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Norfolk Villains: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates
By Neil R. Storey
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Neil R. Storey
All rights reserved.
The Dandy Highwayman
Joseph Beeton was a handsome young man who had just turned twenty years old when he was brought before the Recorder at the Quarter Sessions at King's Lynn on Monday, 20 January 1783, charged with robbing the north mail coach on 19 November 1782. The evidence presented at the trial revealed that Beeton had concealed himself in a clump of thorn bushes beside the Saddlebow Road, beyond the Long Bridge that crossed the River Nar. When the elderly 'post boy', who had left King's Lynn to connect with the Wisbech coach, drove by in his cart, Beeton climbed into the branches of a nearby tree, dropped onto the coach, and made off with the mail bags, worth in excess of £1,000. A handsome reward was offered for the highway robber and Beeton was given up. Arrested and held in Lynn Gaol, Beeton did not resign himself to his fate and managed to escape, fleeing to an inn at Castle Acre. The landlord, however, grew suspicious of the young rascal and communicated his suspicions to the authorities at Lynn; Beeton was recaptured and escorted back, in irons, by an armed guard.
Beeton, being young and attractive, drew considerable public sympathy, as did his story, for he claimed he had been drawn to commit the crime by a supposed friend. Many gentlemen of Lynn were moved by the plight of poor Joseph Beeton, so much so that a subscription was entered into and money collected in order to employ counsel to plead for him at his trial. Even with a fine advocate, after a trial of six hours, Beeton was found guilty and received sentence of death. About eleven o'clock on the morning of Monday, 17 February 1783, Beeton was conveyed from Lynn Gaol in a mourning coach to the gallows near Southgates (not far from the spot where the robbery was committed), attended by two clergymen, the Revd Mr Horsfall and the Revd Mr Merrest. One account of the event would remark: 'The spirit of the prisoner, the constancy of his friends, and the church-parade made bright episodes in a dreadful scene.'
Beeton's behaviour, both before and at the place of execution, was recorded as truly devout and exemplary, but then 'uncommon pains had been taken by the Revd Mr Horsfall to prepare him for his awful fate.' After praying some time with great fervency and a hymn being sung by the singers from St Margaret's Church, the rope was fixed around his neck. Not long had this been done before Beeton threw himself off the platform and died amid the pitying tears of the spectators, whose numbers were upwards of 5,000. Beeton's body was covered in pitch and gibbeted near the scene as a warning to others for years after, and even when the gibbet was no more, his name lingered on – the clump of trees near the site became known as 'Beeton's Bush'.
'Mad Tom' the Highwayman
Jeremiah Pratt, alias John Wilson, known to most as 'Mad Tom', was tried and found guilty of three indictments for horse stealing and was sentenced to death at the Norfolk Lent Assizes, held at Thetford in 1746. After his condemnation, Pratt confessed to robbing the Yarmouth stagecoach on three occasions; the Norwich stagecoach once, near the windmill at St Stephen's Gates; and to robbing Mr Long of Spixworth, just outside of Magdalen Gates. Indeed, he claimed he had 'stolen more horses than the infamous Turpin.' In the hope that no other should be punished for the crimes he had committed, Pratt requested that those persons who had had any horses stolen should apply to him at the County Gaol and there they would receive information of not only the robbery, but also where the horses were disposed of, if he had been involved. Returned to Norwich for execution, he met his end in front of a large and rowdy crowd upon Castle Hill on 12 April 1746.
Three Gentlemen of the Road
In reality there were few dandy highwaymen, but there is evidence to suggest that some women were drawn to criminal types or 'bad boys', especially if they were young and handsome. Indeed, even the sympathies of crowds could sometimes be swayed in favour of these youthful criminals, such as Michael Moore, William Fletcher and William Skipper.
August 1780, Benjamin Bell, John Fuller and Turner Thurrold had been drinking at The Swan in Swaffham and were about to head back to their homes in Castle Acre, on horseback, when they were joined by two strangers, also on horseback, who said they were going on the same road, so they all set out together. When they had travelled less than a mile from Swaffham the two strangers launched an attack upon their travelling companions, demanding their money. Mr Bell jumped off his horse and got into an adjoining close, while Fuller and Thurrold galloped on; all three escaped being robbed.
The highwaymen pursued Fuller and Thurrold but met John Rice, a Swaffham glazier, and waylaid him instead, robbing him of his silver watch, four shillings and six pence. While in the act of robbing Mr Rice, Mr Galloway, a farrier from Castle Acre, passed them. Once they had finished robbing Rice, the highwaymen set off in pursuit of Galloway. Knocking him off his horse, the highwaymen beat him cruelly then robbed him of his shoes and one pound three shillings in money. They then returned towards Swaffham, passing Mr Rice. They were about 200 yards from the town when they encountered Mr Jermyn, a considerable farmer of Weasenham. The highwaymen beat him, tore his breeches and robbed him of his hat, boots, spurs, silver watch, around thirty-five pounds in cash and a banker's bill for five guineas.
