on Kennington Common in September 1751. Just before this last trial, several people lurking around the court-house were taken into custody for threatening to shoot those persons involved in the prosecution. The Ordinary commented that ‘He was a well-bred, active, and very personable man, and might, in common conversation, be far from being suspected what he really was.’

            Archenholz observed in the 1770s that highwaymen ‘are generally very polite, they assure you they are very sorry that poverty has driven them to that shameful recourse, and end by demanding your purse, in the most courteous manner.’ In April 1763 the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that four coaches were robbed ‘by a highwayman of polite behaviour, who said he was heir to a considerable fortune, and would repay the money when he came to his estate’. The proverbial good manners of the highwayman are illustrated by an incident that happened on the evening of December 1751. Just as the Stratford coach from Whitechapel reached the appropriately named Cut-Throat Lane near Mile End, it was stopped by a lone highwayman on horseback. He took 20 shillings and a Coronation Medal from the passenger, who begged him to return the medal because he had a special regard for it. ‘He did, asking if I had a mind to any thing else; I said, no, the money was his, but I thanked him for the medal, ... then he wish’d us a good night, and rode off, . . . as easy as you may walk a horse.’ The incident was over in four minutes. The alleged highwayman, William Williams, was acquitted at his trial in January 1752, for lack of firm identification.

            Highwaymen may have had a stronger sense of fairness than ordinary robbers, for this was emphasized in later accounts of their exploits. But perhaps it is best to say that their reputation was mixed. William Gordon, who kept an alehouse in Leadenhall Market for several years, was nicknamed ‘the Butcher’ and ‘bore nothing but the character of a highwayman’ among all his honest neighbours, ‘so that every body was afraid of him, and looked upon him as a common enemy’. When he robbed Francis Peters in his coach in Kensington, after Peters had given him his watch, Gordon snatched off his hat and wig, which prompted Peters to remonstrate: ‘I told him it was very unusual for men of his profession to take such things, and that it being very cold, it might endanger my health. He swore plentifully, gave me a great deal of opprobrious language, and told me that he would take all he could get.’ Gordon was caught shortly afterwards, and sentenced to death in 1733. His reign as a highwayman had lasted for the unusually long period of about twelve years. He usually robbed alone (though a one-time accomplice was hanged earlier), and always carried a pistol. He once apologized for shooting a man through the arm who had tried to defend himself: ‘Sir, I am very sorry that I shot you, but it was your own fault, and so wished him well to London.’ Gordon was noted for his bravery, and for often returning money to his victims. He once stopped a coach full of passengers, clapt a pistol to the gentlemen sitting nearest to the window, said

Sir, now your person and whatever you have about you is in my power. It is true (answered the passenger) but you’ll have no great booty, for I have but six shillings, and neither watch or ring. Well Sir (quoth Gordon) you shall see how much honour there is in a highwayman, give me that pistol which missed me, and that other which lies by you in the coach-seat; which being done, come (says he) you shall see what they will do in my hands: upon which he fired them, one after another, in the air: Then turning to the gentleman, who under a good deal of consternation, waited his fate. As to your six shillings, says he, that Sir would do me little good, and may serve to bear your expences on the road; and as to killing or wounding a brave man, that I despise. So at present I have nothing more to say, than wishing you a good journey.

            Highwaymen are generally believed to have been less violent than footpads, i.e. street robbers. Archenholz went so far as to say that ‘highwaymen are not in the least dangerous, as they never proceed farther than a menace, never making use of their pistols, but in case of resistance.’ Trial records do suggest a relatively low number of men who wounded their victims in the course of a highway robbery – in comparison to the majority of footpads who usually wounded their victims. However, many highway robberies reported in the newspapers involved violence and even murder. In newspapers such as the Public Advertiser there were frequent reports of highwaymen firing their pistols indiscriminately into coaches, though usually they missed their victims or their bullets just grazed their nose or their cheek. So if highwaymen did not commit murder very often, that was not necessarily for want of trying. It may be that highwaymen simply were not very good shots; although they had experience in managing a horse well before they took to the road, they usually bought a brace of pistols only shortly before embarking upon their trade and were not trained marksmen.

