SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Stand and deliver! DAVID MORGAN has tracked down notorious highwaymen who preyed on the unwary travelling on Croydon’s roads, from Thornton Heath to Smitham Bottom in the 1700s
The registers of Croydon Minster, as well as the information about births, deaths and marriages, include some often fascinating and intriguing extra notes about significant events of the day.
Among some from the 18th Century that I have recently found are grim records of public executions.
The writer noted that on March 31 1723, six men were executed at Thornton Heath. A further entry on April 4 states that another four men were also executed at that same spot, near to the London Road. In one newspaper report of the day, the place was referred to as Gallows Green.
Several old history books speak about Thornton Heath in two ways. First, it was where charcoal was manufactured on common land and second, as an area notorious for highwaymen. The deterrent of hanging didn’t stop the offending.
The church records show that a victim of a highwayman’s attack was buried in Croydon churchyard. On the March 17 1749, Robert Saxby, the groom to John How, who lived at Barrowgreen, Oxted, was robbed and murdered. He was buried four days later.
The tragic incident is recorded as having occurred “at the end of Breach Lane, near Crome Hurst”. The authorities soon apprehended the culprits. James Cooper was found guilty and executed on August 30 on a gibbet in Smitham Bottom, hanged in chains for his crime. A newspaper report stated that Cooper was also responsible for robbing Robert Boyd, the park keeper to Sir Kendrick Clayton at Marden Park in Surrey, as well as the shooting of Saxby.
Cooper had an accomplice, William Duncalf, who died in jail before the sentence could be carried out.
When the case of Cooper was reported in the paper, it carried with it a paragraph about a miscarriage of justice. Before Cooper was hanged, he gave a full confession of other crimes which he and Duncalf had committed. This included a robbery in Addiscombe Lane, near Croydon, of Farmer Jackson. The victim, though, was adamant about the identification of his assailant. Because of his mistake he sent an innocent man, John Shelton, to the gallows at Guildford.
A few years earlier there was another violent robbery in Shirley.
On Saturday January 18 1735, a house was approached by a gang of five masked men, each armed with two pistols. They forced their way inside and tied up members of the household. Money, jewels and silver plate were plundered and carried away in sacks. The owner of the house, Mr Sheldon, was given back two guineas by the gang, who begged his pardon for what they had done to him.
They wished him well as they made off with their booty. It was supposed that this was the gang who had committed serious robberies across Essex and Kent.
Several versions of this story can be found, but there are books that refer to this Essex gang as containing Dick Turpin, probably the most notorious of all the highwaymen of that era.
The names of three of the other men on that raid were probably Walker, Fielder and Rose. They had met up at a Croydon pub, possibly the Half Moon Tavern, before going over to the Sheldon residence. There are stories, too, that Turpin lived for a short time in an isolated cottage in Thornton Heath, near to Colliers Water Farm.
The effects of such robberies on the households involved would leave everyone shaken up.
Over the years, though, a romanticised notion of what a highwayman was like seemed to develop. Did this begin with tales that they sometimes gave a little back to the victim, as in the case of Mr Sheldon?
Another note in the register about highwaymen comes from 1748. On March 5, a soldier, Francis Herbert, was committed to Maidstone gaol by order of the coroner, Henry Dixon. The soldier, who had been lodging in a local inn, was accused of the murder of Hugh Bainbridge, the Master of the Croydon Stagecoach.
Herbert overheard that Bainbridge had gone off to Sydenham with some money, so he set off after him. He overtook Bainbridge on Sydenham Common, cut his throat and stole the cash. Herbert was later apprehended at Bromley by two soldiers after putting up a desperate resistance.
While the murder of Bainbridge was shocking enough to be a footnote in the church registers, there were many more local incidents that were reported only in the newspapers.
On Tuesday May 6 1754, the son of a wealthy farmer from Bookham in Surrey (the newspaper report failed to provide his name) was charged with robbing Jeremiah Sippetts, a farmer from Croydon, of 15 shillings while he was in Caterham. The thief was sent to prison, after being sentenced in court and described as the “young highwayman who has for some time past, infested the roads about Croydon and between that town and London”.
On Wednesday July 8 1761, at about 10 o’clock in the evening, a gentleman and a lady in a post-chaise were stopped by a highwayman. He took a metal watch and about 30 shillings. The lone robber was described as being “well mounted on a dark gelding”, and was last seen galloping off in the direction of Epsom.
The disgraced Vicar of Croydon, William Clewer, also had an encounter with a highwayman, an Irishman named Patrick O’Brian.
When Clewer encountered O’Brian on a road near Acton, the highwayman demanded money. As the vicar replied that he had none, O’Brian asked him for his cloak.
Next, Clewer produced a pack of cards and told O’Brien that he would play a game of all-fours for it. The challenge was accepted but as O’Brian was much more skilled at slipping and palming the cards, Clewer lost and was forced to give away his cloak.
The account finished with Clewer walking away “without his canonicals!”
Clewer was removed from Croydon Church on account of his extortions and criminal behaviour in 1684. The date of his encounter with O’Brian wasn’t given in the account, but it must have been before 1689, which is when the Irishman was hanged for a series of crimes, aged 31.
Rather than the romanticised highwayman of legend who was well dressed, had a kerchief over his face and shouted threats like “Stand and deliver!” or “Your money or your life!” as a greeting, most of the 18th Century armed criminals practised their trade with brutality. Robberies were often violent and in certain areas around London, people would not venture out without an armed escort. The law-abiding folk of Croydon breathed a collective sigh when the days of the highwaymen were over.
A well-known poem by Alfred Noyes, entitled The Highwayman, sums up the romance and reality in verse. The first two stanzas reflect the romantic view…
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding —
Riding — riding —
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
The highwayman pays court to the innkeeper’s daughter, who keeps watch for his return. But the story ends in tragedy…
He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- Pitlake’s poetic priest and his Edwardian Coronation Ode
- Artist’s sister helped him become poster boy of Victorian age
- When Minster was the venue for an Anglo-Saxon peace treaty
- Tudor vicar who stood with Thomas More against Henry VIII
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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