One of the highwaymen's horses managed to break free while they were robbing Mr Jermyn; unfortunately for Mr Rice, who was travelling back up the road, the highwaymen dismounted him and took his horse, riding into Swaffham in pursuit of their lost horse. By this point, Mr Jermyn had managed to return to the town and raise the alarm. Several people instantly mounted their horses and set off after the highwaymen. Thomas Marcon of Swaffham overtook one of them at the end of town, but as he lifted his stick to knock the robber off his horse, the highwayman threw himself off and escaped into the fields. The fugitive was, however, discovered in a ditch and was properly secured, along with the two horses. The other highwayman got off Mr Rice's horse and, owing to the darkness of the night, averted capture. However, Mr Bowker of Swaffham, in company with Mr Thurrold and Mr Galloway, made a fresh pursuit the following morning and overtook the highwayman in the middle of the town of Wisbech, where they managed to pull him off his horse and secure him.
Investigations revealed that the first highwayman was one Michael Moore, a butcher of Bourne in Lincolnshire. When taken he was found to have Mr Jermyn's hat on his head, Mr Rice's watch and Mr Galloway's money and pocketbook in his pocket. The other man had Mr Jermyn's watch and two other silver watches in his pocket, with about £30 in cash and a purse, with gold gauge and key, which belonged to Mr Jermyn. This highwayman gave his name as William Smith (real name William Fletcher), a chimney sweep by trade and likewise a Lincolnshire man. They were both committed to Norwich Castle by James Nelthorpe, Esq.
The latter highwayman gang was soon identified as one that had been responsible for numerous depravations upon the roads of West Norfolk and eastern England. The horses they had been riding were also stolen and were subsequently recognised by two gentlemen – one from Leicestershire, the other from Stamford, in Lincolnshire. One of the watches taken from Smith was also identified as belonging to a Leicestershire tradesman, who had been robbed by the gang some time past; they also relieved him of nearly thirty pounds. The inhabitants of Swaffham were praised for their 'uncommon spirit and alacrity in pursuing and taking two such dangerous fellows.'
On 15 March 1781, before Alexander Lord Loughborough at the Norfolk Assizes, William Fletcher (alias Smith), aged nineteen, and Michael Moore, aged seventeen, were joined by two other highwaymen from their gang, namely William Skipper (alias John Love), aged twenty-three, and John Ewston (alias Hewston). They were all found guilty of highway robbery and sentenced to death. Ewston was fortunate and received His Majesty's pardon, on the condition that he entered into the service of the East India Company. Fletcher, Moore and Skipper were left to hang. Penitent and behaving in a manner becoming of their situation upon the Castle Hill gallows on 7 April 1781, the Norwich Mercury reported:
[...] the fatal three acknowledged justly to suffer and asked forgiveness of all whom they had injured. Skipper exhorted all youth to take a proper warning of their untimely end and after a few moments in most fervent prayer they were launched into eternity amidst the sympathetic tears of thousands of spectators.
A postscript may be found in the Norfolk Chronicle of 5 January 1782, which reported John Ewston set out, well guarded, for London, in order to be put on board an Indiaman.
The Old Game
Cook March was born at Hainford to poor but honest parents. His father was a hog-gelder and the young March followed in his father's trade for some years, but did not like to be 'under any restraint' and left home. When he was twenty-four, he fell in with Elizabeth Garwood, described as 'a most abandoned woman.' March claimed that Garwood attempted to get him to poison her husband – she even gave the powder to him, but he washed it away down the gutter. March tried to escape from Garwood's clutches by moving to Bungay but she followed him, and said that if he did not take her back she would drown herself. She walked away and, fearing she may carry out her threat, March persuaded her to come back and they remained together.
It then seems that they started working the prostitute scam, whereby Garwood would entice a man then March would suddenly appear and assault the mark, claiming to be furious that he had caught the man with his 'wife'. After giving the mark a good beating, he would then relieve them of any valuables.
Such acts were not normally committed on main roads but in the darker, quieter lanes where prostitutes would take their clients; however, the crime was still classified as highway robbery. March was convicted at the Norwich City Assizes on 11 August 1794, for violent assault upon Mr Eaton, who he had 'caught' with Garwood on Ber Street Gates in Eaton Hall Lane. In his confession, March admitted to violently assaulting Eaton, claiming:
[...] we both fell in the struggle, I got up and said I will make you pay dearly for being with my wife, we fell together a second time, when Mr Eaton said, 'For God's sake spare my life' he then gave me 6s 6d. I then let him go. I gave Sally Fox 6d to hold her tongue and gave 1s also to Garwood.
Marsh went on to confess to robbing a Mr Howlett, who he had beaten and robbed of a guinea and a £20 note under similar circumstances. March met his end at the City Gallows on 6 September 1794.
A Female Highway Robber
On 27 February 1823, Farmer Disney's sixteen-year-old daughter was on a shopping trip in Yarmouth – accompanied by a male and female servant – when she encountered a young woman named Mary Durrant (aged twenty-three), who she had known from her home parish of Reedham for a number of years. Durrant had clearly fallen on hard times since she had left. As they set out to return home at the end of the day, Durrant accompanied them as far as Fritton before she bade them goodnight and left.
