Plunder and Charm on the Highway
The Dandy on the Heath
A Tale of Disguise, Charm and Plunder in the Early Days of Highway Travel
This is a tale of highway robbery, cunning disguise and charming impersonation in the older days of dangerous highway travelling. But as Scheherazade might say, there is much that may be learnt from these never-ending stories of interesting deeds and powerful metaphor.
In the days of travel by horse, and wagon, and carriage, to go from town to town could be slow and hazardous. Even close to the larger towns and cities, such as London, travellers could become the prey of those adventurous plunderers they called the highwaymen. These rogues of the road would lie in wait in lonely and desolate nooks, such as the Heath of Hounslow, not so far from London Town. The villains would jump or ride out from bushes and trees, in front of passing carriages, waving fire-arms, and yelling for money and other valuables to be handed over. Having gained their booty, they would gallop away quickly on horseback into the scrubland. In this way, some of the rogues were able to gain great wealth and even present themselves as honest traders in polite society.
In the middle years of that century of hazardous travel the wild heathland was the haunt of a young gallant who would on one day carry out his plundering trade dressed as a low rascal and the next day parade in fine London society as a fashionable peacock. This cove was a master of cunning disguise and equestrian subterfuge. He could exchange a rough wig for a fine white powdered confection. He would ride out of town in a gentleman’s two horse phaeton, which he would hide in the scrub, and then proceed to his raid on horseback and in low-life garb. And as a robber he was ever courteous in his dealings and would offer no violence save the raising of his pistol. In this way, his reputation from afar grew, while none in high society suspected his identity. He was a poor boy, though nicely educated, who had become butterfly-like, a wealthy and fashionable gentleman about town, no toe-rag but a dedicated follower of fashion.
It was this dandy highwayman’s good nature, however, that proved to be his undoing. He engaged a partner for some support, and a share of his spoils. It was also the custom at that time to uncover crime and gain proof and so do justice, by seducing accomplices into a breach of trust and damning testimony in return for their own pardon and freedom. And so it was in this case. The dandy’s brilliant career was ended through the word of his mate. And although it was clear that he was a peaceable kind of plunderer, that did not avail him in his defence. His cunning methods and fine impersonation had made a fool of everybody, and the judges wished to make an example of the clever and presumptuous lad. So he was taken to the gallows in Kentish Maidstone to meet his end. But he had won the hearts of the crowd and his exploits were celebrated in songs and in the broad sheets of the time. The people like to sing about a lovable rogue, and children love to sing of piratical endeavour. ‘Whack for my Daddy-o, there’s whiskey in the jar-o’.
Aficionados of criminal justice history and alumni of Hampton School may recognise the identity of Old Hamptonian, William Page (1730-1758), whose brief criminal career and time of wealth testified to an inventive and resourceful character and a fine gift for shifting identity. And lawyers and criminologists may wonder whether his case is so much worse than that of many other clever tricksters who cheat their way to large fortunes, and whether William deserved to swing from those Kentish gallows. It is true enough, as Lewis Hyde opined, that ‘trickster makes this world’.
Edward Wild and Ken Rice, School By The Thames : The Story of Hampton School (James and James. 2005)
Britsih Museum Portrait, www.britishmuseum.org
Hampton Around and About, No 3, William Page – Gentleman Hihjwayman, Beveree – Forum for Hampton and Richmond Borough, www.thebeveree. co.uk
Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World (Canonsgate Books, 2008)