17th English Highwaymen
The predominant reason why English highwaymen, in comparison with footpads, murdered relatively few of their victims was that they operated on horseback and had the chance to escape. Also, the wearing of a mask ensured they were unlikely to be recognised later by their victims. During their robberies, highwaymen carried several pistols to protect themselves and to terrify their victims, who usually offered little resistance. They took more than one weapon because of the notorious unreliability of the early flintlock pistols. Although shooting battles with their victims were rare, they did occur, especially when armed guards or soldiers were present. As a rule, however, a greater danger to the life of a seventeenth-century highwayman was a treacherous accomplice or other informer who betrayed him. This happened increasingly after the passage of the Highwayman Act of 1693 which accepted the evidence of an accomplice and guaranteed his freedom from prosecution, provided at least two of his confederates were convicted.
The earliest recorded highwayman of the seventeenth century was a gentleman with the unusual name of Gamaliel Ratsey, who later acquired the even stranger nickname of’Gamaliel Hobgoblin’, as a result of the grotesque mask he wore when robbing his victims. Gamaliel was born in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire, the son of a wealthy gentleman. He left home to join the English army and served with distinction in Ireland, under the command of the Earl of Sussex. Returning to Lincolnshire, he became bored with a quiet country life and took to the highways. He robbed with success, at first in the Spalding area of the county and then farther afield in East Anglia.
Ratsey was arrested and sentenced to be hanged for an earlier crime, but escaped from prison, wearing only his shirt. By chance he met two other highwaymen, and the trio carried out many daring robberies until the two confederates were captured. To save their lives, they informed on Gamaliel Ratsey, who was caught and hanged on 26 March 1605 in the town of Bedford.
Another early highwayman, born in 1603, was John Clavel, the son of a Dorset knight, Sir William Clavel, who lived in the manor of Smed-more. When John fell into debt he committed many highway robberies, especially at Gad’s Hill and on the mail-coaches travelling along the Dover Road. He wore many different disguises during his hold-ups and paid several landlords of inns generously to shelter him. In 1626, despite all his skilful precautions, he was apprehended, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. He lodged an appeal with the King, and the sentence was commuted to imprisonment, after he had made a profuse apology.
Clavel was probably granted clemency because he was the eldest son of a knight. As few long-term prisons existed, he served his sentence in the King’s Bench debtors’ prison in London. While there, he wrote a treatise on highway law, the follies of committing crimes and hints for travellers on robbery avoidance, purely with the intent of lodging a further appeal and obtaining a pardon. He entitled his work Recantation of an Ill-led Life and his devious strategy brought the desired result, for he received a Royal Pardon, on condition he served in the army against France. However, Sir William never forgave his son and disinherited him. No more is known of John Clavel, although it was reported that he died in 1642.
Several early highwaymen dressed as women when they committed their robberies. Thomas Roland always adopted this form of disguise until he was executed in 1699. Another, Thomas Symp-son, known as ‘Old Mobb’, only occasionally dressed as a female; it must have worked because he enjoyed an unusually long and successful period of several decades as a highwayman. He was born in Romsey, Hampshire and lived there for most of his life, mainly operating on the roads of southern England and the West Country.
‘Old Mobb’ invariably aimed high, concentrating on wealthy members of the aristocracy. Once he held up Sir Bartholomew Shower along the Honiton to Exeter road, in Devon. Unfortunately, the gentleman was carrying little money, which so infuriated ‘Old Mobb’ that he ordered the knight to write out a money demand note to his goldsmith in Exeter, for 150 pounds. He then bound his victim’s hands and legs and bundled him under a hedge in a field, away from the road. Next, he cut the girth strap and bridle of the knight’s horse and rode off to Exeter. The goldsmith, recognising Sir Bartholomew’s handwriting, immediately honoured the demand note. Money in hand, ‘Old Mobb’ showed a benevolent side to his nature by riding back to his victim and releasing him from his bonds. Eventually, like so many before him, he ended his days at Tyburn, where he was hanged on 30 May 1691. He had a large family of five children and innumerable grandchildren, some of whom sorrowfully watched his execution. He made no speech or confession before he died.
Isaac Atkinson’s unusual speciality was robbing lawyers. He was born in 1614, the only son of a wealthy Berkshire landowner who provided him with a thorough education, including Oxford University.
Two women of the road who used the reverse disguise, dressing as men, were Mary Frith and Lady Caroline Ferrers.
Captain James Hind, friend of ‘Moll Cutpurse’, was the only son of a saddler. He was born in 1616, at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, and received a sound education.
Jack Bird from Stainford, in Lincolnshire, always appeared willing to accept a challenge and display a sporting instinct.
- American Western Outlaws
- Australian Brigands
- 17th-Century English Highwaymen
- 18th-Century English Highwaymen
- European Banditry
- Hide-outs and Disguises
- Punishments and Prisons
- The Law Enforcers
- The Rise and Fall of Highwaymen
- The Victims and the Booty