Highwaymen - Fact & Folklore (11 April 1975)
The somewhat tortuous and, in places, very narrow road from Little Brickhill to Great Brickhill is still known to local people as “Jack Ironcap’s Lane,” after a highwayman who is said to have used it to pounce suddenly on Watling Street travellers and to make his get-away afterwards.
Here and now I must point out that stories about highwaymen are very difficult – in most cases even impossible – to substantiate. Romantic imaginations came to picture these so-called “knights of the road” as Robin Hoods who robbed the rich to give to the poor and were gallantry itself to their female victims.
The fact that some highwaymen managed to operate for considerable periods in particular districts indicates a co-operation, willing or otherwise, on the part of some of the local inhabitants, but that is all. For the most part they were as big a bunch of scoundrels as ever stole a blind man’s penny.
Jack Ironcap – if that was his proper name – is said to have operated along this stretch of the Watling Street from about 1650 onwards. If so, his activities pre-date those of the better known Dick Turpin, Claud Duval and Jack Sheppard by a good number of years.
Yet there is a favourite anecdote about him that is typical of highwayman tales in general.
This says that on one occasion Ironcap stopped a lady’s coach which contained booty worth £400. Noting that the driver had a flute with which he entertained passengers on long journeys (presumably a one-handed one!) Ironcap ordered the lady to dance a courante with him on the heath. This accomplished, he took only £100 worth of the booty and sent the lady on her way.
It is also said that when Ironcap was finally seized in about the year 1670 many ladies who had been impressed by his boldness and gallantry interceded on his behalf. If so, it availed him nothing, for her was duly hanged at Tyburn.
Little Brickhill historian Col J.P. Wyness discounted much of this. He claimed that the lane would have been too near what he grandly but correctly called “the courts of oyer and terminer” for any highwayman’s liking. In another place, however, he says that assizes ceased to be held at Little Brickhill in 1638.
Dick Turpin comes next in to the local picture. Many old pubs in the south east claim him as a sometime visitor. He and Queen Elizabeth I must hold the record between them in the number of places where he or she allegedly slept. The visiting claim is made very strongly in connection with the Old Swan at Woughton, where Turpin is traditionally supposed to have been very popular with the innkeeper.
A 1946 writer says “It was here that on one occasion he eluded his pursuers by shoeing his horse in reverse, thus leading them to believe he had gone in the opposite direction.” Perhaps someone will tell me whether the horse could have managed that. The same ruse is credited to the Earl of Westmorland 200 years before Turpin.
The writer then says: “Villagers will assure you that if you stand in Bury Lane on a dark night where it crosses the Ouzel, you will see Turpin astride his phantom horse, presumably still on his way to York, though a trifle off-track.”
Well, well! Turpin might have crossed that bridge, but not while on his way to York, for he and Black Bess did not make that famous journey. It was made by “Swift Nick” Nevison, a Pontefract district man who plied the highwayman’s trade up and down the country for 30 years before being hanged at Tyburn on May 4, 1684.
At 4a.m. one day in 1676 Nevison robbed a traveller on Gad’s Hill, crossed the Thames by ferry and arrived in York the same evening via Chelmsford, Cambridge and Huntingdon and then the Great North Road.
Seeking a cast iron alibi, he then made himself presentable, found the Lord Mayor himself at a bowling green, politely asked him the time and was told “a quarter before eight.”
Eventually he was arrested for the Gad’s Hill hold-up and at the Assizes the robbed traveller from Kent positively identified him. But the Lord Mayor’s evidence was good enough for the judge and jury to acquit him on the grounds that no man could have been in two places so far apart on the same day!
One of the best-known cases of highway robbery in this district is that referred to in the Rev William Coles’s “Bletchley Diary” for June 19, 1766. Just north of Fenny the Watling Street crosses over a small bridge. There a highwayman held up and robbed a Captain Fleming, ADC to the Earl of Hertford and rode off towards Stony. In only a few minutes the Rev Risely, rector of Tingewicke came upon the captain. Mr Risely was armed with a pistol and together they pursued the highwayman to near Potterspury. There they caught up with him and repeatedly called on him to stop. The highwayman refused and finally Mr Risely shot him dead.
The Rev Coles heard of the affair at Stony Stratford the same day.
Mr Risely was charged with the highwayman’s manslaughter at the Northampton Assizes the following August, but was honourably acquitted.