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24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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 East Midlands: Week commencing Monday July 7, 2003


The Peak District was a hunting ground for highwaymen

Stand and deliver! Inside Out goes time travelling and uncovers how there were rich pickings in the East Midlands for highwaymen during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries travellers really did take their lives into their own hands trying to navigate the perilous Derbyshire Peak.

Highwaymen ruled the highways, maps weren't available until 1760, and sign posts simply didn't exist.

The chances of getting lost on the moors, especially during the winter months, or getting held up by a masked horseman were an all too common story.

Inside Out goes time travelling - fasten your seat belts, be prepared for a bumpy ride!

The wild wild Peak

Derbyshire Historian Howard Smith has researched the perils of travelling on England's highways.

Lost travellers in the Peak
Travellers faced a wide range of perils

"The biggest dangers facing travellers on the peak was 250 years ago. Derbyshire was like the wild west. Travellers feared moving around this county like no other."

Stone markers were a real turning point in navigating the Derbyshire Peak.

They offered guidance and reassurance for thousands of lost and lonely travellers.

Although most travellers were illiterate, they would be able to figure out local place names, although deciphering local dialect would be another challenge entirely.

The Derbyshire market town of Alfreton is a good example of the problem travellers faced.

Alfreton appears on numerous stops in many different ways, variously appearing as Offerton, Allforton and Alfarton.

Stand and deliver

For most travellers their biggest fear was encountering a highwayman.

The word 'highwayman' came into the English language in 1617 although examples of highway robbers date back to medieval and Elizabethan times.

Peter Elliott as a highwayman
Highwaymen were common on the Peak's roads

The very name of highwayman conjures up a romantic image of a bygone age where men like Dick Turpin held up stage coaches and robbed their rich passengers.

The origins of modern highwaymen have their roots in the English Civil War. The execution of Charles I in 1649 left the many Royalist officers without the means of supporting themselves.

These men with no trade nor skill other than soldiering were forced to take to the road - they robbed to survive.

Your money or your life?

A prime target for highwaymen was the road which linked Derby and Chesterfield where there were rich pickings.

Local writer Peter Elliott has researched the crimes that took place against the travellers along this ancient highway.

"The stretch of road was such a hot spot for highwaymen. It gave them time to size up their victims in Derby and then ride out and wait."

Highwaymen had an average life expectancy of 28, most died by hanging and then their bodies were hung in gibbets at crossroads as a warning to law breakers.

Dick Turpin

Dick Turpin is perhaps the most famous of highwaymen conjuring up images of a dashing and daring criminal.

The truth is rather less impressive. Turpin's famous ride from London to York in less than 24 hours on his horse Black Bess is likely to have been a myth.

Dick Turpin carved in stone
Dick Turpin was here - the highwayman was later immortalised in the popular novel Rookwood by Harrison Ainsworth

Early in his career Turpin's main speciality was robbing remote farmhouses with his gang.

It was only later in his life that he turned to highway robbery.

By 1737 Turpin had achieved such notoriety that a bounty of £100 was placed on his head.

To escape capture, he relocated to Yorkshire, settling under the name of John Palmer.

He financed his flamboyant lifestyle with forays into the Lincolnshire countryside for horse, sheep and cattle stealing and highway robberies.

Eventually the law caught up with Turpin, and he was incarcerated in York Castle dungeons under sentence of death.

He was executed at York Racecourse in 1739 after being paraded around the streets of York in an open cart.

Daylight robbery

The old Great North Road which ran between Newark, East Retford and Tuxford was a happy hunting ground for robbers stealing from wealthy travellers.


Dick Turpin - born 1706 and trained as a butcher. Tried smuggling and then joined the Essex Gang who invaded isolated farmhouses. Turned to highway robbery late in his career.

John Nevison - born 1648. This flamboyant highwayman never used violence.

James MacLaine - A respectable gentlemen by day and a highwayman by night. His accomplice was William Plunkett. Hanged at Tyburn in 1750.

Claude Duval - renowned as a courteous rogue. Born in France in 1643. Mainly robbed around London. Hanged at Tyburn in 1670.

'Captain' Tom King - a swashbuckling highwayman who worked with Turpin later in his career. Killed accidentally by Turpin during a raid.

Robin Hood - early Nottingham 'highway robber', fame for giving from the rich to the poor.

The best known East Midlands highwayman was John Nevison who was nicknamed 'Swift Nick'.

Some historians believe that it was Nevison, and not Dick Turpin, who made the famous London to York ride in less than 24 hours.

Nevison's gang of six outlaws met at the Talbot Inn at Newark and robbed travellers along the Great North Road as far north as York.

The gang were betrayed by Elizabeth Burton in 1676 when she was arrested for stealing.

Nevison was transported to Tangiers, but returned to England in 1681, taking up highway robbery once again.

When he was finally caught, Nevison was sentenced and hanged at York in 1684.

Black Harry

Black Harry was a notorious early 18th century highwayman. He robbed the pack-mule trains between Tideswell and Bakewell.

He was eventually arrested by the Castleton Bow Street Runners, and was hung, drawn and quartered on the Gallows Tree at Wardlow Mires.

In 1772 the death penalty was imposed for being armed and disguised in high roads and open heaths. Gibbeting the corpse was popular right up until the mid 19th century.

Gibbeting regularly took place at Wardlow in Derbyshire with executions being held in Derby.

Prince Charming?

The threat of attack by highwaymen continued into the 19th century, but after 1815 the crime became less common.

The last mounted robbery in England is said to have taken place in 1831.

By the late 19th century the highwayman had become a romanticised figure, making a brief comeback in pop culture with Adam Ant and the New Romantics in the 1980s.

Today's travellers in the Peak are lucky - their journey is likely to be short, well sign-posted and uneventful.

The most dramatic thing that they can expect is a rock fall or a stray mountain sheep!

See also ...

BBC Nottingham: Highwaymen

On the rest of the web
Learning Curve
Outlaws and Highwaymen
Stand and Deliver
Peak District National Park

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