To catch a thief

The stuff of legend, highwaymen were a real problem to travelling folk in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so much so that there were huge rewards for apprehending them, as the following extract makes clear:

London, Octob. 23. On Saturday and Sunday Night last several Foot-pads and House-breakers, mixing with the Mob, committed divers Robberies in the high Streets of this City, stopping of the Coaches, and taking Money by force, and then made off… but to prevent the Mischiefs for the time to come, we hear that on the 4th and 5th of November, and all publick Nights for the future, certain Persons, well armed, will be employed to hire up the Coaches, and ride backward and forward through the publick Streets, and that whoever presumes to stop the Coaches, and demand Money, will be seiz’d and prosecuted as Robbers on the Highway, and the Law against Highway-men executed upon them. And there being by Act of Parliament a Reward of 40 Pounds to every Person that apprehends a Highwayman, ‘tis not to be question’d but every Body will be ready to assist in the getting of the Money, even their own Companions. (English Post, October 21–23, 1700)

This is a little like the decoy cars used by police today to catch car thieves, but one wonders how successful they would be if their presence was advertised like this.

The travelling public had their own strategies for dealing with the threat, as illustrated by this delightfully nautically flavoured story:

Last Saturday one Sir John Wilmot, riding from Shaftsbury to our Town, on the Beginning of Salisbury Plain he overtook a Seaman, and having some Discourse with him, ask’d, Whether he would fight if he was attackt by any Highwaymen? Mr. Tarpaulin reply’d, He would play his Part, if he once boarded them. The Gentleman seeing the good Resolution of the Fellow, took him into his Coach; but they had not gone far before some Sparks that live by the searing Words, Stand and deliver, were hovering about ‘em; wereupon the Gentleman said to the Sailor, We shall be beset presently, so giving his marine Companion a Blunderbuss, he cry’d out, I see the Enemy is to the Windward of us, we’ll pull up to the Larboud-side, and stand towards ‘em. Coachman, (quoth he) hale to your Fore-braces; but the Coachman not rightly understanding his Sea Terms, lets go the Reins of the Horses, whilst the Sea-Commander was cutting a Hole through the fore-Leather of the Coach, for a Port-Hole, and bidding the Coachman stand Abust Shot through, and did such good Execution as to Kill one of their Four Enemies and Wounded another so much, that he fell off his Horse. This sharp Engagement made the other run away; but the Seaman being eager for Plunder, call’d for Hands aloft, order’d the Coachman to rack about presently, that he might fire his Chace Guns, but the Enemy sheering off as fast as they could, the Seaman and the Coachman hoisted Sail as fast, and made the best of their way for Salisbury; where giving an Account what was done, to a Magistrate, he is bound over to shew the Authority of his Commission next Assizes; and the Gentleman that pickt him up gave sufficient Sureties to answer the same.

P.S. The other Highwayman died of his Wounds within two Hours after; but under his Misery would not discover who were the surviving Rogues. (Weekly Journal, November 23, 1717)

Women had less violent but innovative ways of getting round the problem:

Last Week an Emenent Lady coming singly in the Stage-Coach from Colchester to London… quote the Coachman to her, If your Ladyship has any thing valuable about you, I pray you to secure it as well as you can, for I see several Sparks upon the Heath here abouts, whom I mistrust to be Highwaymen. Upon the Caution, the Lady put her Gold Watch, a Purse of Guineas, and a very fine Suit of Lace Headcloaths under her Seat; and by that time she had dishivell’d her Hair in a very uncouth Manner about her Head and Shoulders, a Highwayman rid up to her presenting a Pistol into the Coach, and demanded her Money. The Lady who was a very fine Woman, having a great Presence of Mind, naturally acted the Part of a Mad-Woman, opening the Coach, leaping out, and taking the Highwayman by one of his Legs, cry’d out in a very pitious and Shrieking Voice, Ah! dear Cosen Tom, I’m glad to see you, I hope you’ll now rescue me from this Rogue of a Coachman, for he is carrying me by that Rogue of my Husband’s Orders to Bedlam, for a mad Woman. D— me (reply’d the Highwayman) I’m none of your Cosen, I don’t know you, I believe you are mad indeed. Ah! Cosen Tom (said she again) but I will go with you, I won’t go to Bedlam. So clinging close to the Hughwayman and his Horse, in all the seeming Passions of Madness that could be, quote he to the Coachman, do you know this mad B—h? Yes (reply’d the Coachman) I know the Lady very well, who is sadly distracted, for she has torn all her Headcloaths all to pieces, and I am going with her now by her Husbands Orders to London, to put her into a Mad-House, but not into Bedlam, as she supposes. E’en take her then (said the Highwayman) to the D—l and you will, for thinking to have met with a good Bait, I find now there’s nothing to be had of this mad Toad. So he set Spurs to his Horse as fast as he could for fear he shou’d he [sic] be plagu’d with her, for She seem’d mighty fond of her Cosen; but after he was gone, she was more pleas’d with his Absence than his Sight, and got safe to London. (Weekly Journal, December 27, 1718)

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4 thoughts on “To catch a thief

  1. Maybe the first one was intended more as a deterrent and catching any was a bonus? We might romanticise highwaymen, but they were basically muggers. I wonder if our muggers will have metamorphosed into romantic heroic outlaws if society lasts another 200 years? I like the story of the Lady! 🙂

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