The eighteenth century was without a doubt the golden age of highwaymen, being the era in which robbers such as Jack Sheppard (1702–24), Dick Turpin (1705–39), and James Maclaine (1724–50). Most of the ‘celebrity’ highwaymen lived in the earlier part of the century, however, and as the Georgian era progressed, highwaymen were increasingly condemned in newspapers and by others. There was one outlier, however: his name was John ‘Sixteen-String Jack’ Rann who, with his fine clothes and polite manner, was the last of the gentlemanly highwaymen.[i]
Rann was born in Bath of honest and respectable parents who, although they were destitute, raised him well. They could not afford any schooling for him, so at an early age he was sent to work. He made money by selling goods from a cart and through this formed a friendship with an aristocrat who was visiting the spas at Bath. The town in this period was what is known as a ‘Spa Town’. The underground springs were assumed to possess restorative powers and the great and the good flocked there, as well as to other places such as Harrogate, to ‘take the waters’. The lady took Rann into her service when he was about 12 years old and he returned to London with her when the spa season was over. By all accounts, the noblewoman was very pleased with his work. Rann, however, wanted to be his own boss and so, parting ways with the lady amicably, he resolved to set up his own business.
He could not read and write, but he knew how to drive a cart and had saved up a little capital from his time working in service. So he immediately purchased a post-chaise and started his own business as what we might now think of as an upper-class taxi driver. He would drive clients home after their nights out and through this made many friends in fairly high places. He did this part time while serving as an army officer’s errand boy. Perhaps as a result of mixing with the upper classes, Rann began to emulate gentlemen in his style of dress, and due to his fine clothes he was nicknamed ‘Sixteen-String Jack’.
Unfortunately his business folded because, along with purchasing high value clothes, he also frequented upper-class drinking establishments and soon ran into debt, to the tune of £50 (this was the equivalent to £4,335 in today’s money).[ii] In order to avoid the bailiffs, Rann turned pickpocket and soon fell in with two other young men engaged in the ‘profession’, known by the names of Jones, Clayton, and Colledge, who encouraged Rann to stick to this new way of life. Contemporary biographers record that his descent into a criminal course of life was also abetted by his budding relationship with a sex worker named Miss Roche.
With his friends, Rann commenced a series of robberies throughout London. He liked to live dangerously: he would taunt the Bow Street Runners, London’s first police force, by leading them on a chase throughout London and then giving them the slip. He also did not try to hide his identity: at one point, so his biography records, Rann was being hunted by John Fielding’s runners when he arrived at a turnpike and told the toll keeper:
“I am Sixteen-String Jack, the famous highwayman – have any of Sir John Fielding’s people been this way?”
“Yes,” said the man, “some of them are but just gone through.”
Rann replied, “If you see them again tell them I am gone towards London.”
And then he rode off with the most unconcern.[iii]
He was actually arrested three times in the last four years of his life on multiple counts of highway robbery. Yet none of the prosecutors could ever make the charges stick due to lack of evidence.
However, his downfall came when he robbed Dr William Bell, who was the chaplain to Princess Amelia (1783–1810) while he was travelling on Uxbridge Road. Rann was reportedly most uncivil about the whole affair:
Rann crossed the head of [Bell’s] horse and, demanding his money, said, “Give it to me and take no notice, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
The doctor, not wanting to test Rann’s threat, gave him 1s 6d as well as a tortoise-shell watch.[iv] Rann and his fellow robbers needed to get rid of their stolen goods, however, and on the same day as the robbery Miss Roche visited a pawn-brokers in order to exchange it for money. The pawnbroker assumed that the watch had not been acquired honestly, and so quietly alerted the authorities. Runners were sent to watch Roche’s apartment and the instant that Rann and his pals approached they were all arrested.
Rann’s accomplice, Clayton, was acquitted on all charges (accounts do not say why although it may due to the fact that he turned king’s evidence). Roche was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for fourteen years. Rann himself was sentenced to be hanged. While he was understandably dismayed at the sentence, he did not let this put him off from enjoying his last few days in gaol. While confined in Newgate prison he entertained several ladies with food and drink. He was finally put to death on 30 November 1774, one of the 35,000 people who suffered under the harsh penal laws in place between 1770 and 1830.[v] Rann’s biographer actually regretted the harsh sentence that was passed upon him:
As in the course of these memoirs we have had occasion to draw a parallel between the offences of Sixtreen-String Jack and the accumulated guilt of others, we cannot help observing, that though his charges are many, yet compared with those of a blacker dye, who have received mercy, we cannot help wishing, that this once happy young man might receive some proportion of that heaven-like attribute, and be endowed with grace sufficient to become a useful member of society.[vi]
What was the point, argues the author, of executing a young man when others had committed worse crimes and gotten away with them? Would it not be more useful to society as a whole if this enterprising young man was pardoned and given the opportunity to turn his hands to a useful trade? It is during the late eighteenth century that concerns gradually began to be raised in some quarters about the efficacy of the death penalty, although they were very much in the minority and, of course, Britain did not abolish it until the 1960s.
While earlier criminals such as Maclaine and Sheppard were celebrated in the press, Rann merely cut a rather ridiculous figure. The general public had grown tired of highwaymen after the 1760s. Newspapers had taken over the reporting of crime from the criminal biographies and pamphlets of individual criminals’ lives that had flourished in the earlier part of the century. They often reported crime in a matter of fact way, and instead of providing lengthy justifications for criminals’ actions, endeavoured instead to emphasise the suffering of the victim in accounts of crime. Lincoln B. Faller also argues that a middle-class consciousness seeped into popular crime literature, and the middle classes, who at this time were wanting to differentiate themselves both from the aristocracy and the plebeian classes, actively disowned any identification that they might have had with such low lives. And it was, after all, the middle classes whom highwaymen robbed the most.[vii]
While heavily fictionalised stories of some highwaymen such as Sheppard and Turpin remained popular into the Victorian period, being featured in novels and penny dreadfuls, poor Jack Rann, who really wanted to be classed alongside the ‘great’ highwaymen of old, was easily forgotten.
[i] This account is based upon readings from the following sources: The Annals of Newgate; or, Malefactors’ Register, 4 vols (London: J. Wenman, 1776); Andrew Knapp and William Bawldwin, The Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactors’ Bloody Register, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824); A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, alias Sixteen-string Jack (London: Bailey, 1774); The Malefactor’s Register; or, the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, 5 vols (London: A. Hogg, 1779).
[ii] See National Archives’ Currency Converter <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter> [Accessed 23 April 2018].
[iii] Knapp and Bawldwin, The Newgate Calendar, 3: 2.
[iv] Ibid., p. 4.
[v] For statistics see V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
[vi] A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, p. 4.
[vii] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 191-93.