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Highwaymen & horse thieves

Stand & Deliver! Records of Highwaymen and Horse Thieves

In the pre-mechanised age horses were among the most valuable asset of any person, both as a means of transport and as a status symbol. Horse theft was common. Those with carriages and horses travelled the poorly maintained roads at their own risk and became a target for the enterprising or desperate thief. Envy and opportunism fed the crimes of 'horse stealing' and 'highway robbery' which were a capital offences, punishable by death. Bedfordshire had its fair share of such rogues, records of whom can be found in the archives from the 17th Century onwards. References can be found in our searchroom index under CRIME & PUNISHMENT: CRIME: Highway Robbery, and on our gaol database, accessible in our searchroom.

The records of the High Sheriff's Assizes include documents recording that John Jenkins of Aspley Guise, a labourer, was hanged for threatening behaviour on the highway and stealing 14 shillings in 1683 [Ref. HSA1683 W 26 &37]. In 1685 Peter Clarke was hanged for the highway robbery of Thomas Harrowden, but his accomplice Thomas Strange escaped [Ref.HSA1680 S 28 & 44]. In 1685, when Thomas Croxton & John Harmon were hanged for robbing travellers of bone lace [Ref. HSA 1685 5 & 6] a third man involved also escaped. Highwaymen were often very elusive and rewards were offered for their capture. Excerpts from Gentlemen's Magazine [transcribed in Ref. CRT130 Hoc 2] record that in July 1746 'The Postboy with the Chester Mail was robb'd near Hockliffe in Bedfordshire …by a single highwayman, for Conviction of whom 200 are offer'd, besides the reward given by Act of Parliament for apprehending highwaymen, and pardon to an accomplice.' Four years later, in March 1750 the same publication recorded 'Gabriel Tomkins, for robbing the Chester mail in 1746, was executed, and hung in chains between Hockliffe and Dunstable'.

Parish registers occasionally note the fate of such criminals. Flitton Parish Register records the burial of "A highwayman (name unknown) shot in Silsoe Lane" on 26 April 1751. Haynes parish register (above) includes a tale of thwarted romance, with banns of marriage between Tobias Smith (Gypsy) and Elizabeth Dines, spinster, read on the 17th and 24th April 1791. The register notes that the banns were the 'withdrawn at ye insistence of Elizabeth Dines (a minor) and her mother. Tobias capitally convicted of Horse Stealing at Bedford Lent Assizes on the 10th March 1792 and he was executed on the 3rd of April 1792'.

In March 1831 Mr E Crocker, Steward to the Duke of Bedford was asked by his correspondent Mr J Stagg "Is it really true that Hester's (the chimney sweeper) successor has been imprisoned twice in Bedford Gaol, once for Highway Robbery?!! & that a silver spoon was taken a fancy to by one of his boys?! I have received this information and therefore refrain from 'leading them into temptation' at the Abbey until I receive your answer.'" [Ref.R3/3274] This chimney sweep may have been Job Reeve of Woburn, who served a years imprisonment with hard labour in Bedford House of Correction after being reprieved from a sentence of death for highway robbery. He was released in 1816.

The creation of our database of 18,000 prisoners held in Bedford Gaol throughout the 19th century means that we can see that of the 74 prisoners charged with highway robbery during this period those sentenced to death were usually reprieved and transported for life or for a 10 – 15 year term instead. One exception to this was Thomas Crawley of Luton, who was executed in 1833 for highway robbery and wilful murder.
Not quite the Dandy Highwayman:
Levi Welch (above) photographed for Bedford Gaol records in 1867 [Ref. QGV10/4]

When William Burberry was killed during the course of a highway robbery in 1867, the man charged, Levi Welch, also of Luton, was acquitted of murder but sentenced to 14 years penal servitude. With 11 previous convictions to his name, he was removed from Bedford to Pentonville. Hardly the dandy highwayman of popular history, the gaol register records 'sores all over the body from scurvy' as an identifying feature. The trial, like all those for capital offences, took place at the Assizes Court, the records of which are held at the National Archives. In the same period the database records 71 prisoners punished for 'horse stealing', with similar sentences meted out to the offenders.