Illustration of a highwayman             The popular mythology about the well-bred behaviour of ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ does not reflect the whole truth. Every three or four reports of their civility is countered by one report of their brutality. For example, the Weekly Journal, or The British Gazetteer for 3 January 1730 reported an incident in which five highwaymen, after robbing three gentlemen’s coaches near Stamford Hill, robbed a poor man ‘who had been selling turnips at Newington, from whom they took about 20s. which, as he said, was all the money he had in the world; After they had left him, the poor man, provoked at the loss of his money, gave them some ill words, and among the rest, called them Yorkshire Rogues, for robbing a poor man; at which the fellows said one to another, Damn him, the dog knows us, go and shoot him; and two of them came back and both fired at him, and lodg’d three or four slugs in his body.’ A surgeon dressed his wounds and took out several of the shot, but he died shortly afterwards. In July 1763, an 18-year-old highwayman near Gloucester shot dead a man returning from market who demurred at handing over his watch, and when the highwayman was apprehended he cut his own throat.

            Highwaymen wore masks and took more care to disguise themselves than other types of robbers. The highwayman Thomas Williams in 1780 ‘pulled out a piece of black tin and put it over his nose, which altered his voice entirely, and made him squeak like Punch in a puppet-show’. John Weldon, another highwayman also in 1780, ‘attempted to speak in a feigned voice; but, speaking several times, he could not help speaking in his natural voice’. His companion William Edwards also tried ‘to smother his voice’ when robbing a carriage. Most highwaymen worked in pairs or in groups of three, with perhaps a fourth individual to keep a look-out. Larger associations were uncommon, partly because a small group could act more quickly, and partly because of the high level of distrust prompted by the high rewards offered for their capture and the practice of giving pardons to accomplices who impeached them.

            The participation of highwaymen in the criminal underworld is illustrated by the networks of fences used in the distribution of their goods, and the underworld of disorderly houses and the lewd women whom they supported. Women operated mainly on the periphery of gangs of highwaymen, as fences or running safe houses where thieves could hide out. There are even a few documented cases of highwaywomen. In 1735 in Romford a butcher was approached by ‘a woman well mounted on a side saddle’ who presented a pistol and demanded his money. He was so amazed at such a sight that he didn’t understand what she wanted, but another gentleman rode up and ‘told him he was a brute to deny the lady’s request’, and forced him to hand over his watch and money. In October 1772 several robberies were committed near St Pancras by two female footpads, one armed with a hanger and one with a pistol; and in that same month, a single highwaywoman robbed the Newcastle fly near Barnet, and took from nine men all the money they had. But most accounts of mounted female robbers are fictional inventions.

            Highwaymen were often apprehended after only a year or two on the road. However, those men who made a career of robbing on the highway were usually clever, well-organized professionals, who sometimes worked in gangs of six men. They usually had their spies at the country fairs and markets, and at the inns used as staging posts, by which means they acquired information about who was travelling, whom they worked for, and how much money they were likely to be carrying. They were well acquainted with the ostlers in Bishopsgate Street and Smithfield, from whom they gained intelligence of what booties were worth attempting. Unlike footpads, highwaymen often knew exactly whom they were going to rob before they set off on the road. They were usually very skilled in their art, despite the fact that most highwaymen were captured and hanged before the age of 30.


