Short Lives and Local Highwaymen

Stand and Deliver – Your Money or your Life!”  these words rang out with sharply increasing frequency in the years that followed the execution of Charles I with their growing numbers of Royalists on the run.  And where was this cry heard more than most places in the country? – the stretch of road from Maidenhead to Reading!  Maidenhead Thicket in particular, notorious countrywide as “the Thycket,“ was amongst the most dangerous place in England, and second only to areas such as Hounslow Heath, Shooters Hill and Finchley Common for some 150 years!

Although there have always been thieves and robbers, and local mention of them goes back to soon after the Norman Conquest, Highwaymen flourished from around 1645 to the early 1800s.

Today, the highwaymen and their legends are romantic figures, but at the time they were considered, well … in truth also as romantic figures – though mainly by the people that they hadn’t robbed, or who didn’t have to travel through the most villainous areas.

But why was our stretch of road so bad?  Mainly because it was one of the busiest in the country, it had good cover and easy escape routes – plus around 90 coaches passing through Maidenhead every day.  In the now demolished Sun Inn there was even one highwayman who worked as an ostler – he would rob coaches on the Thycket and then sympathise with the distraught occupants when they arrived at the inn!

Many of the local court records are full of tales of blood, often listing the amounts of money awarded to the doctors for the work they did in patching up the unfortunate victims, and reasonably often the robbers as well.  However, there are stories which show how the romantic ideal began. Let me take you through just some of them:

John Shrimpton

One highwayman who rove the local paths and byways was John, (know as Jack), Shrimpton.   He was born of good and reputable parents at Penn.  After short spells as a soap-boiler and as an army horse trooper, Jack took to the High Toby between London and Oxford, and for a time there was scarce a coach or horseman that could pass him without being robbed.

Jack, for once finding himself at a loose end in London, visited one of the abundant hostelries, where he found himself in the company of a hangman, and presumably for personal interest asked him “What is the reason, when you perform your office, that you put the knot just under the ear? For, in my opinion, was you to fix it in the nape of the neck it would be more easy to the sufferer.”   The hangman replied: “If one Christian may believe another, I have hanged a great many in my time, but upon my word, sir, I never had any complaint as yet”.  However, he did offer that, if Jack ever came his way he would “be so civil as to hang you after your own way.”   But Shrimpton, not approving of the hangman’s civility, told him that he desired none of his favours, because they generally proved of a very dangerous consequence.

A modern path through Maidenhead Thicket
A modern path through Maidenhead Thicket

Another time, Jack met with a couple of Wycombe bailiffs carrying a poor farmer to jail. He asked what the debt was, and being told it was six pounds, he requested that they went with him to the next ale-house where he would pay it, which he did.  But, being Jack, he then waylaid the bailiffs on their way home, relieved them of his six pounds, and another forty shillings to boot!

A little while later, Shrimpton himself was held up by a poor miller who, thinking that a robber’s cry alone would work, had held Jack up by pretending that an oak plant he was holding was a gun, as he didn’t have a real one.  Jack took pity and offered to help him with a robbery and then split the booty.  Jack gave much encouragement to the “simple” miller, who promptly gave Jack “such a smart blow on the neck that he felled him” and robbed him of eighty guineas – and then he bade Jack to go quietly about his business, or he would have him hanged, according to his own confession, for lately robbing a neighbour! There never was much honour among thieves.

Several years later on Friday, the 4th of September, 1713 Jack was hanged for the wilful murder of a watch-man.   The Bull at Gerrards Cross still has a Jack Shrimpton Bar.

Claude Du Vall

The Black Boy in 1905
The Black Boy in 1905, with kind permission from www.sloughhistoryonline.org.uk

Claude Du Vall was born in Normandy in 1643.  He came to England at 17 and quickly gained a taste for drinking, gambling and womanising.  In order to finance these habits he embarked on a course that would make him one of the most famous Highwaymen of the age.
Claud “worked” the road to Reading and was often to be found at the Black Boy Public House on the Windsor Road in Slough.

Du Vall’s dance on the heath
Du Vall’s dance on the heath

Duval won a reputation for gallantry and always treated his victims with grace, consideration and courtesy.  As a result he probably earned far less than many of his “compatriots”   In his most famous exploit, he held up a lady’s coach knowing that there was £400 on board.   However, he took just £100, allowing the lady to keep the remaining £300 on the condition that she danced a Coranto (an Italian dance that was popular at the time) with him on the heath.

Not all stories show him in quite such a positive light.  On one occasion he held up a lady’s coach, stealing everything including a silver baby’s bottle – only returning it when forced to do so by an accomplice!

Duval was hanged at Tyburn in 1670, aged 26, having been arrested while drunk in a London pub.  It is said that many women of high standing pleaded for his pardon, but to no avail.  He is buried in Covent Garden Church, under a stone bearing the epitaph:

Here lies Du Vall; reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc hath he made of both; for all,
Men he made stand, and women he made fall.

Captain James Hind

Another gallant Highway man to operate in Maidenhead Thicket was Captain James Hind, known as the “Prince of Prigs” (a prig being a thief) after a popular play about him at the time.  On his first ever robbery he stole ten guineas, but then gave one guinea back to his victim so that he could get home that night.  Like Du Vall, he was unfailingly courteous.
Hind, like most highwaymen, was a Royalist and among his many famous exploits was a failed attempt to rob no less a person than Oliver Cromwell, along with his seven bodyguards!  Despite his horse dying from exhaustion during the aborted robbery and escape, Hind managed to get away, politely stealing a horse, but not taking the owner’s money so that he could buy another!

Hind was hanged and quartered for High Treason on September 24th 1652 but maintained a cheerful and frolicsome demeanour to the end.  His head was placed mid way over the Seven bridge at Worcester.

Dick Turpin

At the time, virtually nobody had heard of Dick Turpin, he was made famous later by Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth with the (sadly) fictious account of Black Bess’ ride to York.  A quick search across the internet will show you that he was a regular drinker in Marlow’s Crown Pub, the Kings Hotel in Stokenchurch, the Crooked Billet at Black Park, the Black Boy in Slough, the George in Wallingford, the Compleat Angler and the Old Toll House in Colnbrook, to name just a few of them!  However, if he visited all of the many pubs he is associated with, he would never have been sober enough even to slur “Stand and Deliver”!   The historical truth is that he operated mainly in his native county of Essex, and quiet possibly never even came here!

The end of teh highwaymen

By Gerry Palmer

2 thoughts on “Short Lives and Local Highwaymen”

  1. So Oliver Cromwell was robbed on three separate occasions by Mary Frith, James Hind and Zachary Howard- or maybe I have missed a few?
    I don’t believe a word of it.

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