Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

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John Dryden’s “A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour”

But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years,
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourish’d, should decay with thee.
– Joseph Addison, Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694)

John Dryden
John Dryden (1631-1700)

John Dryden (1631-1700) is a significant figure in the literary history of the seventeenth century, and was counted by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as being the best poet throughout the whole of English history. He lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history, witnessing the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.

Dryden’s own career was affected by the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He was, however, able to see which way the wind was blowing. Upon the Restoration he allied himself with the returning Stuarts. He became one of their most loyal supporters, and was appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations.

Dryden exhibited a high degree of interest in England’s medieval past. He wrote the highly successful play King Arthur; or, The British Worthy in 1691, which was accompanied with an elegant musical score by the composer Henry Purcell. He also translated some of the works of Chaucer in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). But Dryden also kept an eye on the popular culture of the day, and to this end, in partnership with the printer Jacob Tonson, he published several volumes of Miscellany Poems which appeared in 1684, 1685, 1693, and 1694, and were reprinted repeatedly until a full six-volume edition in 1716, the sixth part of which was published posthumously after Dryden’s death in 1700.

Miscellany title page
Title Page to The Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems (1700)

It is in the sixth part of the Miscellany Poems that the ballad A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour appeared. A commentary on the actual content of the ballad has been undertaken for TEAMs by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, rendering a further discussion unnecessary here. It is rather the significance of the ballad appearing in the sixth volume that I want to briefly discuss.

Too often we tend to view the literary history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the works of a number of ‘great’ writers such as Dryden himself, Addison, Richard Steele, and Daniel Defoe. Yet these were works of high literature, and were not read by people every day. Instead, the various collections of Miscellanies which were published throughout the period tell us what was popular at the time for readers. In the words of one critic:

They were the form in which many ordinary people would have read poetry in the eighteenth century, and offer insights into readers and consumers of the past […]they represent a particularly important and popular mediation of poetry in the eighteenth century.

Miscellanies (and there were many more apart from Dryden’s collections) tended to reflect the popular culture of the moment. There must have been a temporary vogue among readers in the early eighteenth century for pieces of light pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry and plays derive from the classical tradition and tend to represent simple country life, in the vein of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631), in which Robin, instead of being an outlaw, is ‘Chief Woodsman of the Forest’ who gathers together ‘all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the forest’ together for a feast. The Robin Hood ballad which is published in Dryden’s collection is not marketed as a popular ballad, even though it was available in contemporary broadsides. Instead, it is presented as a piece of ‘pastoral poetry’, indicated by the volume’s preface:

There is no sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives delight. And the pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in painting, so I believe, in poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes, and most delightful prospects.

Hence a ballad of Robin Hood, which details life in the forest, fits perfectly inside a volume dedicated to celebrating pastoral poetry.

Indeed, if it is accepted that Miscellanies contain pieces of poetry which were popular with readers at the time, this would seem to complicate Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren’s remarks about this ballad. They say that:

This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution.

My argument to that is that the ballad can hardly have been ‘moderately well-known’ given the fact that, out of all the Robin Hood ballads which were available to contemporaries, the editor of the Miscellanies chose this ballad to reflect popular contemporary works.

This was, moreover, an age in which gradually the works of native English authors were becoming respected; it is in the eighteenth century, for instance, that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare first became thought of as ‘classics’. Sophisticated readers began to treasure the works, not only of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of the ballad writers. We owe the survival of many seventeenth-century popular ballads, for instance, to the labours of Samuel Pepys, who collected and preserved a number of broadsides in his personal library. Alongside Pepys were other eminent men who collected and preserved ballads, such as John Selden, and John Bagford whose collections of ballads became the Roxburghe Collection of ballads. Thus it was not the plebeian classes who only enjoyed English ballads but those of higher stations in life as well.

Pepys
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) collected and preserved many broadside ballads.

