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What was a highwayman?

"Highwayman" was a term used in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries to describe a criminal who robbed people travelling by stagecoach and other modes of transport along public highways. Highwaymen operated from horseback, whereas more down-market villains who operated on foot were appropriately termed "footpads".

Some robbed individually, but others operated in pairs or in small gangs. They often attacked coaches for their lack of protection, including public stagecoaches; the postboys who carried the mail were also frequently held up.

Highwaymen often laid in wait on the main roads radiating from London. They usually chose lonely areas of heathland or woodland.

They murdered, or threatened to murder, as well as perpetrating other atrocities, including rape. Resistance to the highwayman's demands was futile. The penalty for robbery with violence, or 'highway robbery' was hanging, so killing his victim made no difference to the punishment. Most notorious highwaymen ended on the gallows.

The decline of highwaymen:

After about 1815, mounted robbers are recorded only rarely. The last recorded robbery by a mounted highwayman occurred in 1831.

A number of factors led to their decline, including:
- The expansion of the system of turnpikes, manned and gated toll-roads, which made it all but impossible for a highwayman to escape notice while making his getaway,
- The introduction of horse patrols around London around 1800. Highwaymen were forced further out into the counties, and the newly-formed police (starting in London around 1805) led to a rapid decline in highway robbery,
- A greater use of banknotes, which were more traceable than gold coins

Highwayman connected with Hungerford:

Robert Snooks

Robert Snooks (1761-1802) was the last man to be executed in England for highway robbery, on 11th March 1802.

He was born in Hungerford, where he was christened as James Blackman Snook, on Sunday 16th August 1761. The fact that his name is commonly quoted as Robert Snooks is perhaps due to a corruption of "that Robber Snook".

Photo Gallery:

Black Bear
Black Bear

The Black Bear, famous coaching inn.

robert snooks grave
robert snooks grave

Stone commemorating "Robert" Snooks, Boxmoor Common.

robert snooks grave2
robert snooks grave2

Stone commemorating "Robert" Snooks, Boxmoor Common.

- The Black Bear, famous coaching inn.

- Stone commemorating "Robert" Snooks, Boxmoor Common

The Crime:

Late one Sunday evening in May 1801, Post Boy John Stevens was travelling from Tring to Hemel Hempstead. On reaching an isolated part of Boxmoor, he was threatened by a highwayman who subsequently stole £80 from the mail.

The London Chronicle in May, 1801 reported:

"The post-boy conveying the mail from Tring to Hemel Hempstead, was stopped near Bone End, in the Parish of Northchurch, about fifteen minutes past ten o'clock last night, by a single highwayman mounted on a dark-coloured grey horse, who took from him the following bags of letters for London, viz Winslow, Wendover, Aylesbury, Tring and Berkhamsted.

There is great reason to suspect that one James Snooks committed the robbery. He is a native of Hungerford, where his father now resides, is between 30 and 40 years of age, 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high, has light brown hair cut short, is pitted with the small pox, has lived in and about Mary-le-bone, and is well known in the neighbourhood of Portland Place. He left his lodging at No. 3, in Woodstock Street, Mary-le-bone, early on Saturday morning, and was then dressed in a blue coat, with black velvet collar, marcella waistcoat, with blue and white stripes, velveteen breeches, and dark-coloured stockings. He was tried at the Old Bailey about a year ago, for horse stealing and acquitted. He is supposed to have in his possession several Bank of England notes, Aylesbury, High Wycombe, Uxbridge, Stoney Stratford, and Banbury notes.

Whoever shall apprehend and convict, or cause to be apprehended and convicted, the person committed the said robbery, will be entitled to a reward of two hundred pounds, over and above the reward given by Act of Parliament for apprehending highwaymen: or if any person concerned therein will surrender himself, and make discovery, whereby the person who committed the robbery may be apprehended and brought to justice, such discoverer will be entitled to the said reward, and will also receive His Majesty's most gracious pardon.

By command of his Majesty's Post-master General,

Francis Keeling, Secretary.

It is possible that during his early career he worked as an ostler at the King's Arms, Berkhamsted and, if so, his employer, John Page, was destined to meet him in an official capacity at his eventual execution.

In 1800 he was known to be living in Hertfordshire at Hemel Hempstead, and in consequence he would have had the opportunity to become familiar with movements on and around Boxmoor Common. One person who would have undoubtedly caught his eye would have been John Stevens, the post boy employed to carry mail across the lonely heathland. Selecting a suitably dark night, Snooks waylaid Stevens as he crossed the common, relieving him with relative ease of his six mailbags, which contained not only letters but bank and promissory notes - the bags were left scattered over the Moor. It is not known whether he chose that particular night carefully or whether it was pure good fortune, but the contents of the bags were exceptionally heavy, one letter alone containing over £500 in notes. Leaving for Southwark unrecognised, Snooks had achieved what he felt to be the perfect crime, indeed but for one small mistake he would probably have remained undetected.