Jack Hawkins and His Gang


John Hawkins was a butler to Sir Dennis Dutry, but he so often spent two or three nights a week at the gaming tables that at last he was turned out for neglecting the business of his master. He later confessed that he had stolen a considerable quantity to silver plate from the house, which he pawned to support his passion for gaming. He continued to gamble until he was deep in debt, and decided to take to the road, after scraping together enough to buy a horse and a pair of pistols. He was 24 years old, and his career would last until he was hanged at age 30, in 1722. At first he worked as a lone highwayman, but he found it difficult to rob alone, and he chose four companions, Ryley, Cummerford, Reeves and Leonard, an Irish Captain, who robbed together on Hounslow and Bagshot Heaths. But despite acquiring considerable prizes, Hawkins had such an itch for gaming that he regularly lost his last penny. After a couple of years Leonard was arrested for being involved in the Preston Rebellion, and Hawkins and Wooldridge were arrested for attempting to rescue him, but discharged. Shortly afterwards, after being captured for a robbery at Guilford, Cummerford and Reeves were executed and Ryley was transported; Leonard was later transported.

            Hawkins then formed a partnership with Ralph Wilson, and they became great cronies at the gaming tables. When Hawkins was arrested on suspicion of robbing a coach, for which he was acquitted, though guilty, Wilson returned to his mother in Whitby for a year, then returned to London to study law. But he succumbed to gaming once again and he renewed his acquaintance with Hawkins, who had now assembled a new gang comprising his brother Will and three or four men including one Pocock. But Pocock, being apprehended, impeached the rest, and one Ralphson, who had been entrusted with most of their loot, went off with it to Holland. Wilson said ‘I took so much pleasure in hearing Hawkins relate his pranks and robberies, that I grew very fond of his company.’ Hawkins, Wilson and James Wright regrouped, and performed some notable robberies upon the Earl of Burlington, Lord Bruce, Sir David Dalrymple and General Evans, whose footman Hawkins shot and killed. Wilson felt that Wright, who was born of honest parents and bred a barber, was ‘one of the best temper, and greatest fidelity to his companions, I ever knew in a highwayman’. Nevertheless the other two were not above cheating him. Hawkins pretended he sold Lord Bruce’s sapphire ring for 6l. and gave Wright 3l. as his ‘snack’ or share of the booty, but Hawkins in fact kept the ring and later sold it in Holland for 40l.

            Wilson’s fondness for gaming and near-adoration for Hawkins brought him into highway robbery, which he had little taste for and which made him fearful:

‘No life is so gloomy as that of a robber! He’s a stranger to peace of mind, to quiet slumber! and is made a property of by every villain who knows his circumstances. This is a hell to one who has had any relish of a more generous way of living. But I was enter’d, and knew not how to retreat; for Hawkins who before was all complaisance, became now my tyrant; he let me know, that I was as liable to be hanged as himself, and expressed a satisfaction that he had me under a hank.’

Illustration showing Hawkins robbing the mail Together the three men committed two or three robberies a week, for months on end, usually only five miles out of town. One night in August 1720 they robbed a coach in Chancery Lane, another in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and a third belonging to Lord Westmoreland, who had three footmen behind his coach. Wilson always sold his share of the moveables to Hawkins and Wright, and played away the money. Will Hawkins and Wright were apprehended by Jonathan Wild, but Wilson and Jack Hawkins escaped to Oxford, where for some obscure reason Hawkins defaced some paintings in the gallery at the Bodleian Library. But at the end of the trial, Will Hawkins was discharged, while Pocock was hanged. Hawkins was married and had children, though little is heard of his family. At Christmas 1730 Wilson came of age and inherited an estate from his father which he sold for 350l., but he promptly lost most of it at gaming, after lending some to Jack and Will to buy new horses. Will, Jack and Wilson spent most of their time at a safe house near London Wall, run by a man who ran a livery stable and facilitated their adventures, in return for a share in their prosperity. Wilson claimed that ‘we harrassed most of the morning stage-coaches in England. One morning, we robb’d the Worcester, the Gloucester, the Cirencester, the Bristol, and the Oxford coaches all together. Next morning the Chichester and Ipswich, and perhaps the third morning the Portsmouth coach. We were constant customers to the Bury coach. I think we touch’d it ten times.’ Their downfall came when they ` with the Mails.