Finally, the inclusion of A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour in Dryden’s Miscellanies confirms Liz Oakley-Brown’s argument that after c.1600 the Robin Hood tradition began to move away from being an oral tradition to being a predominantly textual one. In Dryden’s volume, this Robin Hood ballad was not something that would have been sung. Rather it was something that somebody would have read. It is therefore the appearances of Robin Hood ballads in pieces of literature such as this that allow us to chart the development of the Robin Hood tradition, seeing how it gradually became gentrified and respectable for an audience of readers.

As a fan of Dryden myself, it would please me greatly if it ever turned out that Dryden himself wrote the ballad, but that seems very unlikely.


Further Reading:

My post on Dryden’s King Arthur (1691) on The History Vault

The Digital Miscellanies Project

Full Text of the Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems on Google Books

Stephen N. Zwicker (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Dick Turpin (1705-1739)

TrialDick Turpin (1705-1739) is perhaps the most famous highwayman in English history after Robin Hood (fl. 12th-13th centuries). He is remembered today as a heavily romanticised noble, gallant figure, having allegedly rode his horse from London to York in one day upon his trusty horse, Black Bess, the real Dick Turpin, as you would expect, was a wholly different man. This post gives a brief overview of his life and the legend which grew around him.

Dick Turpin was born in East Ham, in Essex, and received quite a good education, learning how to read and write. It was this good education which, as we will see, proved to be his ultimate downfall. At a young age he was apprenticed to a butcher, and having learnt a trade, established his own business after completing his term as an apprentice. It was when he set up his own business that he began to act as a receiver of stolen livestock for a gang of poachers called the Essex Gang. Although the exact details of Turpin’s involvement with the Essex Gang are unclear, it seems he became ever more deeply involved with them, and some historians have implicated him in the robbery of William Mason’s house – a farmer who lived in Essex – during which his daughters were raped.

In time, most of the members of the Essex Gang had been captured and executed, or sent for Transportation. It was after this, in 1735, that he turned to crime. He spent a brief career upon the road with two other highwaymen called Matthew King and Stephen Potter, and with them he committed several robberies, and, it is rumoured, even a murder.

King died, and Potter was later arrested, and so Turpin fled north (but not, as the legend would have you believe, in one day). Arriving in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he posed for a time as a horse trader under the assumed name of John Palmer. However, it is almost as though he could not help himself but engage in criminal activities; despite having a fresh start, he got caught stealing chickens from a farm, was arrested and placed in York Gaol. Whilst in Gaol, he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law in Hempstead asking for assistance. His brother-in-law did not collect the letter, and the letter remained at the post office, and the handwriting on the envelope and the letter was recognised as being none other than that of the wanted highwayman, Dick Turpin.

Dear Brother,
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven’s sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,
JOHN PALMER.

Turpin was sentenced to death at York Tyburn, but he apparently gave a good show to spectators in his last few moments, bowing to them in the cart as he passed by. When he climbed the scaffold the York Courant reported that: ‘with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes’.

William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834).
William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834).

It is only later that legends began to build up around him, and the construction of the legend, and its longevity, is surprising. In his own time, not much was written about him. He had a couple of entries in various editions of The Newgate Calendar, and none of those seem to have portrayed him in a good light. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the real criminal heroes were highwaymen like Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard, and James MacLean.

It was only in the next century when a novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) that Turpin’s legend really took off. Ainsworth wrote the novel Rookwood (1834). It was in this novel that the conventions of gothic romance and criminal biography converged; Ainsworth’s preface explained that he:

Resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe [who wrote the Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho]…substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle and brigand.

