William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood (1834) is the work which, along with Edward Bulwer Lytton’s lesser novel Paul Clifford (1830) imbued eighteenth-century highwaymen to legendary status. Ainsworth wanted to write a novel which, he says, was ‘in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe’. Ann Radcliffe was a Gothic novelist who wrote works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Radcliffe’s tale is set in Italy and is filled with Gothic motifs: family secrets; family intrigue; dark castles. And it also features in its narrative a brigand. Ainsworth wanted to adapt the themes of Radcliffe’s novel and set it, not in Italy, but in England. Drawing upon a rich English tradition of criminal biography, one of the main protagonists in Rookwood is the highwayman, Dick Turpin (1705-1739).
Ainsworth has a clear admiration for eighteenth-century highwaymen, and in an early part of the novel he has Turpin, whom Ainsworth’s transforms from an eighteenth-century thug into a gallant gentleman, sing a song dedicated to his forbears entitled Of Every Rascal of Every Kind. It begins in the following manner:
Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay JEMMY HIND!
Which nobody can deny.
Oddly, Turpin chose not to begin his song with Robin Hood. He would no doubt have been aware of the deeds and exploits of the legendary medieval outlaw, and he certainly was acquainted with Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819). This is perhaps why Ainsworth only wrote about eighteenth-century highwaymen; Scott, an acquaintance of his, had already covered Robin Hood, and Ainsworth, while wanting to emulate Scott by writing historical novels, probably wanted to break new ground.
Instead it is with ‘the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind’ whom Ainsworth begins with. Hind (1616-1652) was born in Oxfordshire, and the great criminal biographer, Captain Charles Johnson, tells us that Hind had a most respectable upbringing, having received a ‘good education and remaining at school until he was fifteen years of age’. It seems, according to Johnson, that he was apprenticed to the butchers’ trade after this, though it is less than certain how true this fact is. There was an odd association between highway robbery and the meat trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was thought to have contributed to a bloody and barbarous disposition, and hence some offenders were said to be butchers, even when they had in all likelihood never picked up a meat cleaver. This was most likely an attempt by Johnson to denote this aspect of Hind’s character. For example, even Robin Hood in Johnson’s account is said to have been a butcher, even though that is without precedent in the entire Robin Hood tradition.
What is known is that Hind became a soldier in the Royalist army during the English Revolution (1642-1651). When the Royalists lost the war and Cromwell came to power, Hind decided to take to a career upon the road, and claimed as his mission, not that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that he robbed because he had remained loyal to the Stuart dynasty instead of ‘the infamous usurper, Oliver Cromwell’. In fact, he made it his business to only ever rob Parliamentarians – he was a highwayman with a mission. It is reported that when he robbed Hugh Peters, a signatory to the death warrant of Charles I, Hind gave his victim a moral lesson:
Another time Captain Hind meeting High Peters in Enfield Chase, he commanded that celebrated regicide to stand and deliver. Whereupon he began to cudgel this bold robber with some parcels of scripture, saying, The eighth commandment commands that you should not steal; besides, it is said by Solomon, Rob not the Poor, because he is poor. Then Hind recollecting what he could remember of his reading the Bible in his minority, he began to pay the Presbyterian parson with his own weapon, saying, Friend, if you had obeyed God’s precepts as you ought, you would not have presumed to have wrested his holy word to a wrong sense, when you took this text, Bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron, to aggravate the misfortunes of your royal master, whom your cursed Republican party unjustly murdered before his own palace.
Unfortunately, Hind’s career upon the road did not last long. One of his associates betrayed him to the authorities. He was tried, not for the crime of highway robbery, but for treason, and the sentence which was passed decreed that Hind should be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
On the day of his death, he declared that he did not consider himself guilty of treason, for he had stayed loyal to England’s true ruler, Charles I, and the Stuart dynasty. After his death, his head was placed upon a spike in London as a warning to people not to follow his course of life.
Hind’s story was taken and embellished by several criminal biographers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and his case is significant because he was the first robber since Robin Hood to take upon himself a mission: loyalty to the crown. He did not necessarily steal from the rich and give to the poor, what mattered was that he was the enemy of the Republicans. Indeed, the accounts of Hind which have survived to our own day often portray him in a sympathetic light. Both Alexander Smith and Capt. Charles Johnson were fervent Royalists, and wanted to portray him as a martyr. In fact, to Smith and Johnson, it is Hind who is the most heroic highwayman who has ever lived. They repeatedly refer to Hind as ‘our hero’ whereas, in contrast, Robin Hood is nothing special. Robin is merely one of a number of criminals who were of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’. For a brief period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, therefore, it was James Hind, not Robin Hood, who was England’s most heroic robber.