Today we have ‘mugging’ and ‘carjacking’ just over one hundred years ago both were classified as ‘highway robbery’. Today the thieves are after mobile phones, credit cards, cars etc. then they were robbing watches, cash, horses etc. Such villains thrived on and around the lonely highways and byways of Dartmoor from around 1600s to the early 1900s. Most of these crimes were committed by ‘footpads’ who plied their trade on foot as opposed to horseback. The general modus operandi was on dark nights to lay in wait in the road sides or hedgerows until their victims passed when they would leap out of hiding. If the traveller was on horseback they would grab the horse and dismount the rider, if on foot they would simply attack the wayfarer. Either way in many cases a viscous assault followed with the intent on rendering the person senseless and then robbing them. On some unfortunate occasions the victims was assaulted so badly that they died from their injuries. Dartmoor and its surrounds provided the ideal place for highway robberies, remote dark roads and lanes, sparsely populated with minimal police protection. There definitely was what was described as the ‘season’ for highway robbery that being late autumn through the winter time due to the early dark nights. Being an agricultural district there were several livestock markets which often meant farmers returning from selling their livestock had money on them and therefore prime targets. Additionally the roads and lanes were often used by tradesmen returning from a days business, again in all probability carry cash. It cannot be argued that in the early days the punishments for highway robbery were harsh, at best long terms of transportation at worse death by hanging. Looking back through old local newspapers every week the names of those due to or having been hanged filled their pages. By the 1840s most criminals convicted of highway robbery were transported and it was only where the robbery was particularly viscous or death occurred that the sentence of execution followed.
Highway robbery was not just the domain of males as several cases also involved women – they too felt the heavy hand of the law when caught. Such was the concern regarding the high number of robberies that in some cases local farmers etc formed their own protection force in the form of organised nighttime patrols. But who were these villains? During early postwar times they were ex-soldiers and sailors who having returned from the conflicts could either find no work or simply wanted an easier way of making money. Maybe they were people in dire circumstances who robbed out of necessity and there were the ones who were just out and out villains. It is remarkably noticeable when looking back through local newspaper reports of highway robbery how up until the mid 1800s they gave details of the actual robberies but later concentrated more on reporting about the trials and sentences of those who committed such crimes. Was this a determined effort to play down the large numbers of highway robberies that were taking place and restore public confidence?
What led to the eventual decline in highway robbery? One factor was the introduction of bank cheques which meant people carried less actual money. In later years the introduction of motorised vehicles meant they were much harder to stop than a horse. Also improved policing methods had some effect both in numbers, mobility and methods of communication.
Below are just a very few examples of incidents of highway robbery that occurred in and around Dartmoor if the whole county of Devon were to be included it would take an entire book to document them all.
December 1820 – “As the servant of Rev. Mr. Sleeman, Whitchurch, who had been with Mrs. Sleeman, to Admiral Bedford’s at Stonehouse, and left the carriage there, was returning home with a pair of horses, he was attacked near the seventh milestone on Roborough Down, by two men, who knocked him off the horse he rode., and after cruelly beating him, took from his person a pound note and ten shillings in silver, when they left him as dead.” – The Exeter Flying Post, December 21st 1820.
January 1831 – “Highway Robbery – Two sailors named John Norris and George Lands have been committed for trial at the Assizes, for robbing a lad, apprentice to Mr. Furneaux, Maltster at Buckfastleigh, about a mile and a half from Ashburton on the Plymouth road. ” – The Western Times, January 8th 1831.
September 1832 – “Highway Robbery – On the evening of money last between Ashburton and Chagford, a man named John Battershill was knocked off his horse by two stout men, and robbed. The animal, which has not since been seen or heard of in the neighbourhood, it is supposed, was taken off by the thieves. There can be no doubt, from the number of horses stolen in that neighbourhood, as well as in other parts of the county, of late, that there is an infamous gang of daring villains, prowling about the country, for the purpose of levying contributions on the horse and other property; the police would do well to keep a watchful eye upon the tribes of wandering vagabonds called gipseys, who must live by plunder of some kind or other. A reward has been offered for the apprehension of the villains who robbed and knocked down Battershill, and we hope they will be detected.” – The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, September 1st 1832.
September 1833 – “On Monday night last, about 10 o’clock a violent attempt to commit highway robbery was made on a medical gentleman on the Okehampton road. The gentleman had taken out his watch out of his pocket to look at the time, when a powerful fellow sprang out over the hedge and snatched it; the gentleman, was, however, provided with a stick, with which he beat him soundly about the head till he roared for mercy and to spare his life. Another fellow on this leaped over the hedge, when the gentleman thus attacked made the best of his way into town.” – The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, September 7th, 1833.
February 1835 – “Daring Highway Robberies – On the night of Wednesday week, Mr. Andrew Hayward, of West Wood, near Newton Abbot, was proceeding on the road about eight o.clock, when about about a quarter of a mile from the town, was attacked by two or three men, who pulled him from his horse, and robbed him of two sovereigns and some silver. – Very near the same time Mr. Holmes, of Sandy Gate Inn, and his brother, were attacked about half a mile from Newton, the landlord having stopped while his brother walked on a few yards, a ruffian came out of the hedge and made a thrust at him,; Mr. Holmes repulsed the villain, but another of the gang immediately knocked him down, his fob was then cut out, and his watch and some cash stolen from him: he called for his brother for help, but on walking forward found him lying in the road bleeding profusely from a severe cut in the head, and on enquiry (the villains having made off) found he had also been robbed.” – The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, February 14th, 1835.
