At the January meeting of the Society John Putley, of Gloucestershire Archives, gave a spirited and inspiring presentation on the subject of local highwaymen. Using artefacts, (he came armed with pistols), posters, paintings, newspaper cuttings and thoroughly researched information he examined the history of highway robbery from its 18th century heyday to its 19th century demise.
Step by step John debunked the romantic image of the highwayman. He showed that in fact the ‘profession’ was a particularly nasty one usually followed by ex-soldiers but also by servants, young men in debt from wealthy families and bankrupt tradesmen. They often worked with gangs and accomplices and a network of informants especially pub landlords and servants. They seldom held up large coaches full of passengers and preferred to rob lone travellers as it was easier and there was less likelihood of being shot themselves.
Carrying two pistols, each of which took at least five minutes to load, a knife or dagger, a bag for the cash (their only real interest) and wearing a scarf not a mask they generally rode on stolen or hired horses. Women dressed as men were also proponents.
Locally such robberies took place around towns such as Gloucesterand Cirencester and on main roads such as what is now the A46, theA40 and the road near Birdlip. Notorious county highwaymen includedthe Dunsdon brothers, Tom Long, the Pinnell brothers and William Crew.
Rewards were offered for the capture of highwaymen and it was indeed a risky career as robbery on the King’s highway and drawing a pistol carried the death sentence. Such executions - hanging and gibbeting - always drew crowds of thousands and they gained superstar treatment over many years, even to this day in fact.