As Miss Disney and the two servants made their way along the Haddiscoe Dam on that darkening February evening, a figure she initially thought was a man in female attire approached her and demanded her money, threatening to cut her throat if she did not instantly comply. As she issued the demand the highway robber put her hand in her bosom as if to take out a knife. Although a scarf was drawn up across the lower part of her face, Miss Disney could see enough to discern the clothing, build and other features as those of Durrant. On hearing the dreadful threat, the servants fled and Miss Disney was left to face the robber alone. Terrified by the confrontation she handed over a Morocco purse containing twenty-eight shillings and a bundle of goods, including expensive luxuries such as oranges and lace. The robber then made her escape and left Miss Disney to walk home alone. The servants who had fled had, at least, raised the alarm in Haddiscoe and a number of local people were on their way to assist her. Mr Hatch, the coachman of the Yarmouth Star coach, drove up shortly after and was also given information about the robbery. On arrival at St Olave's Bridge, he was hailed by the landlord of the public house there and asked if he had room to take a young woman to Yarmouth; he replied that he had, and the minute the woman made her appearance the coachman realised this was the woman described to him at Haddiscoe. He placed her inside and asked one of his friends to get in and keep an eye on her, but not to let his suspicions be known.
On the arrival of the coach at Yarmouth, Pratt, the Mayor's Officer, was sent for, who took her to his own house. He examined the bundle she had with her and found the distinctive contents stolen from Miss Disney and, on a further search, discovered the purse with its contents behind her stays. Subsequent investigations also revealed that Durrant had obtained three pairs of stays and three caps under false pretences, from Bessey and Underwood, milliners in Broad Row, Great Yarmouth; items that she had afterwards pawned in the town.
Durrant was held at the Great Yarmouth Tolhouse until she was brought up before the magistrates for the county, assembled at the Feathers Inn in Yarmouth Market Place. After a short hearing, Durrant was committed to Norwich Castle to await trial and appeared before the Norfolk Assizes at Thetford, on Saturday 15 March 1823. She pleaded guilty and a sentence of death was passed upon her, but she was assured of mercy on account of her youth and her sentence was commuted to imprisonment.
Escape from Bigod's Tower
After a long day on his rounds James Rayner, a baker of Middleton, near King's Lynn, went for a drink at the Maid's Head at East Winch on the evening of 6 January 1830. It was not a particularly busy night and shortly before he left he noticed two young men, who had been drawing attention from a few locals in the pub that night; they just didn't like the look of them, particularly the one holding a great stick with a knobbed end. The men left and when Rayner got outside, about ten minutes later, he saw the men going down the high road. He turned down the low road to make his way home to Middleton. As he proceeded along the route, two men suddenly approached him from two separate directions. One came and stopped the horse, whilst the other man got onto the cart and began to beat Rayner with 'a sharp thing' about half a yard long, and the other struck him with a stick three times. They robbed him of all the money he was carrying, a considerable sum from his bread round – one sovereign, about sixty or seventy shillings and some half pence – and left him for dead. Rayner came to and knew he would recognise the men again and swore, 'I know you and I'll have you.'
Rayner swore on oath before magistrates Sir W.J.H.B. Folkes and D. Gurney Esq. that his assailants had been James and William Brooks. Other witnesses were found and a warrant was issued for their arrest. Richard Sharpe, the Constable of Walsoken, was alerted to the whereabouts of the wanted men and set off with volunteers to Tilney All Saints to bring them in on 13 January. On seeing the constable the pair attempted to run away. They jumped a drainage ditch that was full of snow, but Constable Sharpe jumped after them and managed to get hold of James's coat, ripping of the lappet. One of the volunteers restrained him and soon both James and William Brooks were in custody, charged with robbery upon the King's Highway.
As they awaited trial, incarcerated at Norwich Castle, the two young men attempted a daring escape in the early hours of 26 February. Confined in the tall Bigod's Tower, James and William made it to the summit; nineteen-year-old William was first to lower himself by means of an improvised rope, which they had made from torn strips of blankets and the rug from their cell. The 'rope' gave way and Brooks fell 70ft. The fall did not kill him, however, and it was even remarked he appeared to have bounced – three yards the first time, two or three yards the second. He spoke as the warders recovered him but his thigh, pelvis, left arm and all the ribs on his left side were broken, and a large tumour later formed in the hollow at the back of his head. Meanwhile, James was stuck at the top of the building and could go neither backwards nor forwards; he could only be removed with difficulty.
Excerpted from Norfolk Villains: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates by Neil R. Storey. Copyright © 2012 Neil R. Storey. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Highway Robbery,
2. Rebels and Rioters,
3. Armed Siege,
6. Vitriol and Plaster,
7. At Her Majesty's Pleasure,
13. Attempted Murder,
16. A Tale of the Transports,