Highwaymen at the Bird in Hand Inn
8 June 2022 (Updated 12 March 2023)
Capps Lodge can be found a few miles north east of Fulbrook, just off the modern day A361. During the 18th century it was the location of a coaching inn called the Bird in Hand (not to be mistaken for a pub of the same name at Whiteoak Green).
However, its tranquil setting belies its dark history. Its remote location on the outskirts of Wychwood forest made it a popular haunt for poachers and other shady characters. In fact, the name 'Bird in Hand' alludes to poaching.
The most notorious denizens of the Bird in Hand were the Dunsdon brothers, the burglars and highwaymen who terrorised West Oxfordshire in the late 18th century.
The inn was also the place where the law finally caught up with the Dunsdons, after one of the brothers shot and almost killed the landlord.
A dark spot, suitable for dark business
It is likely that Tom, Dick and Harry Dunsdon favoured the Bird in Hand due to its isolated position, its proximity to their homes in Fulbrook and the fact that if the law was summoned they could easily slip away and hide in the nearby Wychwood forest.
It was in this pub that the brothers were overheard discussing their plan to burgle Tangley Hall, a few miles to the north west. A local constable was alerted and was waiting for the brothers when they arrived at the manor.
In the chaos that ensued, Dick's arm was severed while trying to escape and it is likely that he later died of his injury.
The Dunsdon's last stand
The remaining two Dunsdon brothers were finally arrested after a fracas at the Bird in Hand in 1784. The Whitsuntide Festival was taking place nearby and the area was full of merrymakers who had come to enjoy the fair and gamble on the horse races.
The Dunsdon's had been drinking hard when a quarrel broke out between one of the brothers and William Harding, the landlord of the Bird in Hand. According to Katherine M. Briggs in Folklore of the Cotswolds, the Dunson's had been drunkenly boasting of their crimes, saying that 'no-one wouldn't take them'.
When William Harding jokingly suggested that he himself could take the pair and made a play of arresting them, the brothers did not see the funny side. In a fit of anger, one of the brother fired his gun at the landlord at point blank range.
According to the story, the bullet hit a coin in the landlord's waistcoat pocket and ricocheted away, saving his life. Before the Dunsdon brothers could get away, they were overpowered by onlookers and arrested.
William Harding apparently became something of a local celebrity for the part he played in bringing the notorious Dunsdon brothers to justice. The landlord's daughter had his waistcoat adjusted to fit her, and proudly wore it many years, displaying the bullet hole to the many interested people who visited the inn to see the site of the Dunsdon's last stand.
Gibbeted at Capps Lodge
Tom and Harry Dunsdon were tried and executed at Gloucester, but there bodies were returned to Oxfordshire to be hung in gibbets as was the rather gory custom of the time.
While some have suggested that the pair were gibbeted at Habbergallows Hill on the A424 near Burford, the more commonly stated location gibbet site a large oak tree close to the scene of their final crime at Capps Lodge. Even today you can see a tree marked 'gibbet tree' on Ordnance Survey map, just half a mile north of Capps Lodge.
According to June Lewis-Jones, people would visit the gibbet tree every Sunday for months afterward to see how much of the bodies were left. Eventually, what remained of the bodies was taken down and buried in unmarked graves somewhere in the vicinity of Capps Lodge. According to Jackson's Oxford Journal of 28 September 1887, the bodies of Tom and Harry were later rediscovered during digging at a nearby slate quarry. Improbably, their skeletons were said to have been found still wearing the manacles that they were gibbet in!
Apparently the initials 'TD' and 'HD' and the date '1784' used to be visible carved into the oak tree from which their as a reminder of who was buried there.
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by June Lewis-Jones (Tempus Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 9780752429304)
- 'Folklore of Oxfordshire' by Christine Bloxham (Tempus Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 9780752436647)
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine M. Briggs (B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 28 September 1887