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.

The extraordinary Berkeleys

The Berkeley family, they of Berkeley Castle, certainly have a colourful history. The direct descendants of a Saxon noble, they have occupied the castle for 26 generations. At the January meeting of the History Society, David Smith, retired county archivist and archivist of the castle since 1980, recounted the family’s extraordinary history.

Given the castle by Henry II as a reward for services rendered during the Stephen and Matilda dispute, they were in the front rank of the peerage system as barons from 1154. Over the following couple of centuries the castle was taken from them several times as they became embroiled in various political rebellions and problems – King John and Magna Carta, the Battle of Bannockburn to name but two occasions.

There is a true wealth of documents, many thousands in fact, stored in the muniments room at the castle and through his work there David has been able to uncover the truth about many incidents including the murder of Edward II there in 1327 and indeed details of extensive building in the 1340s. The family were known as soldiers and politicians but they were also very learned and founded Katherine Lady Berkeley School in the 14th century which was unique at the time.

Unfortunately there were many family disputes over claims to the property culminating at one point in the violent Battle of Nibley Green in the 15th century. The dispute continued at great expense for years. During the Civil War the castle was sieged again, changed hands five times and was badly battered, eventually reverting back to the family. In the 18th century a strong illegitimate line led to a prolonged dispute over ownership claims into and throughout the 19th century. The legitimate line was back by the 20th century and the castle is now definitely the oldest in the country owned continuously by the same family.

Quaint and Quirky

At the March meeting of the society Angela Panruka presented just ‘a small selection’ of the many quaint and quirky features to be found in Gloucestershire. This highly entertaining and lively presentation covered a breathtaking range of curiosities, both old and more recent and often to be found in unusual situations.

Starting with animals, such as the Compton Abdale crocodile and the Hartpury beehive, she moved on to the original mediaeval stone wall pew now in Great Barrington churchyard, the wonderful Bisley wells, other wells at Clearwell and Hempstead and the rather concealed well near Flaxley still believed by some to have curative powers. The pagan green man appears in over 40 places including many churches, but the maypole, once a common feature, is now rare. Slightly hidden from view are lock-ups at Northleach, Bibury and Bisley and St Briavels Castle still has a torture chamber – beware you youth hostellers!

Unusual trade signs, village signs, pillar boxes, milestones and fingerposts are numerous as are standing stones, posts and structures bearing legends. Red rose blobs are to be found on walls above doors in the churches of plague villages and stained glass windows often tell a local story. With wonderfully clear pictures these were just a few of the features Angela showed. She was unaware of witch marks (apotropaic marks), many of which are to be found in Painswick, and these will undoubtedly feature in her future presentations to the delight of other audiences.