            They joined up with George Simpson, a former Bailiff in Lincolnshire who served as the Under Butler to Lord Castlemain for a year and a half, and later served as a footman for various gentlemen. Simpson was not very capable in making plans, but bold in their execution. They decided to rob mail coaches, beginning with the Bristol Mail, which they robbed twice. But the Post Office advertised a reward of 200l. They were suspected, and Wilson was apprehended at a coffee house in Moorfields. Then Hawkins and Simpson were arrested, and offered to impeach their colleagues, so Wilson impeached them to beat them to it: ‘and I believe any man would have done the same. For this design against me, dissolved our League of Friendship.’ Wilson confessed most of the robberies, though he denied being present when the others cut out a woman’s tongue when she protested at the robbery of the Bury coach. He also denied that it was his common practice to rape the ladies they robbed, or that he had ever treated the gentlemen with cruelty. He further denied having previously impeached 22 persons. Hawkins and Simpson were hanged at Tyburn in May 1722, and afterwards their bodies were carried to Hounslow Heath, and there hung in irons on a gibbet erected for that purpose, not far from that on which Benjamin Child had been hung in the same manner, also for robbing the Bristol Mail.


Sixteen-String Jack


Imagination illustration of Sixteen-String Jack John Rann, known as Sixteen-String Jack, is the archetype of the highwayman-as-dandy. At the age of 12 he became a servant to a distinguished lady in Bath, and subsequently advanced in his career, as a helper at a stable yard, then a driver of a post-chaise, then a servant to an officer, and finally as a footman to a gentlemen at Portman Square. But in order to keep a mistress, he turned pickpocket, and then went on the highway. This foppish former footman acquired his alias by his affectation of tying eight silk strings or ribbons to each knee of his silk breeches; some said he wore one each for sixteen times he had been acquitted on charges of highway robbery. He would commonly be seen wearing a scarlet coat, tambour waistcoat, white silk stockings and a laced hat. He self-consciously adopted a Robin Hood model and professed to rob only the rich – though he did not pass his takings on to the poor. He was typical of many criminals who actively sought the limelight. He acquired notoriety after being acquitted for several robberies, and was followed by gaping crowds at the Barnet Races, where he outdid the other fashionable sportsmen in his blue satin waistcoat trimmed with silver. He sometimes appeared at the front of the crowd at Tyburn dressed in a conspicuous manner and stealing the show from the condemned. He even bragged that some day he would be not just a spectator, but the main event. He was sentenced to death in 1774 for robbing Princess Amelia’s physician of his watch, being apprehended as a result of his mistress trying to pawn the watch. He was well-liked by the ladies, who visited him in great numbers in prison, and he hosted a farewell dinner for seven young ladies on the Sunday before his execution. James Boswell went to the hanging at Tyburn in October 1774 and observed that Sixteen-String Jack went to the gallows wearing a new suit of pea-green clothes, a ruffled shirt with a huge nosegay in his buttonhole, and a hat bound round with silver rings. He bantered genially with the crowd before being turned off. According to Boswell he was cheered by ‘the whole vagabond population of London’.


Gentleman James Maclean


James Maclean, dubbed the ‘Gentleman Highwayman’, is representative of this class of criminal – and the high regard in which he was held by the upper classes. He was born to a good family in the north of Ireland (his father was a Presbyterian preacher who died when Maclean was 18, and his brother was a respected divine living in The Hague). He acted as a servant and as a butler to gentlemen in both Ireland and England, but was always conscious of his genteel birth. Though dismissed for making too free with his master’s wine-cellar, he sweet-talked him into re-hiring him and then into lending him money to buy a place in the army – which he spent instead on pleasure. He was noted for his gallantry towards the ladies, and his main occupation became fortune-hunting. From a Lady in Putney he borrowed money to go to the West Indies – which he spent instead on fine clothes and a carriage. He courted and married the daughter of the keeper of the Golden Fleece in Oxford Road, took a house in Cavendish Square, and kept a grocer’s and chandler’s shop for three year until his wife died. He spent his inheritance extravagantly at public entertainments, took an apartment in Dean Street, Soho, and frequented coffee houses dressed like a gentleman. His mother-in-law was given care of his two children. Later he moved to a more fashionable address near Hyde Park Corner, dressing even more flashily, and began moving among women of reputation (as well as fine kept women).

