Category Archives: Highway Robbery

Actor Highway Robbery Theatre

Thou hast a good presence upon a stage

  Elizabethan actor & clown Will Kempe (1600)

These fragments come from a curious account of an accidental meeting between the notorious highwayman Gamaliel Ratsey and a group of travelling actors.  During the encounter, Ratsey, who was executed in 1605, offers some acting advice to the players. Although his only qualification for doing so appears to be the fact he had spent time attending the London theatres, the account reveals some fascinating glimpses into the life of the itinerant 17th century actor.

Gamaliell Ratsey and his company, travailing up and downe the Countrey (as they had often times done before), came by chance into an Inne, where that night there harbored a company of Players.  Ratsey, framing himselfe to an humor of merriment, caused one or two of the chiefest of them to be sent for up into his chamber.  I pray you (quoth Ratsey) let me heare your musicke, for I have often gone to playes more for musicke sake, than for action.  For some of you are not content to do well, but striving to over-do and go beyond yourselves, oftentimes (by Saint George) mar all.  Yet your Poets take great paines to make your parts fit for your mouthes, though you gape never so wide.  Others I must needs confesse, are very well deserving both for true action and faire deliverie of speech, and yet I warrant you the very best have sometimes beene content to go home at night with fifteen pence share a peece.  Others there are whom fortune hath so well favoured, that what by penny sparing and long practise of playing, are growne so wealthy that they have expected to be knighted, or to sit with men of great worship, on the Bench of Justice.

Well, musicke was played, and that night passed over with such singing, dancing, and revelling, as if my Lord Prodigall hadde beene there in his ruines of excesse and superfluitie.  In the morning Ratsey made the players taste of his bountie, and so departed.  About a weeke after, he met with the same Players, although he had so disguised himselfe with a false head of hayre and beard that they could take no notice of him, and lying as they did before in one Inne together, he was desirous they should play a private play before him, which they did.  Ratsey heard their play, and seemed to like it, and very liberally out with his purse and gave them fortie shillings, with which they held themselves very richly satisfied, for they scarce had twentie shillings audience at any time for a Play in the Country.  But Ratsey thought they should not enjoy it long, although he let them beare it about till the next day in their purses.  For the morning beeing come, and they having packed away their luggage, and some part of their companie before in a waggon, he discharged the Inne, and followed them presently.

Ratsey, having learned which way they travailed, he being very well horsed, and mounted upon his blacke gelding soone overtooke them.  And when they saw it was the Gentleman that had beene so liberall with them the night before, they began to do him much courtesie, and to greete his late kindnesse with many thankes.  But that was not the matter which he aimed at: therefore he roundly tolde them, they were deceived in him, he was not the man they tooke him for.  I am a souldier (sayth he) and one that for meanes hath ventured my fortunes abroade, and now for money am driven to hazard them at home.  I am not to be played upon by Players: therefore be short, deliver me your money. They began to make many faces, and to cappe and knee.  He bade them leave off their cringing and complements, and their apish trickes, and dispatch, which they did, for feare of the worst, seeing to begge was bootlesse.  And having made a desperate tender of their stocke into Ratsey’s hands, he bade them play for more, for (says he) it is an idle profession that brings in much profite.

And for you, sir (says he to the chiefest of them) thou hast a good presence upon a stage, methinks thou darkenst thy merite by playing in the country.  Get thee to London, for if one man were dead, they will have much neede of such as thou art.  There would be none in my opinion, fitter than thyselfe to play his parts: my conceipt is such of thee, that I durst all the mony in my purse on thy head, to play Hamlet with him for a wager. There thou shalt learne to be frugall (for Players were never so thriftilie as they are now about London) and to feed upon all men, to let none feede upon thee; to make thy hand a stranger to thy pocket, thy heart slow to perform thy tongues promise. And when thou feelest thy purse well lined, buy thee some place or Lordship in the country, that growing weary of playing, thy money may there bring thee to dignitie and reputation: then thou needest care for no man, nor not for them that before made thee proud, with speaking their words upon the Stage.  Sir, I thanke you (quoth the Player) for this good counsell, I promise you I will make use of it; for I have heard indeede of some that have gone to London very meanly, and have come in time to be exceeding wealthy.

Gestures for miming (1644)
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Crime Execution Highway Robbery

Dick Turpin

Dick Turpin (1705-1739) was born in September 1705 at the Blue Bell Inn, Hempstead, in Essex. He had a basic education before becoming a butcher and marrying Betty Mollington, a maid, in 1725. From 1730, they lived at Buckhurst Hill in Essex, but Turpin soon fell in with a gang of deer-rustlers operating in Epping forest.

Turpin acted as a fence for the stolen deer, and the gang’s activities continued quite successfully until a large reward was offered for their capture, and the gang leader, Samuel Gregory, was caught and pilloried in 1734. Gregory was subsequently sprung from gaol by Turpin and the others, and the gang then turned its attention to burglary. For a while they attacked remote farm houses on the outskirts of London, but it wasn’t long before some of the gang were caught, and by the end of 1735, only Dick Turpin and Thomas Rowden, a pewterer, were at large. It was at this point in his career that Turpin turned to highway robbery, hijacking carriages south of the river Thames. A year later, in May 1736, Turpin’s partner Rowden was captured and convicted of counterfeiting, and Turpin disappeared.

In 1737, the authorities learned of Turpin’s whereabouts and set an ambush for him in Hertfordshire. He evaded capture, but his wife and her friends were sent to Hereford gaol on suspicion of highway robbery. They were subsequently released. Turpin then joined forces with a Matthew King in 1737, stealing a racehorse named Whitestockings from a stable behind the Red Lion Inn, Whitechapel. In May of that same year King was shot by the authorities, and Turpin prudently fled to Yorkshire. The following description of him was circulated by the authorities: ‘a brown complexion…his cheek bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.’


