Pickpockets, Highwaymen, and Footpads
Published on October 14, 2015 by L.A. Hilden | Views: 1246

As in today’s world, earnings in Regency England were all over the income scale.  The lowest laborer earned less than £25, while the upper classes usually earned around £10,000 or more; taxes to support the royal family exceeded £1,000,000 a year.  Theft was rampant in Regency England, as one aristocrat’s timepiece was tempting and likely to be worth more money than the lowly wage earner made in a year.  If you add in devastating harvests and famine, the hungry and desolate become more willing to take desperate measures.  Of course there was the death penalty to deter thievery, but with an inadequate police force, catching the culprits was ineffective.  Even death wasn’t a strong enough deterrent for these men.

Large gatherings were favorite places for pickpockets.  Some of these criminals were skilled and often dressed well to deceive their victims.  Common places to find these criminals were at racetracks, festivals, theaters, fairs, funerals, public lectures, hangings, and markets.  Any area that was fashionable or known to be crowded would have its fair share of pickpockets.  The pickpockets that frequented racetracks were usually adults.  The pickpockets that frequented the streets were often young boys from gangs.  With overpopulation in London and school not required, many children were left to their own devices while their parents worked.  A common item stolen was the handkerchief since it could easily be taken and resold.  The large majority of young pickpockets were never prosecuted in court and often beaten if captured by the victim or citizens willing to give chase.

The highwaymen were thieves on horseback who terrorized travelers for their purses.  They often made their attacks at night on remote stretches of highway.  Interestingly, these men usually didn’t commit murder and even returned items to the victim if the victim was overly distressed by the encounter.  Ah, yes the nice robbers.  They actually had a reputation for gallantry.  They often awaited travelers on the outskirts of towns and cities.  They were excellent horsemen, which was necessary to make a speedy escape after committing the crime.  Many were believed to be ex-soldiers.  Of course there were also reported incidents of violence and gunshots fired in these situations.  About one in five attacks by highwaymen resulted in brutal violence and death.  It was also known that some highwaymen enjoyed breaking the glass windows of the carriage to cause more fear to their victims.  They wore masks and took care to disguise themselves.  Stagecoaches were prime targets, and like the personal coaches, were attacked since they lacked protection.  “Stand and deliver!” was a famous demand used in the 17th century.

Highwaymen were considered socially superior when compared to footpads.  Highwaymen were generally proud of their exploits and enjoyed boasting to the crowd, even more so once they were arrested.  Many of them made an effort to live up to the public’s image of them being “Gentlemen of the Road.”  They were often from the middle class and were educated as apprentices or for trade occupations.  Many never completed their apprenticeships and were dissatisfied with low wages.

The Great North Road was a main route from London to York and beyond.  It is upon this road that travelers may have been met with the words, “Your money or your life!” which is from the mid-18th century.  Dick Turpin was a famous highwayman of the Great North Road.  Turpin was known to be dashing as he committed his crimes while riding his mare, Black Bess.  From trying his hand at smuggling, to robbing isolated farmhouses with other criminals, Turpin became involved in highway robbery at the end of his long criminal career.

Another famous highwayman is John “Swift Nick” Nevison, known to be a flamboyant criminal whose exploits earned him praise from King Charles II.  Nevison had robbed a man at 4 am one morning in Kent, he then made his way across the River Thames by ferry, rode toward Chelmsford, rested his horse, and continued his travels as fast as he could until he reached the Great North Road, he then hightailed it to reach York by sunset.  He bathed and changed his travel clothes before hurrying off to visit with the Lord Mayor who was playing bowls.  He engaged the Lord Mayor in conversation and laid a bet on the match at 8 pm that evening.  Nevison was still arrested for his crime, but he had the Lord Mayor as his alibi witness.  The court refused to believe a person on horseback could make the 200-mile journey in such a short time and Nevison was found innocent of the crime.  His journey was a stunning achievement that impressed the king, who was believed to have given Nevison the nickname Swift Nick.  Eventually Nevison’s life of continued crime caught up with him and he was hanged in 1684, his body placed in an unmarked grave in York at Saint Mary’s Church.  I’m unsure of Nevison’s behavior when he met with the hangman’s noose, but it was said that many highwaymen went to the gallows laughing and showing no fear; the spectators admired these men.

The last recorded highway robbery occurred in 1831, but these kinds of attacks had declined around 1815.  This was due to repeating handguns becoming more affordable for the average citizen, turnpike expansion, which were manned and gated making it more difficult to escape undetected, and the expanding police force.  The last highway robbery prosecution was heard at the Old Bailey in 1897.

Footpads often worked in gangs and attacked travelers.  Unlike the highwaymen, the footpads had no issue with killing their victims and were known to murder in an inhuman manner for very little coin.  It is assumed they murdered their victims because they didn’t have a horse to make a speedy escape.  Footpads were known to ambush coaches by lying in wait beneath bridges or other unprotected areas.

Outlaws are often portrayed as folk heroes and romanticized in books and movies.  They are admired for their boldness to face a person head on and take what they want.  They represent freedom and independence from authority and live life according to their own rules.  Although they are often glorified, they were ruthless murderers and thieves.  Nevertheless, the outlaw captures the imagination as is seen in the numerous tales and legends written about them.  The most famous outlaw of medieval times was Robin Hood.  Other romanticized outlaws include Billy-the-Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and Jesse James.


To read more on Royal Spending here’s my blog on the Prince Regent and the Royal Pavilion. http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=8

To read more on Policing in Regency England. http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=167


A special thank you to:  Roy and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England and http://www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk/great_north_road.htm and http://18thcand19thc.blogspot.com/2013/12/child-pickpockets.html and http://rictornorton.co.uk/gu08.htm