During the 17th and 18th centuries, travelling on Oxfordshire's roads could be a hazardous undertaking. With no formal force to police the county's roads, travellers were fair game for highway robbers who lay in wait in isolated spots, poised and ready to relieve passers-by of their valuables. Here are 7 tales of notorious highwaymen who struck fear into the hearts of Oxfordshire travellers.
John Clavell was a student at Brasenose College, Oxford, but financial troubles saw him swiftly trading in his academic career for a life of crime.
He came from an old aristocratic family, but not a wealthy one. While an undergraduate Clavell was caught stealing valuable gold or silver plates from the college, and only the intervention of his uncle Sir William Clavell saved him from prison. He left Brasenose under a cloud and moved to London where he borrowed money to fund a lavish lifestyle under the belief that he would soon inherit his father's fortune. Unfortunately, when his father passed away John received a shock. His father's money was gone, and rather than inheriting a fortune, he only inherited his father's debts. Soon his creditors were banging at the door!
In desperation, John turned to highway robbery in an attempt to pay off his debts. His career as a highwayman lasted less than a year. He was arrested in 1625 and spent the next two years in prison, during which he began writing verses that would eventually make him famous. His long-form poem A Recantation of an Ill Led Life, or a Discovery of the Highway Law received a lot of interest for the light it shone on the highwayman lifestyle, and even included a number of helpful tips to avoid falling victim to highwaymen!
It is believed that his poem found its way into the hands of the King, who, impressed by the repentant tone of the poem, may have helped expedite John's pardon. After his release from prison, John wrote a moderately successful semi-autobiographical play about his life. He went on to marry and lived out the rest of his days in Ireland where he tried his hand at being a lawyer and physician.
When it comes to home-grown talent, there are few more famous Oxfordshire highwaymen than Tom, Dick and Harry Dunsdon, the notorious robbers who terrorised West Oxfordshire in the late 18th century.
Born and raised in Fulbrook, the trio plied their trade on the highways around Burford where they could commit their crimes before disappearing into the anonymity of the Wychwood forest. One of their biggest scores came when they robbed the Oxford to Gloucester mail coach of the then-princely sum of £500. However, one of their most famous exploits came during a bungled robbery attempt at Tangley Manor, during which Dick lost an arm.
Dick was not seen after this incident, and presumably died of his injuries but his brothers carried on without him. Tom and Harry were finally captured when they shot a pub landlord after an altercation. The landlord survived but Tom and Harry were seized by onlookers who handing them in to police. The pair were tried at Gloucester and executed before their bodies were returned to Oxfordshire to be gibbeted from an oak tree near the scene of their final crime.
The ghosts of the Dunsdon brothers are said to haunt the tree where they were gibbeted, and also the former George Inn in Burford, another of their favourite haunts.
It's hard to drive past the Holt Hotel near Steeple Aston without noticing the splendid carved sign featuring a highwayman brandishing his pistol, with an ominous hangman's rope dangling behind him. The sign commemorated the hotel's historic connection to famous highwayman Claude Duval.
Born in Normandy, France in 1643 and meeting his end on the gallows at Tyburn in 1670, Duval became something of a folk hero and it can be hard to unpick the facts about Duval's life from the legends surrounding him. If the stories are to be believed, he was the epitome of the dapper gentleman highwaymen, displaying impeccable manners as he relieved wealthy travellers of their riches while making the ladies swoon with his dashing demeanor.
Claude Duval had a famous eye for the ladies. In one famous anecdote Duval is supposed to have returned some of the money he was about to steal from a wealthy victim after the man's attractive wife agreed to dance with Duval by the side of the road!
The Holt Hotel was a coaching inn during Duval's day, and is said to have been one of his favourite haunts when he was lying low in between crimes. His ghost is said to still haunt the hotel, being particularly associated with room 3. There are also reports of heavy footsteps being heard in empty corridors, and voices coming from an empty attic. Perhaps appropriately, the presence of Duval's ghost is said to be particularly felt by women.
In 1806, residents of Swinbrook started to think there was something fishy about the new tenant at Swinbrook Manor. Mr Freeman described himself as a businessman from London, though he was vague about the precise nature of his business. He had brought a number of servants from London with him, and they were regarded as rather more rough and uncouth than might be desirable.