            About eighteen months before his final capture, he formed a partnership with an apothecary/surgeon named Plunkett, and together they went on the highway. Plunkett retained modest lodgings at a shoemaker’s shop in the Strand and later at quarters in Jermyn Street, while Maclean took a fine apartment at St James’s, next to White’s, the fashionable gentleman’s club, and another residence in Chelsea. He appeared in the streets in a very grand manner – ‘his morning dress being a crimson damask Banjan, a silk shag waist-coat, trim’d with lace, black velvet breeches, white silk stockings, and yellow Morocco slippers’ – with Plunkett in attendance pretending to be his footman. Through this subterfuge he gained access to persons of fortune and acquired knowledge of the travel plans of their friends. While not airing their horses at Hyde Park, he and Plunkett robbed coaches on Turnham Green or Hounslow Heath, especially those carrying the aristocracy – for example Lord Eglinton, Sir Thomas Robinson, a Scottish Earl and Horace Walpole. They wore Venetian masks on these outings – rather than the usual handkerchief – and always treated the passengers with the greatest civility, except for a Roman Catholic priest, who protested that in the bag they were taking was all his linen. Plunket ‘immediately reply’d, he was very glad to hear it, for they were in great want of linen; that it was necessity forced them upon those hazardous enterprizes; that they did not rob thro’ wantonness, as the great ones did, who daily rob’d ’em of millions, for the support of luxury and corruption, but that they were forced to it for their immediate subsistance.’ This might persuade us that Plunkett was a ‘social bandit’, but in fact he was deeply hypocritical. Plunkett expressed his real attitude when he first persuaded Maclean to go on the highway with him: ‘A brave man cannot want; he has a right to live, and need not want the conveniencies of life, while the dull, plodding, busy knaves carry cash in their pockets. We must draw upon them to supply our wants, there need only impudence, and getting the better of a few silly scruples; there is scarce courage necessary, all we have to deal with are such mere poltroons.’

            When not robbing on the highway, Maclean was persuading wealthy women to lend him money. On one occasion he paid back the money, then, in disguise, robbed the woman as she returned home. Finally he was captured, in July 1750, when he tried to sell a fine lace waistcoat to the dealer in Covent Garden who had originally sold the waistcoat to his victim. When his apartment was searched the constables found everything stolen from a recent robbery on the Salisbury highway, together with many rich suits of clothing belonging to himself (i.e. not stolen), two dozen stolen purses, rings and jewelery, and, according to Walpole, ‘a famous kept mistress’.

            When he came to be examined by the Justice, he went from the Gatehouse prison in a coach guarded by a File of Musqueteers and attended by hundreds of curious onlookers. He confessed his several robberies, and with tears running down his face apologized for robbing Horace Walpole of his watch and money in Hyde Park, declaring that the pistol which nearly killed Walpole had gone off accidentally: indeed, he said, he would sooner have killed himself than Walpole. The room was crowded with many ladies of quality, who shed tears in abundance and gave him presents of money to help him in his difficult circumstances. His attraction was undoubtedly his boyish sexuality: he was 5 ft. 6 in. tall, handsome, and only 26 years old. Many persons of quality flocked to see him at the Gatehouse, where he received them in a crimson morning dress with yellow slippers. Some came to accuse him of robbing them, but many, through compassion, to supply him with enough money to live in style during his imprisonment.

