… and other stories of the Highwaymen of Hounslow Heath.
One night a tailor was travelling by foot across Hounslow Heath when he was stopped by “a knight of the road” who pulled out a brace of pistols and ordered the man to give up his purse. The tailor did so but asked for a favour in return.
“My friends,” he said, " will laugh at me and my wife will be angry when I tell them I offered no more resistance than a lamb. Could you put a couple of shots through my hat to make it seem that I had resisted."
The highwayman, already holding the tailor’s well-filled purse, sympathised with the poor man, so carefully taking aim, he fired both of his pistols through the tailor’s hat. Immediately the tailor reached under his coat and pulled out a pistol of his own. He then disarmed the highwayman, took back his own purse…and everything else of value that the highwayman was carrying.
From the 17th to the early 19th century Hounslow Heath, on the main road out of London to the west, had been the haunt of footpads and highwaymen.
The politician, Grantley Berkeley, described it thus…
“Hounslow Heath was as celebrated for highwaymen as for plovers’ eggs. Its lonely commons, thick furse bushes, thorns and wide extent…made pursuit of a malefactor on a fast horse very difficult, the latter of course well acquainted with all the furse bushes, while his pursers, if there were any mounted, would be riding at random, and in the dark blundering over every impediment.”
In their time the highwaymen became regarded as the aristocrats of crime, well mounted, daring, bold and possessing all the qualities of a true gentleman. One of the first however was a woman, Mary Frith, known to victims and admirers as Moll Cutpurse a.k.a “The Roaring Girl”. As well as being a pickpocket, a pimp…girls for lonely gentlemen and respectable male lovers for lonely housewives …Moll was also a highway…er, woman, as her history in the Newgate Calendar relates…
A long time had Moll Cutpurse robbed on the road; but at last, robbing General Fairfax of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, (in the 1640s?) shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate. After this she was condemned, but procured her pardon by giving her adversary two thousand pounds.
According to popular myth one of the most famous highwaymen to have operated upon the Heath was Dick Turpin. In 1739 a song appeared telling of Turpin’s adventures…
“On Hounslow Heath as I rode o’er,
I spied a lawyer riding before,
“Kind sir”, said I, “aren’t you afraid,
Of Turpin that mischievous blade?”
The myth is also repeated by Sam Weller in Dickens “Pickwick Papers”.. …
“Bold Turpin vunce, on Hounslow Heath,
His bold mare Bess bestrode-er;
Ven there he see’d the Bishop’s coach
A-coming along the road-er.
So he gallops close to the ’orse’s legs,
And he claps his head vithin;
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!”
A miller crossing the Heath was stopped by a highwayman who fired both his pistols at him. Realising that his assailant’s pistols were now empty the miller pulled the highwayman from his horse, dragged him to a nearby tree and hanged him with his own belt.
When Horace Walpole moved into Strawberry Hill in 1747 the highwaymen were spreading their activities beyond Hounslow Heath to Twickenham, prompting Walpole to write…
“Our roads are infested by highwaymen so that it is dangerous almost stirring out by day… Lady Hertford was attacked…at three in the afternoon. The ladies of the bedchamber dare not go and see the queen at Kew in the evening.”
In 1727 the poet and dramatist John Gay was in Twickenham, staying with his friend Alexander Pope, when he met up with Jonathan Swift. When their conversation turned to crime and criminals Swift commented, “What an odd pretty sort of thing a Newgate Pastoral would be.” Excited by all the stories he had heard about the highwaymen operating on Hounslow Heath John Gay seized upon the idea and started work on what was to become “The Beggars Opera” making his leading character a highwayman and calling him significantly… MacHeath.
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Alfred Noyes 1906
— from Martyn Day