Gabriel Tompkins - Highwayman
On 23rd March 1750 Gabriel Tomkins, also known by a number of aliases including Jarvis and "Uncle", was executed and hung in chains between Hockliffe and Dunstable after being convicted of robbing the Chester mail near Hockliffe. The Gentleman's Magazine of July 1746 records that on Tuesday 1st July: "The Postboy with the Chester mail was robb'd near Hockliff in Bedfordshire between Fenny Stratford and Dunstable, by a single highwayman, for conviction of whom 200 pounds are offer'd, besides the reward given by Act of Parliament for apprehending highwaymen, and pardon to an accomplice".
Tomkins' execution was recorded in The Gentleman's Magazine of March 1750, when two other highwaymen were also executed for robbing the Yarmouth mail in July 1749.
Tomkins' story is a fascinating one. He began life as a bricklayer from Tunbridge Wells [Kent] before becoming the leader of the notorious Mayfield smuggling gang which operated on the south coast of England. In 1721 he was captured and sentenced to seven years transportation, whereupon he turned King's Evidence and was released. After a further spell in gaol by 1733 Tomkins was considered a reformed character to such an extent that he was appointed a Customs Officer and was subsequently given charge of the Customs House at Dartford [Kent] and appointed Bailiff to the Sheriff of Sussex. His career on the right side of the law did not last and by 1741 he had reverted to a life of crime. He appears to have joined the equally notorious Hawkhurst gang as well as operating as a highwayman and taking part in the Chester mail robbery which brought about his downfall. He was arrested on 11th January 1750 and tried at Bedford Lent Assizes on 8th March 1750 on a charge of "robbing Thomas Roone [the postboy] in a certain field and open place near the King's Highway, and stole one Grey Gelding, price £30.00 of Samuel Lorde, and Goods value £40.00 of Our Lord the King".
There is some conjecture as to the place of Tomkins' execution. It is possible he was hanged at Gallows Corner, Bedford and his body then brought to the area in which his crime was committed to be displayed as a grisly warning to other highwaymen. On the other hand there is known to have been a gibbet by Watling Street near to Chalk Hill in Houghton Regis, at the corner of "that close called Gib Close". The exact location is unclear.
A description of Gabriel Tomkins appears in the Treasury Papers for January 1729. He was "something pitted with the smallpox, has a very large black eyebrow and usually wore a light wig and fustian frock – is now supposed to wear his own dark brown hair, is a tall well-made man, [and] was shot through the left arm with a brace of bullets".