The novel begins with the death of Sir Piers Rookwood who has two sons. The firstborn, Luke, is supposedly illegitimate and has no right to the estate. The other son, and hitherto legitimate, heir is Ranulph Rookwood. It is revealed that Luke is actually legitimate by way of a clandestine first marriage of Sir Piers and a Catholic woman and stands to inherit the Rookwood estate. The novel becomes a battle between the two brothers and their respective families to inherit the estate. Moving the plot forward is a jovial character that goes by the name of Jack Palmer, who is Luke’s friend, and it turns out that this character is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Real Dick Turpin - Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]
The Real Dick Turpin – Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]

In this novel Turpin is a true gentleman; a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome, in contrast to the real Turpin, whom, says Gillian Spraggs, was a ‘pock-marked thug’. In fact, one of the reasons why the reading public may have warmed to Turpin in this novel is because throughout the whole novel, we never actually see Turpin robbing anybody at all. Instead the members of the aristocratic Rookwood are the real criminals because they continue their murderous ways until they each fall victim to their own schemes.

Ainsworth’s novel, moreover, was an exciting scene, and Turpin gets all of the best scenes, such as the now infamous ride from London to York in one day upon his loyal horse, Black Bess:

It was then, for the first time, that the thoughts of executing his extraordinary ride to York flashed across him…his pursuers were now within a hundred yards, and shouted him to stand…the whole of the neighbourhood was alarmed by the cries, and the tramp of horses…suddenly three horsemen appear in the road; they hear the uproar and din. “A highwayman! A highwayman” cry the voices: “Stop him! Stop him!” But it is no such easy matter. With a pistol in each hand, and his bridle in his teeth, Turpin passed boldly on. His fierce looks – his furious steed – the impetus with which he pressed forward, bore down all around him.

The ride to York is simply a legend, and was attributed to at least two other highwaymen before it settled upon Turpin; Daniel Defoe in A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1727-1727) attributes the feat to the highwayman William Nevison.

Ainsworth led readers to believe that the mounted highway robber was a special figure. A song which Ainsworth wrote and inserts into the novel entitled Nobody Can Deny celebrates the exploits of historical highwaymen, and ends with Turpin:

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny…
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.

The placing of Turpin at the end of this list of illustrious highwaymen is significant; towards the end of the novel, Ainsworth calls Turpin the Great Highwayman:

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.

Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive
Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive

After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin began to appear frequently on broadside ballads such as The Life and Death of Dick Turpin (c.1838), My Bonny Black Bess (c.1838), O Rare Turpin (c.1844), The Death of Black Bess (printed after c.1850), One Foot in the Stirrrup (c.1850), Poor Black Bess (c.1860).

It seems, however, that Ainsworth’s novel was the only foray into ‘high’ culture that the Turpin would make. After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin appears in penny dreadfuls such as Henry Downs Miles’ The Life and Death of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin (1845). He also appears in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1863-1866), as well as the mammoth 254-part penny serial Black Bess, or, the Knight of the Road (1867-1868). He is also the subject of a number of comics in the early 1930s such as The Dick Turpin Library. Most of these penny serials were denounced as pernicious trash by commentators in the press, and indeed their literary quality is low compared to Ainsworth’s novel.

A Late 19th-Century Penny Dreadful Featuring Dick Turpin
Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road (1867-68).

It appears in the twentieth century, however, that his popularity has died down a little. He has been the subject of the eponymous TV series Dick Turpin which ran for a few season back in the late 1970s, but has not featured in a major way on television or on film. His name survives in the adage (peculiar, as far as I can ascertain, to Yorkshire) “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask”, which is used to express astonishment at the high cost of goods when buying something. Although York city centre makes much of Turpin’s legend to attract tourism (you can visit the cell where he was held at York Castle Museum), and they do have a grave there which is said to be that of Turpin’s, it seems that there is really only one criminal who bears a special place in the hearts and minds of English people: Robin Hood.

Female Highwaymen

Highway robbery is predominantly thought of as a male-gendered crime, and it is true that the vast majority of those found in the dock at the Old Bailey in eighteenth-century England were men. But were there any women who got in on the act too? After all, why should men have all the fun?

Lady Ferrers, who legend has it led a double life: respectable gentlewoman by day and highwayman by night.
Lady Ferrers, who legend has it led a double life: respectable gentlewoman by day and highwayman by night.

