Stand And Deliver!
If that phrase sends though you a mortal fear of losing your money or your life to footpads and highway robbers, you are a child of the Seventeen-Eighties.
If it sends the horrifying sound of frantic drumming, the tingle of electro-pop, the shiver of squirrel-angst and the seemingly irrational fear of frilly shirts to your very soul, chances are you’re a child of the Nineteen Eighties.
Highwaymen are creatures of romance – of skull and duggery, of witty repartee, of grand gestures and big boots. They swirl their capes and flash their pistols and have names like Claude du Vall, The Golden Farmer, Jack of the Green and, of course, the one and only Richard “Big Dick” Turpin.
Baldrick : My favourite’s The Shadow. What a man! They say he’s half way to being the new Robin Hood.
Blackadder : Why only half way?
Baldrick : Well, he steals from the rich, but he hasn’t gone round to giving it to the poor yet.
Even the name ‘Blackheath’s’ asking for trouble from dastardly characters really. It just sounds like an evil, desolate patch of wasteland spoiling for a good ravishing. And, actually, that’s pretty much what it was. What we have to remember is that the big, wide, flat, open space we know today, of football pitches, tea huts and picnickers, is a relatively modern phenomenon.
The nearest, I reckon, we get to how Blackheath used to be is at the top of Maze Hill, where a great hollow still has some vestiges of the chalk pits, gorse and thick undergrowth. On the main road from London to the Continent, near to dodgy-dens-of-iniquity where they could offload the hot property and with loads of good hiding places, it was perfect for Sid James, Blackadder and Adam Ant to hang out.
And hang out they did. There were umpteen reports of daring thieveries in the local newspapers, treading a discreet path between genteel outrage and vicarious excitement at the swashbuckling, glamorous life of the highway robber. The stories read of “exceedingly well-mounted” (is this some kind of obscure euphemism?) blaggards who steal from “several Horsemen and Coaches,” but in such a way that they’re almost in awe of these guys. “The said Highwaymen have committed a great number of robberies … and use all in a polite Manner,” a report gushes in 1719.
September 1752, and a gentleman had a pistol clapped to his breast by two highwaymen, ‘genteelly mounted,’ and even though they wouldn’t give him a shilling for the bus fare home, they “otherwise behaved very complaisantly, shook hands with him and wished him good night.”
Another, also in 1752, gives an almost modern explanation of Society being to blame for one frankly pathetic character. “He drew a pistol from under his coat, and desired the gentleman would let him have some money, who gave him 5s., saying he could spare no more. He asked the gentleman’s pardon and said he was drove to this through the treacherous and cruel usage he met with from a near relation, who reduced him to this extremity.”
There was a true gauntlet to be run – and I don’t just mean the main Dover Road. The whole romance of the gentleman thief may not have quite run to Baldrick levels of putting posters on bedroom walls – but it wasn’t far off. People have always been fascinated and horrified in equal levels by violent robbery, and the newspapers have always known it. They revelled in accounts of grisly hold-ups, blood and guts – and they weren’t beyond the odd You’ve Been Framed moment – this from a stick-up of a certain Captain Spragg and companions in 1750:
“Being pursued by one of the ladies’ servants he (the highwayman- TGP) fired a pistol at him, which so frightened his own horse that he threw him and was not stopped until he came to New Cross Turnpike.”
The faux-horror of the press wasn’t quite mirrored in the reaction of the local people who were beginning to weary of this sport. Enterprising villains were beginning to branch out to local houses – of which there were several large examples on the borders of the heath. In 1753 the good burghers of Greenwich and Blackheath started what was effectively the first Neighbourhood Watch group – appointing one Joseph Cox as High Constable, but it was pretty useless. The footpaddery continued.
Robbery became an almost everyday occurrence. Not even Captain Parkhurst of the Dragoon Guards and Captain Wynd of the Horse Guards were safe – set upon by four footpads in 1784 who relieved them of £50 and all their baggage. In 1792, the local residents met in The Green Man pub who set up another, even more rubbish group.
Still that edgy romance continued. Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities (after that bit about the “Best of times; the worst of times”) with a thrilling episode on the Dover Road. Sam Pepys may have revelled in the odd schadenfreude moment of gibbet-spotting on Shooters Hill but by the early 19th Century visitors to Greenwich Park were queuing up to hire a sixpenny telescope to ogle the hangings on the Isle of Dogs. Highwaymen still delivered a quick frisson to all but those directly affected.
More and more committees were formed and abandoned; more and more houses were burgled. Something Needed to be Done.
I was slightly amused to read in one book I read for this post that highwaymen eventually “went out of fashion.”*
Eh? New Romantics ‘go out of fashion.’ Highway Robbery doesn’t. It just moves on. And that’s what happened here.
What really did for the highwaymen was a combination of an improving police force, house-building along the Dover Road and the clearing of Blackheath. There was no Elliot Ness, no posses, no major clampdown. As the number of gorse-bushes, hollows, trees and other such hidey-holes diminished, so did the number of opportunities, and the ne’er do wells moved on to safebreaking and burglary elsewhere. By the 1980s crimes by Dandy Highwaymen were largely reduced to those of the fashion variety.
Stand and Deliver – Wooh-Woh-Woh
Your money or your life…
* The best book on this subject, BTW, is Neil Rhind’s The Heath.