Illustration of James Maclean in prison being admired by a crowd of ladies

            Maclean impeached Plunkett, who had escaped arrest. At the trial it became apparent that Maclean was in fact something of a coward. It was Plunkett who was always at the forefront of their activities, while Maclean hung back through lack of courage, and occasionally his heart failed him altogether. Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann: ‘he confesses every thing, and is so little of a hero that he cries and begs.’ Walpole nevertheless felt that his relationship with Maclean was conducted ‘with the greatest good breeding on both sides’. Half of the Lords who belonged to White’s gambling club went to see Maclean during his last days in prison. When Lady Caroline Petersham went, together with her women friends, Walpole jokingly sang the song from The Beggar’s Opera with the line ‘Thus I stand like the Turk, with his doxies around’. A contemporary print portrays Maclean surrounded by his weeping admirers, many of them women. Walpole told Sir Horace Mann that 3,000 people went to see Maclean the first Sunday after his condemnation, and that he fainted away twice from the heat thereby generated in his cell. Going to Newgate was all the rage. Walpole was practically the only person of fashion who did not go to see Maclean, for he did not want to have his face haunt him, and wished him no ill will. One Grub Street ballad underlined the fact that Maclean’s robbery of Walpole was one of the charges for which he would hang. As Walpole noted, ‘There are as many prints and pamphlets about him as about the earthquake.’ (There was an earthquake in London at the beginning of February 1750, and again at the beginning of March. At the beginning of April great hordes of people fled town and camped out in open fields fearful of yet more tremors. The panic became the subject of sermons, pamphlets, and satirical prints.)

            Maclean acknowledged to the Dissenting minister who attended him in prison, ‘My love of pleasure, and of a gay appearance, has undone me.’ On the morning of his execution, he wrote to a friend, asking him to distribute the few goods still in his possession, with his blessings: two books, an inkhorn and a seal to his good landlady at Chelsea, a little Bible to the minister’s family, his sleeve-buttons to a poor woman, and so on.

‘My mother-in-law was here this evening, who begs my shoe-buckles, to keep for my poor dear child; which I think unnecessary; but, as she has no other token from me, I would indulge her in it. – The stock and knee-buckles I desire you’ll keep, and wear for my sake. And I would have you convert all my linen stock you get from my washerwoman into cash, and would have you give my poor mother-in-law two or three guineas to buy some coals for the winter, and any little necessary the poor child may want. . . . Have my Life done as soon as you can, to prevent any body else doing it after I am no more: And let it be done in a modest penitent manner. I would desire you, if there are any profits arising from it, to let my poor orphan be a sharer.’

When Maclean went to his execution on 3 October, he disappointed his admirers by being carried to Tyburn in a cart just like the other criminals to be hanged that day, and not in a coach as people had expected, nor did he wear any special finery. He behaved with steadfast devotion, with his eyes shut most of the time, not returning the gaze of the immense multitude that had assembled. He spoke very little, and failed to play his role as the Gentleman Highwayman. In due course, his friends put his body into a waiting hearse, and he was decently buried rather than put under the surgeon’s knife.

            Maclean’s life does not follow the pattern attributed to the stereotypical thief: he was not born to poor parents, nor unemployed, nor seduced by bad women and gaming companions and drink, nor driven to rob to support these bad habits. As the writer of one of the contemporary pamphlets on Maclean emphasized, ‘he had but one predominant foible, that is, an extraordinary itch for a gay appearance’ – and it was to maintain this that he became a fortune-hunter and a highwayman. ‘He was no lover of pleasure, but as it contributed to the grand design. He was no slave to the women, that were not of fortune; he had no strong desire for play, it was rather avarice that prompted him than itch of play, at which he was as often successful as otherwise. He hated drinking to excess, and at no time drank but to humour company or promote his schemes; in short, he had a strong passion for nothing but fine cloaths and a rich wife.’


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