From a researcher’s point of view, however, it is notoriously difficult to find out if any women became highway robbers, in the sense that we might think of today, riding a horse and shouting “Stand and Deliver!” Firstly, whilst some people were charged specifically with highway robbery, many people who robbed upon the highway were also charged with robbery with violence. Then there were footpads, who often were charged with highway robbery or robbery with violence, but often carried on their misdemeanours in urban areas and, as their nickname implies, did not rob people on horseback but upon foot. Thus it would be difficult to search the archives through gender and offence alone.

Perhaps the most notable case is that of Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660). According to legend, after the Cromwellian government deprived her of the income from her estates, she turned to highway robbery to increase her dwindling income. If the legend is true, she would have been among the ranks of many Royalist supporters who turned to highway robbery during this time, such as James Hind (1616-1652), who, according to Capt. Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), allegedly once robbed ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as he was travelling from Huntingdon to London’. The details of Ferrers’ death are unknown, however, though it is speculated that she died of a gunshot wound during a robbery-gone-bad. As with most legends, however, one has to take the account of Lady Ferrers with a pinch of salt.

The exploits of female highwaymen were also celebrated in fiction such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665). In the story, Latroon, a highway robber and all-round rogue, is held up by a handsomely-dressed ‘gentleman robber’. Meriton and the robber fight, and the robber is overpowered. When Latroon frisks the robber, intending to rob him, he discovers that the robber is woman. The woman tells Latroon all about her life, and then she is soon joined by two other female robbers, and, it is hinted, Latroon and the three women then have a sex-fuelled night. It is difficult to know if Head was recounting a true story; it is certain that he plagiarised material from many sources, such as criminal biographies, and whilst many criminal biographies survive, many have also been lost.

The English Rogue (1665) by William Head
The English Rogue (1665) by William Head

Another highly sensationalised source is the broadside ballad The Female Frollick: or, An Account of a young Gentlewoman, who went upon the Road to rob in Man’s Cloaths, well mounted on a Mare, etc. To an excellent new Tune called The Rant (c.1690). Most of her victims are members of unpopular social groups such as a Quaker, a miller, and an excise man, and according to Gillian Spraggs, the ballad is actually satirising these types of people; they are men who have been robbed by a woman. They are, effectively, impotent against this woman, and in the seventeenth century, if you allowed yourself to become a slave (in any way, shape, or form) to a woman, you were seen as unmanly. Still, the female hero is not allowed to have too much freedom, for when the sheattempts to rob a highwayman, unfortunately for her, when her sex is discovered, the highwayman rapes her, and the ballad makes a light-hearted joke about this:

The High-way-man stood all amazed;
But she had no cause to complain.
Tho’ with her he did what he pleased,
He gave her the Money again.

The ballad itself is probably a somewhat loose adaptation of Head’s earlier account of a meeting between a highwayman and a woman and their ensuing sexual intercourse, though the ballad makes for unpleasant reading due to the fact that, instead of consensual sex, she is raped.

Alexander Smith's A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)
Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)

In the second volume of Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), he gives the reader the story of Mary Frith alias Moll Cutpurse, born in the year 1589. From the beginning of the narrative, Smith effectively robs her of any feminine qualities, and, she is a man in all but name, only fitted to ‘manly’ employments:

She would fight with boys and courageously beat them; run, jump, leap, or hop, with any of the contrary sex […] she lived too much in common to be inclos’d in the limits of a private, domestic life; a quarter-staff was fitter for her than a distaff; stave and tail instead of spinning and reeling.

Perhaps worst of all, she is shown to be entirely devoid of maternal feeling:

She had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.

Her wicked inclinations eventually lead her to begin a short career of highway robbery, but after a near-miss at being apprehended by General Fairfax, she decides to become a receiver of stolen goods. Throughout the narrative Smith strongly disapproves of Moll’s course of life; the smallest vices she has are made to appear as signs of her inner depravity. Smith even blames her for enticing the entire female sex into the harmful habit of smoking:

In her time tobacco being grown a great mode, she was mightily taken with the pastime of smoking, because of its singularity and that no woman ever smoked before her, though a great many of the sex have since followed her example.