Some time after the robbery, feeling that all the excitement had died down, he despatched a servant to purchase him some cloth, charging her to bring him the change from a £5 note. In error he handed her a £50 note, a fact which aroused great suspicion with the trader. Aware of enquiries now being made about him, Snooks fled back to Hungerford , but was later spotted in Marlborough Forest nearby and arrested.

The Investigation and Trial:

The robbery was reported to High Constable John Page, of Berkhamsted, who posted 'Wanted – £300 Reward' notices for Snooks' capture (£200 was offered by the Postmaster General in addition to the £100 offered by Parliament). Snooks remained at liberty until December, when he was captured and taken to Newgate Prison, thence to Hertford Assizes for trial.

The London Chronicle reported on the 11th March 1802 that the highwayman had left a broken saddle at the scene of the crime and this mistake later identified Snook as the culprit. Although the Post Boy could not identify Snook due to the darkness at the time of the robbery, one of the stolen bank notes was traced back to Snook's possession and a chain of circumstantial evidence led to a guilty verdict at his trial in March 1802.

The Punishment:

Found guilty under his baptismal name at Hertford Assizes, he was sentenced to be hung in chains as close to the scene of the crime as possible on Boxmoor Common, a site selected by Mr Page, by then High Constable of the Hundreds of Dacorum. However, the period for such grisly displays was drawing to a close and after a petition by the residents of Boxmoor, this was commuted to a straightforward execution.

A local holiday was declared on the appointed day, March 11th, 1802, crowds assembling from early morning. Stopping for a final drink en route to his execution - possibly at The Swan - Snooks is reputed to have rebuked the crowds, telling them that there would be no fun until he arrived. Standing before the gallows it is said he offered his gold watch to anyone prepared to assure him a decent burial.

This bargain not being accepted, he was hung from one of a group of five horse chestnut trees. After he was cut down, a truss of straw was divided, half being tossed into the grave. As the body was placed upon this a disgraceful scene ensued as the executioner started to strip the clothes of the corpse claiming it to be his privilege. The High Constable, determined to preserve a sense of decency, prevented this, the remaining straw then being placed over the body and the grave filled in.

The following day it would appear that the local residents repented and subscribed to a plain wooden coffin. Snooks was exhumed, placed in the coffin and re-interred at the same spot. He holds the macabre distinction of being the last highwayman in England to be hanged at the scene of his crime.

In 1904, one hundred years after the execution, the Boxmoor Trustees provided a small grave stone on the Moor (see above) to commemorate the event, inscribed with just his name and the date of the execution. The stone still stands today, some 20m off the A41 on Boxmoor Common between Bourne End and Boxmoor.

Three Highwaymen lodge at The Bear Inn, 1537:

In 1537 (VCH, Vol 3) Robert Braybon was landlord of The Bear Inn in Charnham Street, when three highwaymen stopped here who were accused of robbing John Flowre, clothier, between Bagshot and Windsor Park:

12 July 1537: ROBBERY of JOHN FLOWRE, Clothier.
Depositions, taken 12 July, 29 Hen. VIII, before, Rob. Abbot of Malmesbury, John Hamlyn, and Anthony Styleman, justices of the peace for Wiltshire:

i. Rob. Braybon, otherwise called Keeper, of Charnelstrete, Wilts, "inn-holder of the ostree of the Beere" (Bear) adjoining to the town of Hungerford, as to the persons suspected of robbing John Flowre, of Worton, clothier, between Bagshot and Windsor park. That one Thos. Bryght and two others, ''one of whom Bryght called Master Wasshington, came to his house the day before St Nicholas' eve, lodged there that night, and left at 8 next morning, saying they were servants to Mr. Gryffith, of Staffordshire, knight, and wished to see some land of their master's. They returned at 4 in the evening, saying they had come by the bp. of Sarum's manor of Rammesbury, about three miles from deponent's house, and departed on St. Nicholas' day. Eight days afterwards he met Bryght and Washington in London at a tailor's shop in-Fleet Street in far better apparel than before, and they invited him to dine .at the house of one €" Whelpeley, in St. Antholin's churchyard; where he met one Master Huntley, a servant of the King.

ii. Joan Brusse, servant of the said Braybon, says the three persons lodged in the house on Monday before St. Nicholas, and she thought one of them was Mr. Baymfeld, who had land at Rowde beside the Devizes. €"Signed by the justices.

(Letters & Papers, Henry VIII, Vol 12, pt 2, No 247)

See also:

- "The last of our Highwaymen", c.1969. (from Stewart Hofgartner)

- Coaching

- Turnpike Trusts

- Postal History

- The Bear Inn