Grim warnings along the road

IN THE EIGHTEENTH century, travelling by road in England was not without its dangers, One of these was being robbed by highwaymen. Frequently, individual travellers and passengers in horse-drawn coaches were stopped by bandits, who were after money, jewellery, and other valuables.

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Even close to London, for example between Mayfair and Hammersmith, highwaymen plied their evil trade. As an example, the diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) recorded in his entry for the 19th of May 1669:

“Here news was first talked of Harry Killigrew’s being wounded in nine places last night by footmen in the highway, going from the park in a hackney coach toward Hammersmith to his house at Turnam greene [sic] …”

The punishment for highwaymen, who were captured, was often death by hanging. Many of those convicted of crimes in the countryside around London were hung at Tyburn, close to where London’s Marble Arch stands today. Ending a highwayman’s life at Tyburn was often not the end of the story as is shown in this extract from Select Trials, for Murders, Robberies, Rapes, Sodomy, Coining, Frauds, and Other Offences. At the Sessions-House in the Old-Bailey. …, (published in 1742):

“The same day that Hawkins and Simpson were hanged, their bodies were carried to Hounslow Heath, and there hanged in irons on a gibbet erected for that purpose, not far from that on which Benjamin Child was hanged in the same manner…”

Hounslow Heath was a vast area in Middlesex, now covered mostly by west London and Heathrow Airport. It was crossed by several important roads from London to the west and south west. In between the small villages that were dotted about the Heath, there was no shortage of highwaymen and the potential for stealing much of value was great on these major arteries. The quote above mentioned that the bodies of the two fellows who were hung at Tyburn were taken to Hounslow Heath to be hung in irons. Back in those times, the bodies of executed highwaymen were hung from gibbets alongside the main roads in order to deter others from being tempted to rob travellers. How effective these grim warnings were in preventing highway robberies, I do not know.

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