In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries crime, and in particular highway robbery, was a problem. Whether crime was actually as bad as Henry Fielding gloomily surmised, that the streets of London ‘were impassable but without the utmost hazard’, is open to debate. One thing is certain, however, for the average Londoner, the fear of being robbed was real to them.
Such fears left their marks upon the popular culture of the day. The theme common to a lot of popular literature produced between c.1660 and c.1740 is crime. Beginning in the 1660s there was Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1663). The early eighteenth century witnessed the publication of Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), along with Captain Charles Johnson’s A General of History of the Most Noted Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).
Daniel Defoe’s authorship has also been ascribed to three criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). It has been suggested by some scholars that Defoe was actually Charles Johnson, but I have discussed the credibility of that in another post. We know that Defoe definitely authored novels whose protagonists were criminals, such as Moll Flanders (1722), whilst Henry Fielding authored an embellished acccount of Wild’s life entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).
It is to a work which Richard Head allegedly authored entitled Jackson’s recantation, or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution: wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road. They were fond of long titles in the eighteenth century, and the work purports to be the last confession of a relatively obscure highwayman, Francis Jackson.
Richard Head (1637-1686) was born in Ireland, and was a playwright and bookseller. His The English Rogue was one of the first English books that was translated into a foreign language.
The protagonist, Jackson, is currently awaiting his execution in Newgate gaol. He is alone in the condemned hold, and is struck by remorse of conscience for his wicked life:
Heaven thought fit I should no longer reign in pride and arrogance, and therefore committed me into hands of Justice, to be punisht to the demerits of my Crimes. Being here confin’d in this Terrestial Hell, surrounded with horror and despair, my conscience started out of her dead sleep, and demanded a severe account of what I had done; guilt instantly did stop my mouth.
A priest, or The Ordinary of Newgate, comes to visit him in the condemned hold to hear his confession, as was the custom. The Ordinary also was able to make a little money out of these visits to prisoners; they would write down the felons’ stories and sell them to the publishers to make a profit.
The highwayman reveals that he turned to robbery in his youth because he was starving and destitute. Yet to Richard Head, this is no justification for robbery. After finding a purse full of money in the street, the highwayman takes it, and keeps it, and from then on it is a downward spiral for him into a life of sin and vice, until he soon joins forces with other robbers that he meets:
The first Robbery that I committed, I told you was on a Coach near Barnet; The second was this, we were four in Company, and took our Road towards Maiden-head, more for intelligence sake than for any present Booty; in Maidenhead we din’d, and towards four a clock in Summer time we travel’d on for Redding, making a little halt by the way at Maidenhead Thicket, expecting there to light upon some prize; having waited an hour or more to no purpose, we proposed to distribute our selves, and Ride into Redding singly, and that two should lie in one Inn, and two in the other, for the better benefit of observation. My other two Comerades lay in an Inn where they were intimately acquainted, and were winkt at by the Master of the House, the Servants also being at their Devotion; by whose means they understood that there was a Gentleman in the house who was the next morning with his Man, would set out for Malbrough, and that it was thought by the weight of a small Port-mantue, that it must be mony that caused it to be so heavy. We on the other side could make no discovery till after Supper, and then we heard what our hearts desired. An Attourney was in the company, and amongst other talk, he said he was bound for London to be there at the Term […] I put his hand in his pocket and pul’d out a Bagg wherein were an hundred and fifty Guinnies, saying, these I will so conceal in the Saddle I ride upon.
But this was not only a moralist text, expounding the dangers of falling into a life of vice and crime. It was also a manual for Londoners to know how they could avoid being robbed. The whole narrative is supposed to illuminate the modus operandi of organised criminal gangs in the seventeenth century. If you do happen to be robbed in London, Head gives this advice:
If you are set upon and rob’d in the Eastern quarter, take not that Road in which you were to London, nor raise the Country thereabout, for it is to no purpose; but ride with all speed to Holbourn, Strand, St. Jameses, or West∣minster, and there search with all diligence. If you are rob’d towards the North, never search any place in the City, but make all convenient speed to the Bank-side, Southwark, Lambeth, or Fox-hall; by thus planting themselves, they know, or think at least, they are sufficiently secure, having the City between them and you.
He also gives advice on how to spot a highwayman:
The first caution is this, be shy of those who are over prone in prossing into your company; it is more safe to entertain such who are unwilling to associate themselves with you, or if they do it is with such indifferency, that there need the urging of perswasions to effect it. Now to the intent you may distinguish an honest man from a Thief or Robber, take these informations and directions; first if you suspect your company, halt a little, and in your stay observe whether they still hold on their course, or slack their pace, or it may be alight and walk with their Horses in their hands, if you observe any of these, you may conclude them the justly suspected marks of an High-wayman.
This pamphlet was very popular, and provided inspiration for other writers of criminal biography such as Smith and Johnson, especially its illuminating descriptions of how highwaymen operated. But the pamphlet ends with a stark warning, saying that however much new laws are created to curb crime, criminals will always find a way to circumvent them:
Let this suffice, for according to the Proverb, new Lords, new Laws; so all new Gangs have new Orders, Plots and Designs, to Rob and Purloin from the honest Traveller.