Coaches and Highwaymen

The romanticism of the highwayman was quickly dispelled when Cyril Britten came to speak to the Society on the evening of the Annual General Meeting. Brandishing flintlock pistols, Cyril set out the background to the rise of the highwayman.and woman. The end of the English Civil War saw disaffected and impoverished cavaliers ranging the country in search of food and money. At the same time, the exigencies of war saw, as always the improvement of weaponry and in particular, the invention of the flintlock pistol. No longer did gun owners have to struggle through the time consuming process of loading a weapon. Flintlocks were quickly loaded and ready for action..and holdups.

So the scene was set for the rise of the highwayman. And there were many hundreds of them at their peak; Claude Duval, probably the only gentleman highwayman, who wooed the ladies he robbed (hung at Exeter); John Smith, a regular robber of the Birmingham-Shrewsbury coach at Wolseley Corner near Rugeley (they eventually caught and hung him there); Lichfield highwayman William Parsons, (hung at Tamworth Castle); and of course Dick Turpin. Famous he may have been, but Cyril left us in no doubt that he was a ruthless thug, who turned his hand to robbing stagecoaches after careers in cattle rustling, burglary and as a hired assassin. And, his horse wasn't called Black Bess, he didn't make a famous ride from London to York, nor did he wear a mask. Call these romantic notions fostered by Hollywood producers.

Around highwaymen, Cyril wove a story of bounty hunters, of ladies concealing miniature weapons in their muffs to defend themselves from the robbers, of poor roads, grabbed meals at coaching inns and eventually of the fight back by the coach owners (those who weren't in partnership with the highwaymen) by paying armed guards to ride on coaches. But the end came as it often does, through a combination of factors.

New laws placed the responsibility for road repairs squarely on the shoulders of the local Parish. This meant that coaches could go faster, and so be more difficult to track down and stop. Armed guards became more common and as mail coaches increased in number, robbery meant interfering with the passage of the King's mails, a much more risky business; and the police became better organised. Looming on the horizon as we move into the nineteenth century is the arrival of the steam railway ... and the end of the highwayman.

Cyril explained that the history of the highwayman is difficult to trace. Few records exist. For any member who nurses a desire to undertake some original research, the highwayman awaits!

Roger Hockney
February 2005