 Turpin, based on contemporaneous descriptions, by Adrian Teal


During the following year, Turpin concentrated on horse rustling, and in July, returned to his father’s house in Hempstead with a stolen horse. John Turpin was subsequently charged with receiving stolen goods and spent the winter in Chelmsford gaol. In October, Turpin, using the name John Parmen (recorded as ‘Palmer’) was arrested for disturbing the peace, and he spent the night at a prison in Beverley, Yorkshire. When it eventually emerged he was in fact the wanted Turpin, he was sent to York Castle where he was charged with horse rustling. At the end of March 1739, Turpin was tried and convicted. He was executed on 7th April.


Turpin’s cell in the Castle Museum, York


Little was heard of Turpin’s activities until the 1800s, when his supposedly famous ride from London to York, previously attributed to the highwayman Willian Nevison, began to appear in chapbooks. In 1834, Martin Colnaghi depicted Turpin’s dramatic life in six high-quality prints, and these prints ensured Turpin’s immortalisation as the dashing highwayman.

Turpin is supposedly buried in St George’s churchyard, York. His grave is unusually wide, and there are many local rumours as to why. One tells of how Turpin was buried with his legendary horse, Black Bess. Another more intriguing story reports that after Turpin’s execution and burial, a group of Turpin’s associates dug him up and took him to the Red Lion pub in Merchantgate in order to give him a proper send off.  The authorities, discovering the dead Turpin propped in a corner of the bar, immediately ordered his reburial, pouring quick lime into the grave to prevent him from being re-exhumed.


Source for Turpin’s life: Dereck Barlow, DNB

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Crime Highway Robbery

God d—n you, you old Dog!

This snippet is a scandalous account of summary justice early modern style.  Printed anonymously in 1712, it sold for a penny.

The want of Discretion in a lower Rank of Men has been remarkable in all Ages, but never more than in the present Case, as you will hear by the Sequel. At Shaftsbury in Dorsetshire (a Town which had Title to a fam’d Politician in his Days) One Nathaniel Seager, a Malster [brewer], did on Saturday the 2nd of February last, take Horse in order to go to Blandford Market, about 12 Miles off, designing to Buy Corn as usual, but got no farther than the Plain, about 2 Miles from Home, before he was attack’d by a Highway-Man, and a Pistol clap’d to his Breast, with the Word of Command, God D—m you, you old Dog, alight and deliver: At which Mr Seager being very much terrify’d, got off, and threw the Highway-Man three pence in Silver, with which not being contented, the Highway-Man dap’d out his former Oath with a Volly more, saying that That was not all, and drawing his broad Sword, cut Mr Seager in the Left Shoulder; upon which fumbling in his Fob he pull’d out 24 guineas more, with which the Rogue rode off contented, leaving Mr Seager bleeding upon the Ground. In a little time after came up Joseph Reader the Miller on Horseback, Whistling as he us’d to do, and seeing Mr Seager in that Condition, ask’d what was the Matter, the whole whereof the Malster told him in short.  Says Joseph, Master, lend me your Horse, as being better than mine, and I’ll endeavour to overtake the Rogue. Says Mr Seager he’s but just out of Sight, has on a great Blue Coat, and rides upon a Sorrel Horse. Away Joseph scoures, with an Assurance to the Malster that he would take him if the Devil did not.

To be short, it was not long before Joseph came upon the Highway-Man, who upon his approach let fly at him, which miss’d him narrowly, going through the Lappets of his Coat. Not discouraged, Joseph still pursu’d him and came upon him a second Time, upon which the Highway-Man let fly at him again, but miss’d him. With that Joseph, wisely concluding the Highway-Man’s Ammunition be spent, knock’d him off his Horse with a good Oak Cudgel he had in his Hand, and brought him to bow, the Miller being a much stouter Man than the Highway-Man. By that time, the Fray was in a Manner over, Mr Seager came up and found the Highway-Man sprawling upon the Ground. The Miller said, Look here, is this the rogue that robb’d you, and will’d Mr Seager to search his Pockets and take his Money again, which he did.  But then the grand Question was, What they should do with him? At last they resolved that Mr Seager should go and have his wounds Dress’d, and send his Servants, and others, to help the Miller to carry the Highway-Man before the next Justice. Away goes Mr Seager, desiring the Miller to hold him fast till some Body came to his Assistance.  But as soon as he was gone, this Crotchet [idea] came into the Miller’s Noddle, If this Rogue should recover Breath by lying, and get up upon me, I should lose the Forty Pounds due for taking a Highway-Man, therefore to make sure Work on’t, I’ll Hang him my self, and so he did; for taking the Highway-Man’s Belt from about his Middle, he put it about his Neck, and dragg’d him to a Tree, and fairly hung him up till he was Dead, Dead, Dead. By this time came the Malster’s Servants, with the Posse of Shaftsbury; and asking where the Highway-Man was, says the Miller, I have him as safe as a Thief in the Mill: look behind that Tree, which they did, and found him Stone Dead.  But here was the Miller’s Expectation balk’d, for instead of Forty Pounds, which he expected as a Reward, he was carried before Justice Coker, and committed to Dorchester Gaol. However, Mr Seager appearing for him at the Assizes, he was acquitted, the Tryal having given a great deal of Diversion to the Hearers, who, tis generally believ’d, there being present abundance of Gentry, gave the Miller at least Thirty Pounds amongst ’em by way of Encouragement.

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