The golden age of Highwaymen was 1650 to 1830, with the peak in the 2nd half of the 18th century, and it turns out Gloucestershire was a popular spot for them. On 14th January, John Putley talked to the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society about the most infamous local proponents and debunked a few Highwaymen myths along the way in a rip-roaring presentation.
The Dunsdon Brothers: Tom, Dick and Harry (yes, really – and this maybe where the phrase comes from) were young gentry related to Fulbrook Manor who turned to crime. They preyed on farmers going to market, and rich travellers to Gloucester; but their favourite target was the Oxford Mail Coach which they attacked three times. Although the authorities had their suspicions, they did not have enough evidence to arrest them until they were indiscreet about their planned raid on Tangley Hall and someone tipped off the constable. Dick smashed a window, but when he put his hand through, he was grabbed by a militiaman. His brothers acted quickly, if not cruelly, and chopped his arm off so they could all escape. Unfortunately Dick died a few days later, his brothers were hanged in Gloucester in 1783.
Also hanged in Gloucester, but in 1828, making them the last Highwaymen to be hanged, were Matthew and Henry Pinnell. They were arrested in Salisbury for attacking James Kearsey and stealing £16 and his watch. However, the Newspaper reports at the time suggest that they were framed, with Kearsey deliberately giving false evidence in revenge for an earlier slight.
By the mid-19th century Highwaymen started to become a less popular profession. Why was this? Well, firstly the English countryside began to change. The improved roads meant faster traffic, making prey more difficult to catch. The Inclosure Acts meant more fences, making escape more difficult. And heavier traffic meant there more witnesses, making arrest more likely as well.
At any rate, being a Highwayman had always been a risky career choice. There may not have been a standing Police force in England at that time, but there were thief takers, parish constables and the army; even worse, there were other Highwaymen, and they were prone to robbing and informing on each other. If they were caught they were likely to be hanged and their bodies gibbeted, as robbery on the King’s Highway and drawing a pistol both carried the death sentence. Despite the grizzly fate that awaited them, they were given superstar treatment: allowed visitors and drink in gaol, and it is no wonder since their farewell speeches on the gallows could attract crowds of thousands.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.