Despite ingratiating himself with local society by throwing lavish dinners, questions still remained. Why did Mr Freeman's household always seem so tired during the days? And why did his horses seem clean fresh in the evenings, but tired and mud-splattered by morning? Soon the answer to all these questions would be revealed in dramatic fashion.
Mr Freeman's arrival coincided with a spate of highway robbery on the Oxford-Gloucester road. The culprits evaded capture for some time, until a bungled robbery attempt where one of the robbers was captured. The man was soon identified as Mr Freeman's butler!
At this point the truth came out. Freeman was the head of a gang of highway robbers who had decided to move to the wilds of West Oxfordshire when their old stamping ground near London got too hot for them. Both Freeman and his butler were tried and hanged for their crimes.
Dick Turpin is one of the most famous English highwaymen of the 18th century. Born in Hempstead, Essex, his criminal exploits saw him travel widely and there is barely a county in England that doesn't have a Turpin legend associated with it. Oxfordshire is no exception, though like Claude Duval, Turpin's life has been so romanticised over time that it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.
The George Hotel in Wallingford is a 16th century coaching inn which claims to have been favoured by Dick Turpin when he was in the area. It is said that Turpin stayed there a number of times. On one memorable occasion the law is said to have come calling while Turpin was in residence, and he escaped by leaping out the window of his bedroom directly onto the back of his horse, Black Bess, which he had stationed below his room for this very purpose!
Dick Turpin is said to have also frequented the Crooked Billet pub in Stoke Row, seven miles to the east. While there appears to be no hard evidence to support this claim, given the pub's remote location along a little lane on the outskirts of woodland, it's easy to imagine the Turpin Gang using it as a meeting place to plot their next crime.
From flesh-and-blood highwaymen to those of a more supernatural kind now! Before the A40 dual carriageway was constructed, the main route from Oxford to Gloucester followed the route of the B4047. The stretch of this road close to the turn to Asthall between Witney and Burford was believed to be haunted by the ghost of a highwaymen known as Black Stockings.
The ghosts identity during life does not seem to be known, but Katherine M. Briggs recounts some alternative descriptions of Black Stockings in her book Folklore of the Cotswolds. One describes Black Stockings as a malevolent and extremely physical spirit who delighted in stopping and pulling riders from their horses.
Another explanation mentioned by Briggs is that the legend of Black Stockings was merely a rumour spread by actual highway robbers, either as a cover for their own criminal exploits or to scare people away from the area where they operated.
We close off this list, not with the best highwayman in Oxfordshire's history, but with arguably the worst. By the mid-19th century, highwaymen were largely a thing of the past but this didn't stop 21-year-old Horace Wright from following his dream and imitating Dick Turpin, the famous highwayman whose adventures he read about obsessively in sensationalist literature.
Riding a hired horse and dressed in an ill-fitting homemade costume that resembled something out of a pantomime, young Horace couldn't have looked less intimidating and his attempts to induce travellers to part with their money were largely met with laughter and derision.
His first attempts in November 1868 took place near Henley. His first victim assumed he was joking and even when he showed the man his pistol, Horace still left empty handed. He approached his second victim near Shiplake but his victim explained he was carrying no money and, realising that the encounter was going nowhere, Horace rode off. He was arrested the next day at a nearby pub.
Over the next few years Horace was arrested and imprisoned three times for highway robbery. In each case it was noted that the amounts he managed to rob from bemused travellers totalled less than what he had spent hiring his horse. At every trial Horace showed great remorse for his actions, and stated that when the urge came over him to live out his highwaymen fantasies, he was not in his right mind.
Horace Wright was ultimately something of a sad case. He admitted that he harboured an uncontrollable obsession that defied logic. At his third trial he told the judge again that he didn't believe he was in his right mind. 'When I see a horse with a saddle on, I must be there if I have money.' Horace told the judge, 'I am mad.'
These are just some of the dastardly criminals, dashing folk heroes and curious oddballs that make up the colourful history of Oxfordshire's roads. Stories that didn't make it on to this list include the numerous tales concerning the notorious highwayman black spot that was Shotover, and an honourable mention should also go to Chipping Norton's James Hind, the Royalist highwayman who, during the English Civil War, exclusively robbed Parliamentarians!
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