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Monday, 25 June 2012

Stand and Deliver!

Highwaymen or ‘knights of the road’ flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of England’s most infamous highwaymen ended their careers on the ‘fatal tree’ at Tyburn long before Jane Austen was born.

Dick Turpin (1705–39), ‘long the terror of the North Road’ (John Timbs, Romance of London, (London, 1865)) was a butcher’s apprentice before turning his hand to stealing game, burglary, murder and highway robbery. Dick was hanged at York in 1739 for horse-stealing.

Highwaymen were still a force to be reckoned with during Austen’s lifetime. In Regency Cheshire, Thomas Brown (twenty-six) and James Price (nineteen) were hanged at Chester for robbing the Warrington mail-coach in May 1796.

You can find out more about the careers of men like the notorious Claude Duval, Turpin, ‘Sixteen-string Jack’, and Jack Sheppard in my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World.

By Victorian times, highwaymen and robbers like Turpin, Sheppard and others had become working class heroes because their crimes were perceived as being against the rich and propertied classes, rather than preying on the poor. Their lives became standard fodder for ‘penny dreadfuls’.

During the 1840s, reformers wanted to improve working conditions and access to education for working-class children. Many children could only attend Sunday school as they worked all week, but the education they received there was pretty poor. The 1843 Children’s Employment Commission discovered that some Black Country children had never heard of  British heroes such as Wellington and Nelson, but they had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the lives and careers of Turpin and Sheppard. It was not until the 1870 Education Act that universal education for children was enshrined in law.


‘An alarm by the guard’. Illustration by Hugh Thomson, Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, (Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1910).
Heath House, Knutsford, home of highwayman Edward Higgins in the 1750s. Legend has it that Higgins had an escape tunnel under the house. © Sue Wilkes.
Jack Sheppard’s famous escapes from Newgate prison: the obstacles he overcame. Old and New London Vol. II, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c. 1878).

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