July 1835 – “Highway Robbery – On Thursday night (yesterday), between ten and eleven o’clock, an alarm was given in the town of Moretonhampstead, that a murder had been committed a short distance from that place. It was soon ascertained that the object of this brutal outrage was Mr. John May, a respectable farmer, living near Dunsford, who had attended the fair, and left it about a quarter-past ten; he was found in the road insensible, with his head dreadfully bruised, his pockets turned out, and it is said a bludgeon was by his side. He was conveyed back to Moretonhampstead, and when our reporter left this morning was not expected to recover. Several desperate characters were seen lurking about the neighbourhood, some of whom are suspected to have been the perpetrators of this horrid deed.” The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, July 18th, 1835. Alas John May died from his injuries and the whole story can be found on the Legendary Dartmoor page – The Moretonhampstead Murder.
August 1837 – “Highway Robbery – On Saturday night, as Mr. Dawe, captain of a mine in the neighbourhood of Sourton, was returning from Okehampton at about ten o’clock, he was met when a mile out of town by four men, with whom were also three women, who stopped and beat him cruelly, until they had almost deprived him of life. The villains then proceeded to rob him of £14 10s. in gold and silver, together with a watch, leaving Mr. Dawe on the ground insensible, they returned to Okehampton, and in a “loading house” they were observed to share the spoils.” – The Western Times, August 12th, 1837.
January 1847 – “Highway Robbery – A desperate attempt at highway robbery took place on Wednesday evening last,. Mr. Stephen Nosworthy, yeoman, Farlacombe Farm, Bickington, in returning from Newton Abbot market was attacked by two villains, who sprung out from the side of the road and made a desperate blow at his head, but we are glad to state, without effect, the horse having started off before they had the power to lay hold of the animal. We recommend our friends to travel during the season in company together, as it will be a preventative to those who are waiting in the roads for plunder.” – The Western Times, January 2nd, 1847.
October 1851 – Highway Robbery – A famous case which made the national headlines involved an old man from Okehampton workhouse who was travelling to Plymouth with a companion. On reaching Tavistock they decided to stop off for a few beverages, having done so they carried on to Plymouth when a man, named Dilling, approached on horseback with two other horses in tow. He offered them a ride to Plymouth on the two horses he was leading. The party decided to stop off for some more beverages at the Buller’s Arms after which Bellamy carried on with his journey on foot across Roborough down. He then heard horses fast approaching him from behind, as he turned around he was Dilling and the next thing he knew was that Dilling had leapt of his horse and was kneeling on his chest as he rifled through his pockets where he stole his leather purse which contained 15 shillings. – the whole story can be found on the Legendary Dartmoor page – HERE.
October 1868 – “Highway Robbery – Miss Hammon, a young lady visiting at Chagford rectory, Devon, was stopped near Rushford Bridge, near Chagford, about six o’clock on Friday evening, by three men, who, after threatening her with personal violence, demanded her watch and money. She, with great coolness, refused to comply with the demand; at this time, very fortunately, approaching footsteps were heard, and the men decamped. ” – The Weekly Dispatch, October 4th, 1868.
November 1908 – “Highway Robbery – Three young men, Frank Hodge, R. Doidge, and Fredrick Strode, all of Princetown, were out searching for the escaped convict during the afternoon, when they had an encounter with three strange men. The searchers were all mounted on horses, and were returning home from Dousland. When halfway up Peek Hill they met the strangers. One of the men at once seized Doidge’s bridle, and tried to pull the rider off his horse. Hodge inquired what was the matter, and, as Doidge’s assailant would not desist, Hodge twice struck the man across the face with his riding whip. The man gave way before the blows and let go of the bridle. Almost immediately, however, a second man caught hold of Doige’s bridle and tried to unseat the rider. Hodge also gave him a dose of the riding whip, and Strode endeavoured to ride between Hodge and his assailant. The third man then stepped up and struck Strode with a severe blow with a stick. Finding that the horsemen were too much for them, the three men made off. Hodge described one of the men as being very respectably dressed in a cloth suit and soft cap. The other two men had the appearance of workmen and wore corduroys.” – The Evening Herald. Monday, November 2nd 1908.
Some infamous characters found their way into Dartmoor folklore such as Captain Jack. He was a notorious highway man who preyed on travellers going from Okehampton to Tavistock. Legend has it that he was eventually caught and sentenced to death by hanging and his corpse placed in the iron cage which once stood on Gibbet Hill. Finally, if you thought highway robbery was a thing of the past then you would be wrong. In recent years there have been at least two cases of people being actually robbed on the roads of Dartmoor. It could also be said that a modern form of highway robbery is that of the numerous cars that get broken into when left in the various car parks around the moor.