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Highwaymen at The Swan Inn Flitwick

1 Church Road April 2017
1 Church Road April 2017

The Gables is a most attractive old property with a fascinating history. It was listed in January 1961 by the Ministry of Works as Grade II, of special interest. The listing dates the house to about 1600. It is timber-framed with red brick infill and some parts of the ground floor are encased in a brick skin. There is colour-washed render to the rear and one side elevation and the roof is composed of clay tiles. The property has two storeys.or at least 250 years it was the Swan Inn.

In the mid-17th century the inn was the haunt of highwaymen as the following records show. They are depositions (witness statements) given at the Assizes in Bedford. In 1678 a man named John Wilson was accused of horse theft - a capital offence [HSA1678/W/58]. In his statement Wilson said that his name was John Wilson and that he lived in Kent Afterwards it was said that his name was Wright and that he lived at Billington. He said he was going to Bedford Market to buy goods and that the pistol which he had in his pocket and charged [i.e. loaded] he had found on the road. He had no money.

George Sole of Flitwick, tanner (scarcely an honest man as we will encounter him below)  said that about midnight on 11th February he heard his horse “bussel and snort” in the stable which caused him to get up and come down into his yard, which was enclosed with a barn, stable and wall and adjoined his house. There he found his stable door opened, his horse untied from the manger and the halter flung over his neck. Immediately after he said he saw Wilson alias Wright come out of his barn and that he “layd hold of and secured” him.

William Chapman said that Wilson or Wright came into his house “being the figure of the Swan at Flitwick” with a man named Usher of Westoning and stayed until nine o’clock that night. Chapman offered him a bed but Wilson refused it and said he must make haste to Bedford for fear of losing time at the market in the morning.

Sadly the assize records contain no information on the result of each trial. If Wilson alias Wright had been found guilty he would have been hanged. It must be said that a night ride to Bedford from Flitwick would have been hazardous, particularly in February, which makes one wonder at his motives, as does the loaded pistol he claimed he simply found on the road! A pistol was an expensive item to leave lying around.

The second case was heard at the winter assize in March next year and was made against George Sole and Richard Rolfe for associating with convicted highwaymen William King and Henry Clayton who had been “lately executed”. The evidence came from Cornelius Fulham “now prisoner in Newgate” and was taken on 3rd September 1678 [HSA1679/W/49]. Fulham said that he knew Rolph and Sole, having been several times to Rolfe’s house in the company of King and Clayton “and other Robbers”. Clayton had been called out several times from Rolfe’s house to “goe a Padding” meaning act as a footpad or highway robber. Fulham heard Clayton say that he had left £30 (a very large sum at the time), part of a haul stolen at Watford Gap in Northamptonshire, with Rolfe, getting a bond from him for it. Clayton and King often slept at Rolfe’s house, calling themselves Greene and Cooke.

Fulham went on to say that King and Clayton told him that they had sent the mare stolen from a grazier robbed at Watford Gap to Rolfe’s house from the Swan at Flitwick. They also stated that they had divided £300 robbed at Watford Gap at the inn, which conjures up a dramatic picture of desperate men dividing fold and silver coins by candlelight whilst drinking and carousing.

Fulham went on to say that he “and his company” thought the Swan “a Place of safe retreate, to which place they often repaired, And that when he and his company were persued by a Hue and Cry for the Robbery att Watford Gappe they did fly to the Swanne att Fleet wick where they thought themselves secure”. He also put a metaphorical and, quite possibly, real noose around William Chapman’s neck by saying that he sent his daughter on horseback to the Bell Inn, Bedford to bring Clayton to the rest of the band of robbers. He went on to say that Sole wrote a letter to Clayton and King saying he would send their money out of the county to them. “And that since the writeing of that Letter he this Examinant was in Company with the said George Sole att the Three Cannes in Holborne where the said George Sole did againe promice the setting the King's money and agreed with them to have his share of itt if they tooke itt. And he this Examinant hath heard the said King and Clayton say that the said George Sole had some of their moneys in his hands and that they sent to the said Sole and Rolfe for some of their money when they were in prison which money the said Sole and Rolfe denyed them by a Letter which they sent to Newgate, upon which deniall the said Clayton and King said the said Sole and Rolfe were great villaines”.

On 19th March 1679 additional information was provided by Thomas Barber of Barton-le-Clay for the prosecution of Sole and Rolfe [HSA1679/W/51]. He remembered that a year ago last Christmas (i.e. in December 1677) he saw three men at the Swan and that John Dennis of Gravenhurst told him they were King, Clayton and a man named Sheffield and that they had “Robbed two men beyond Dunstable and taken ten pound from them but Gave it Back again and likewise A Coach below Bedford and taken Jewelry and likewise often told this Informant that if Mr. Rhodes of Flitwick knew what he Knew, Mr. Rhodes would give him ten pounds”. He also told him that Richard Rolfe had held a dinner at which King and Clayton, no doubt in their cups, had quarrelled and fought. Apparently King and Clayton had wanted Dennis to join them but, of course, he had not.

The fate of Richard Rolfe, George Sole, William Chapman, his daughter and of Cornelius Fulham is unknown. However some of the men may turn up in parish registers:

  • William Chapman: a William Chapman was buried in Flitwick on 2nd November 1692 and another on 29th September 1704;
  • Richard Rolfe: a Richard Roffe, son of Matthew was baptised on 9th February 1643 in Barton-le-Clay; a Richard Roff was buried in Westoning on 10th May 1683 and another on 18th December 1687; a Richard Rolfe was buried in Westoning on 24th February 1709
  • George Sole: a George Sole, son of George Sole, was baptised in Flitwick on 28th February 1615; a George Sole married Catherine Sibthorp on 1st January 1665 in Great Barford; a Catherine, daughter of George Sole junior was born 8th April and baptised in Flitwick 8th April 1666; a George Sole, son of George Sole junior was baptised in Flitwick on 1st January 1668; a George Sole was buried in Flitwick on 30th August 1682 and another on 11th April 1708.

George Sole is, perhaps, the easiest to disentangle from this. The best guess seems to be that he was the George Sole junior marrying Catherine Sibthorp in Great Barford in 1665, their daughter Catherine being born in April 1666 (she may be the daughter sent to Bedford for Henry Clayton - she would only have been about twelve, but children were expected to grow up quickly then. He may then be the man buried in Flitwick in 1682 (probably aged in his thirties or forties) or 1708 (aged in his sixties or seventies).