My very early years were spent in what was then a rural hamlet called Roughley.
It had one pub, a dingy smoke-filled tavern with a sign designating it The Plough and Harrow. But to the locals, it was known as The Den.
Folklore had it that Dick Turpin, a famous Highwayman, used the premises as his headquarters in the 18th century, before making a legendary record-breaking ride to York on his mare Black Bess.
Word had it that he made the infamous overnight journey to establish an alibi for one of his crimes.
Frankly, if he wanted a pint of bitter and a packet of crisps, he could have picked a better pub.
But the story was one of the hundreds spread about highwaymen that mixed fact with porkies to establish these brigands as some of the most colourful, daring and gentlemanly robbers in history.
And I love that sort of tale from back when.
One of the favourite routes these robbers frequented was the stagecoach road from Lewes to London.
And why not? Stagecoach companies flourished in 18th and 19th century Lewes, offering rich pickings for these mounted knights of the road.
Mounted was an essential factor in creating the legend of the highwayman.
You see they were gentlemen, winning the admiration of the establishment such as Dr Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame and American colonist Ben Franklin who flew a kite to get a flash of lightning.
The name given to those less fortunate thugs was ‘Footpad’ an ugly word indicating these thieves were common foot robbers and beneath contempt.
The mounted villains revelled in the fact their lineage contained royalty.
And so it did. Many of these rogues were sons of the gentry, stripped of their birthright by fighting on the wrong side in the English Civil war of 1651.
Sent packing with nothing more than their horse, a pistol and a cheese sandwich in greaseproof paper, the young scallywags generated revenue by turning over the odd coach as it rumbled its way to the capital from hostelries such as the White Hart Hotel in Lewes to The Corn Market.
Their colourful reputation was enhanced by an upper-crust baron who lived on Lewes High Street, John Lade. Lade was an intriguing character, a pal of the Prince Regent, whom many believe urged George to drive a coach and four down Keere Street.
His wife though was even more colourful than the Baron. An expert horsewoman and team driver, Letitia Derby had been a mistress of John Rann, a notorious highwayman.
Rann was an interesting example of the ‘Dandy’ image of the gentlemen hijackers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Rann was only 24 when he was hanged at London’s Tyburn gallows on November 30th 1774
At his pre-trial imprisonment, he had seven ladies to dine with him. He dressed in a pea-green suit, decorated with colourful threads and pieces of cloth for which he’d earned the nickname Sixteen Stringed Jack.
Rann was a ladies man and on one occasion was arrested when the ‘Runners’ caught him half in and half out of a window.
The lady who was expecting him admitted to the liaison, and he was freed. He stood trial half a dozen times for highway robbery but escaped the noose either from a reluctance on the part of witnesses to testify or his glib tongue swaying the magistrates. Letitia met Lade through Rann with whom he was friendly. After a brief fling with the Duke of York, Letitia married Lade, and despite being high spirited, became a leading light in the Prince Regent’s court in Sussex.
As a footnote to this particular period of Sussex history, Lade, a racehorse owner and compulsive gambler, bet Lord Cholmondeley that he could carry him piggyback around Brighton’s Steine. On the day, Lade, a tiny man, began the occasion by insisting the more prominent Cholmondley strip. He won the bet claiming the wager did not include carrying his rider’s clothes.
Rann had the reputation of being a fashion trendsetter for these professional hold up men.
But the prize for charming the ladies went to an Anglo Frenchman Claude Duval who routinely attracted the petticoats off lady travellers. On one memorable occasion, he relieved a passenger of three hundred pounds, then returned two hundred after dancing with the man’s wife.
The bold, daring and colourful gangsters also gave rise to international pride and reputation.
Worthy citizens of the day such as Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin publicly acclaimed England’s highwaymen as dashing and flamboyant Robin Hoods of the road as opposed to their French equivalent who they said was a dark, brooding and soulless lot.
Romantic or no, the authorities had harsh punishments for any caught robbing travellers of their valuables. After public hangings, the bodies were put in a gibbet and hung on walls for all to see, warning to other miscreants that a humiliating end awaited them, flamboyant though they may have been. However several held their mojo to the very end, making memorable speeches, dancing jigs and inviting beautiful society ladies to front row seats of their executions.
The thespian community further enhanced the reputation as gallant souls with an excessive element of charm. The Beggars Opera was hugely successful and ‘penny dreadful’ magazines often sold out, glamorising the thugs as they did.
Such robberies were commonplace in medieval England, but the hero highwayman didn’t come into his own until the 17th century.
No permanent records are showing that any highwaymen were sent to the gallows in Lewes. But a receipt exists showing that a local blacksmith constructed a custom-built gibbet at his anvil.
The Lewes to London Road was the site of numerous ‘stand and deliver’ robberies. Among the villains was James Congden, a wealthy farmer from Midhurst. Although a ‘gentleman’ thief, Congden had joined the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Before turning robber.
He was caught and hanged in 1691.
But somewhere along the line, he seemed to have influenced a Horsham man Thomas Savage.
Savage was persuaded that he resembled Monmouth and propagated the story that the pretender to the throne of James II hadn’t been executed. He assumed the Duke’s identity and lived off the fat of the land in this guise until arrested for false pretences. He was released because no one would testify against him. The principal witnesses were ladies whom he’d seduced at various times. None would testify against him, so charismatic was his influence as a lover.
There was one more bizarre instance of a Royal entanglement with this profession of princes.
Prince Harry, later Henry V was said to have decided one night at a party to go with his drunken pals to hold up a stage. Shakespeare glamorised this 14-century prince, adding to the sheen of gallantry enjoyed by robbers in later times.
There were also notorious highway women.
The best known and colourful was Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse. Their gender held no special treatment. When caught, they were hanged on public gallows.
The ‘trade’ of charismatic highwayman lasted for more than 150 years, the last of these villains being hanged in Hemel Hempstead in 1802.
Robert Snooks had held up a carriage carrying the mail, and that was deemed a serious crime.
A stone is laid approximately where Snooks body is believed to be buried. It is approximate because the good burghers of Hemel Hempstead didn’t want a stain on the reputation of their sinless town, so dug up his remains and reinterred him on a nearby moor.
The days of highwaymen were over.
The coming of the railway, the establishment of a police force under Home Secretary Robert Peel and the loss of public admiration of those who robbed stages at gunpoint, saw a glamorous criminal era come to a close. Highwaymen were active for another 50 years in England, but the daredevil era was gone, never to be repeated in British history.
Attractive to the layman as this flamboyant profession seemed, it somehow has never appealed to me. Oh, a fancy waistcoat and pearl-handled pistols are all very well. But entertaining seven ladies at a time would do me. The cost would be so enormous, and I’d have to keep going to work to pay the restaurant bill. Seven days a week holding up stagecoaches sounds too much like hard work to me. Just as well stick to storytelling! •