Horace Wright, Oxfordshire's least successful highwayman
18 April 2023
Many people are inspired in their career choices by a desire to imitate their heroes. Unfortunately, Horace Wright’s heroes were the highwaymen of the 17th century like Dick Turpin and Jack Shepard who he read about obsessively in sensationalist literature that glamorised their lives of crime.
When Horace Wright’s attempts to imitate his heroes hit the headlines in 1868, he was described by some newspapers as ‘The modern Dick Turpin’, but by others as ‘A candidate for an asylum’.
Horace’s first attempts at highway robbery
On 5th November 1868, Horace Wright hired a horse in London and rode out to Oxfordshire. For his first victim he chose ironmonger Frank Strange Copeland who he encountered riding a cart with his wife just outside Henley.
When Horace pointed a loaded pistol at him and demanded money, Mr Copeland's first instinct was to ask him if he was joking. This response was perhaps unsurprising. Horace was wearing a costume based on the illustrations of the 17th century highwaymen that appeared in his favourite books. With his outdated yet dandyish coat and huge ‘Napoleon’ jack boots, Horace probably looked like he had stumbled off the set of a pantomime.
When Horace assured Mr Copeland that he was not joking, Copeland explained that he had no money, but offered to give him some money if Horace would accompany him home. This was a cunning ploy on behalf of Mr Copeland as, unbeknownst to Horace, they were just 200 yards from Badgemore House, the home of the county magistrate! It was towards Badgemore House that Copeland led the unwitting would-be highwayman.
However, Horace Wright clearly smelled a rat. Before they reached the house, Mr Copeland glanced over his shoulder to find that his would-be assailant had ridden off.
Horace Wright was not deterred by his initial failure. Later the same day he approached a man named Richard Cripps Lloyd a few miles away near the village of Shiplake. This attempt at robbery went little better than the first. On demanding Mr Lloyd's money, Mr Lloyd told Horace that he had none. Realising that he had again chosen his victim badly, Horace rode off.
Horace is arrested at the Red Lion inn
Given his eye-catching garb and outlandish behaviour, it’s perhaps not surprising that it didn’t take long for the law to catch up with Horace Wright. He was arrested at the Red Lion pub in a village a few miles from Henley the very next day.
He initially denied possessing a firearm, but the policemen almost immediately found a loaded pistol hidden in his huge jack boots. At this point Horace appeared to realise that the game was up. When the policeman jokingly asked him why he hadn’t worn a mask to conceal his identity, Horace immediate produced from his pocket a black mask and showed it to him.
Horace was then remanded in police custody until his trial at the next assizes.
On trial for highway robbery
Horace Wright was put on trial the following march, charged with highway robbery. Reporting on the trial, the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette described him as a 'gentleman-looking' medical student of about 21 years of age.
Defending himself, Horace pled not guilty, claiming that he had no intention of going through with the robbery. He said he had been 'in a state of great excitement' and that his actions had been 'a ridiculous folly, the act of a madman.'
He then gave a long and rambling speech, described as by the Oxford Chronicle as 'vapid and nonsensical' which concluded with a long Latin quotation that probably went well over the heads of the assembled jurors.
The jury found him guilty, but recommended mercy, presumably on account of Horace's clear remorse and fragile mental state.
When passing sentence, the judge told Horace that he had been 'led away by folly; that you allowed your mind to be acted upon by foolish stories and romances of highwayman's life [...] and in the hope that you will learn a lesson for the future, I shall only pass you a sentence of one month's imprisonment'.
Horace the highwayman strikes again
Sadly, if the judge hoped that Horace Wright would learn his lesson, he was to be disappointed. Only 8 months later Horace Wright was arrested and charged with highway robbery again, this time in Cambridgeshire.
It seems that Horace had not improved his robbery technique. The Oxford Times of Saturday 20 October 1869 reported that once again Horace was 'stopping his victims with a modest demand for money or his life, but taking no for an answer in a very peaceable, not to say sheepish, manner'!
Oxford Times write-up stated that 'The costume and the horse appears to be the great attraction in the eyes of this weak-minded youth who does not seem to consider that the hire of his steed will in all probability exceed his day's 'takings''!
He was swiftly arrested a second time, and appeared before the Cambridge petty sessions dressed in what the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette describes as 'a peculiar cut suit and jack boots; in truth, he would appear to have copied, as nearly as he could, the costume of a highwayman of the last century.'
This time Horace provided a written statement. He said he had hired a horse in Grosvenor Square and left London 'the with the idea that I was riding to deathless fame.' He stated that 'I had no control whatsoever over my mind, nor was it in my power to deter myself from committing this rash act. I was dragged on by an irresistible fate to achieve the purpose settled in my mind.'
Horace's trial took place at the Cambridgeshire assizes in October 1869. He was accused of 'assaulting one Blanche Perkins, putting her in bodily fear, and robbing her of one sovereign.' He had apparently also stopped a number of other travellers on the same road but, discovering that they were poor, let them go. His defence attempted to have the trial postponed to allow them to gather medical testimony relating to Horace Wright's sanity, but this was refused.
The judge took an unsympathetic view of Horace's conduct, sentencing him to nine months imprisonment, with hard labour.
Horace is in trouble with the law once more.
Less than a year after completing his second prison sentence, Horace Wright was back in the dock, this time in London. He was charged with stealing £30 from his employer, Mr Samual Cropper of Cheapside. It seems Mr Cropper had entrusted Horace with the money to make a payment on his behalf, but instead Horace used the money to hire a horse and absconded.
Horace was tracked down to a labourer's cottage at Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire. The Henley Advertiser speculated that he may have chosen this location due to its close proximity to Thaxted, the childhood home of his hero Dick Turpin.
During his trial at the Middlesex assizes, Horace expressed great remorse for stealing from him employer, but claimed that the attraction of the highwayman lifestyle had once again overwhelmed him. 'When I see a horse with a saddle on, I must be there if I have money.' said Horace, 'I am mad.'
Horace told the judge that he 'did not believe he was in his right mind', and said that even his close friends had wished for him to be prosecuted so that he could be 'taken care of'.
The judge questioned Mr Jonas, the governor of Newgate prison where Wright had been being held while awaiting trial. Mr Jonas gave his opinion that Horace was not of unsound mind, only 'very stupid'. He did however state that Wright had attempted suicide 'once or twice during his confinement ... but whether he meant to do it I cannot say.'
Horace Wright was sentence for 18 months imprisonment.
Horace Wright: a sad case?
Although Horace Wright may have alarmed a number of people with his highwayman antics, and even stolen a sovereign or two, his story ultimately leaves you feeling somewhat sorry for him.
He strikes a rather pathetic figure, riding around the countryside in his panto-esque outfit, ineffectually harassing bemused strangers while completely failing to live up to his dashing highwayman ambitions.
He was clearly a troubled young man suffering from an obsession that he couldn't resist. He was given a number of second chances, both from judges and from his employers. Yet still he would be seized by an irresistible urge to descend into a childish fantasy world.
Horace Wright's name disappears from the news headlines after his third appearance in court. We can only hope he made peace with his demons and managed to put his highwayman aspirations behind him!
- Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, Saturday 6 March 1869
- Oxford Times, Saturday 6 March 1869
- Oxford Times, Saturday 30 October 1869
- Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, Saturday 30 October 1869
- Witney Express and Oxfordshire and Midlands Countries Herald, Thursday 23 December 1869
- Henley Advertiser, Saturday 18 March 1871
- Oxfordshire Weekly News, Wednesday 12 April 1871