The passage about tobacco is literally inserted into the narrative between the accounts of two robberies she committed, and, as we have seen, are merely a sign of her sinfulness. Of course, we should also take Smith’s Highwaymen with at least a pinch of salt; as a specimen of his commitment to historical authenticity, it should be noted that he includes in his compendia the life of Sir John Falstaff…John Falstaff is a Shakespearean character, appearing in Henry IV: Part One, Henry IV: Part Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Smith and other criminal biographers in the eighteenth century were rarely concerned with reporting facts.

In reality, however, it was rare indeed to come across a female highwayman, according to J. M. Beattie’s study of crime in the eighteenth century. And Beattie actually only cites one case in his study of a female highwayman which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine on 24 November 1735, and here it appears as though she was acting in concert with a man:

A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amazed at her Behaviour told her, he did not know what she meant; when a Gentleman coming up, told him he was a Brute to deny the Lady’s request, and if he did not gratify her Desire immediately, he would Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.

Many women often acted as decoys for their partners who would rob people. The woman would usually entice an unsuspecting male down a dark alleyway with the prospect of sex, and then the man would come up behind the victim, knock him out, and rob him. This type of criminal partnership was known as the ‘buttock-and-file’. It was such a partnership that the notorious ‘Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, engaged in with Mary Milliner, a prostitute, during the early years of his criminal career.

Charles Johnson's Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).
Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).

Accounts of female highway robbers, scarce as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, almost disappear by the nineteenth century. In fact, the crime of highway robbery itself disappeared in the 1800s, with the last mounted robbery having taken place in 1831. One of the latest accounts of a female highwayman appeared in the 1890s. Sabine Baring-Gould, an antiquary and Anglican priest, collected a number of folk songs from the common people of West Country and published them in Songs and Ballads of the West, published in four parts between 1889 and 1891. Amongst the songs he transcribed was a ballad entitled The Female Highwayman. It’s a rather more pleasant story than the seventeenth-century ballad The Female Frolick. The woman dresses herself in man’s clothes and goes out and robs someone. She sees a man and robs him of a diamond ring and a watch. The next day, the man sees the woman (this time dressed as a woman) with the watch hanging out of her pocket. He enquires where the woman got the watch and she confesses that it was her who robbed him. He then scolds her for involving herself in a dangerous pastime, but is also a bit smitten with her, and the pair fall in love and are married. It is highly doubtful, again, that this was based upon a real story, and is most likely just an entertaining song.

In conclusion, when highwaywomen are represented in fiction and in folk ballads (written usually by male writers), they are figures which have to be contained; Latroon, although initially overcome by the female robber, he re-establishes his male authority by having sex with three female robbers; in The Female Frolick, the man again establishes control over the highwaywoman in a very unpleasant manner by raping her; In Smith’s Highwayman, Moll Cutpurse is, essentially, stripped of any feminine attributes; in the late nineteenth-century folk ballad The Female Highwayman we again see that, whilst it is a pleasanter story than The Female Frolick, the woman is again ‘contained’ so to speak for she ends up marrying her victim. It is evident then that writers in the past were uncomfortable with the prospect of women taking to the roads and robbing people upon the highway. Women were supposed to be relatively confined to the domestic sphere – that Moll Cutpurse has no liking for home life is another stick with which Smith beats her – and their appropriation of what was essentially a ‘manly’ thing to do would have been seen as subverting gender norms. Hence to male writers the female highway robber was a threatening figure, and one which had to be contained. As it happens, actual female highwaymen were rare, and this probably made any accounts of them all the more sensational (and profitable, if you were a writer or a ballad publisher), and most real-life highwaywomen usually committed their robberies in collaboration with male partners.


Further Reading:

Gillian Spraggs, Outlaws and Highwaymen (London: Pimlico, 2001).

Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Harper, 1987).

Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 1987).

Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (eds.) The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs (London: Penguin, 2012).