Today, a drive or walk through The Peak District in the central and northern region of England takes you past stone cottages in walled villages, larger towns with Saturday markets, tumbling brooks and rolling hills dotted with sheep who often wander onto the roads. However, despite its beauty this region has a much darker side and throughout its history has been the scene of murders, robberies and highwaymen galore. Many people who live near the Peak District will suggest that the lonely, wild and windswept moors have played host to countless other unsolved murders and crimes for centuries.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, shepherds and their sheep were the inhabitants of this windswept region and probably knew and negotiated the small valleys, trails and paths with relative confidence. However, real roads did not exist and when you ventured out on the moors, you were risking life and limb. The creation of stone markers were a huge turning point for travellers but the spelling of a location varied thanks to local dialects while illiteracy created many versions and countless confusion. Crude maps made an appearance around 1760 but the real fear for all travellers were the highwaymen.
After the execution of Charles I in 1649, many Royalist soldiers were left with no skills or trades to fall back on. The answer, for some, lay in robbing the rich and one prime location was the road that lay between the towns of Derby and Chesterfield in the remote Peak District. British historian Peter Elliott says that, “this 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.”
One famous highwayman who has achieved historical and inaccurate notoriety as a dashing criminal is Dick Turpin. Turpin was born in 1705 and started out in life as a butcher’s apprentice, a task which he did with disinterest. He found that stealing small livestock brought quicker rewards but he had to escape into the Essex countryside when stealing two oxen proved a problem. From here he turned to smuggling and then began to rob remote farmhouses often torturing the occupants until they gave up their silver or money. His gang was known as the Essex gang and was made up of as many as twelve men who were permanent while others were part timers. By 1737 Turpin had achieved great infamy and there was a bounty put on his head. He made his way north from Essex to Yorkshire, renamed himself John Palmer and enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle thanks to trips into the Lincolnshire countryside to rob travellers and to steal cattle, sheep and horses. Eventually Turpin was caught and sentenced to hang. History tells us that he was driven through the town of York in a cart, chatted with his executioners and finally killed on the York racecourse.
Tales and books have turned Turpin from an unsavoury thief, torturer, murderer and house breaker into a swashbuckling, charming and smooth talking robber who took money from people with his cry of, “Your money or your life!” In short he was not a nice person at all and his moniker of Highwayman and Knight of the Road is totally false. Also, the story of his famous ride from London to York in 24 hours on his horse Black Bess is nothing more than a story and completely untrue. It was in fact another notorious highwayman named John “Swift Nick” Nevison who made the ride to establish an alibi for himself.
Dick Turpin wasn’t the only man who made a living from robbing and killing on the moors. Black Harry enjoyed robbing the pack mule trains between Tideswell and Bakewell but was eventually caught and was hung, drawn and cut into four pieces or quartered on the Gallows Tree at Wardlow Mires. Gibbeting, or hanging the corpse on a gallows type structure or within a metal cage placed at a crossroads for all to see was how the law warned people about crime.
The mail coaches were heavily armed and were rarely the target of robbers but smaller passenger coaches were prime objects for theft. One solution lay in employing their own guards with guns to ride on the coaches and dissuade robbers along with other methods to fool the thieves. “We English,” said Sir Augustus Hervey to the famous lover Casanova, “always carry two purses on our journeys, a small one for the robbers and a large one for ourselves.” Other travellers had hollow heels made in their boots or collected false money to hand over. Turnpike men in their toll-houses were given speaking trumpets to give warning about approaching robbers and rewards were given for the arrest of highwaymen: £40 ($65.00) was offered for the arrest of a highwayman attacking a stagecoach, £200 ($333.00) was given to anyone apprehending a robber of the mail and as much as £300 ($484.00) if the attack was made within five miles of London.
However, robberies often took place right in the inn yards when the guards were distracted and parcels or goods were unloaded while nobody was watching. While rewards did help to apprehend the criminals these bounties also led to informers and in 1768 some sad wretches were persuaded to rob a coach and the syndicate behind the scheme pocketed the £960 in rewards.
By the end of the century roads were becoming safer and the creation of bank notes eliminated the need for carrying large amount of coin while cheques were useless to the robbers. Guns were also more accurate than the old blunderbusses which often failed and the highwaymen noted that the passengers and guards were, “not slow to use these new firearms.”
The days when the highwaymen were Kings of the Road with the travellers and innkeepers in their pay were slowly waning. After 1815 the crime became less common with the last known robbery in England taking place in 1831.