…a blue Surtout Coat, and a round Buck Hat

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

When inspiration fails, I turn to history. What Happened in the  Past is like a vast map of several gazillion individual little stories; when the Muse goes on strike (again), there is always something to stir up some ideas.

In 1984, an obliging chap called Duncan Sprott published a book entitled ‘1784’. The book consists of a selection of articles from a variety of newspapers, all published during the named year. There are many surprising little tidbits, and the best part is that they are all pretty much true.

Let’s see what history has to say about…


Brutal, ruthless, unscrupulous, uncouth, heartless… but well-dressed and dashing. Right?

Wrong! Here’s the truth about Highwaymen.

The Public Advertiser. 20 February 1784

“On Saturday a Highwayman stopped the Carriage of Robert Watkins, Esq; in the Deptford Road, and robbed him of his purse, in which were Five Guineas, and some Silver. The Highwayman made an Apology for stopping him, and said that nothing but Necessity could drive a Man out upon the Road in such Weather, and upon so hazardous a Piece of Business.

Hm. An Apologetic Highwayman? How genteel.

Clearly even ruthless, masked robbers drag their feet when obliged to traipse to the office in bad weather.

Public Advertiser, 23 November 1784

“One day last week, Mr. Brookes, master of the menegery at Tottenham-court, being on the road from Tyburn… fell into conversation with a stranger, who, after riding with him about an hour, drew a pistol and presented it to his breast, on which Mr. Brookes desired him to remove his pistol, and said, his attack was unluckily timed, having just paid for a number of cattle he had been buying, but that he would give him what he had left, and delivering to him about four pounds, the fellow rode off; but Mr. Brookes calling after him, that he had no money to pay the turnpikes, he returned, and gave him a shilling. ”

Highwaymen can be neighbourly folk. Far be it from Bob the Heartless Villain to rob you of all your money and leave you unable to pay the turnpikes. How rude would that be.

Norfolk Chronicle or Norwich Gazette, 27 November 1784

“Last Wednesday a considerable corn-dealer in the neighbourhood of Leeds, returning from Tadcaster market, took up a horse on the road, that he supposed to be the property of an acquaintance,and left it at a public house upon Clifford Moor; the corn dealer pursued his journey, and the beast he had just left got loose and followed him. The noise of the horse on full speed at his heels alarmed him so much, that he clapped spurs to his horse, and went upon the Weatherby road till he reached the Granby’s Head, near Weatherby-bridge; where he had not been many minutes, before he was in the midst of a dreadful tale of the danger he had escaped, when the imaginary highwayman arrived.”

Highwaymen can be genteel and neighbourly, but that doesn’t prevent them from being Scary Beyond all Reason. And cunning. Very cunning. The best way to evade the law? Invest in an invisibility-cloak: you never existed. I wonder how much those things cost in the eighteenth century?

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 26 May 1784

“Last Sunday one of the Western-stages, in going out of town, was attacked by a single highwayman near Gunnersbury-lane, who after breaking the windows of the coach, demanded the passengers money. The guard at that time was asleep, but being awoke gently by the coachman, he asked the highwayman what he wanted, who replied nothing; d—n you, then, said the guard, but you shall have something, and immediately discharged his blunderbuss at him, the contents of which entered his body, and killed him on the spot.”

Phew, that’s a hard day at the office. Seems pretty harsh punishment for a bloke just trying to make a living, right? Especially when they leave you change for the turnpike. Was the invisibility-cloak malfunctioning?

Adams’s Weekly Courant, Chester, 11 January 1784

“Yesterday morning between Two and Three o’clock, the Chester Coach was stopped between South Mimms and Ridge Hill by a single Highwayman. On his demanding the Passengers Money, a lady in the Coach with uncommon Resolution expostulated with him on the Atrociousness of his Attempt… A Collection was made for him, and when a Gentleman gave him his Purse, on telling him it was his all, the Robber spiritedly offered to return Part of it back, which the Gentleman refused to accept…”

Genteel, neighbourly, polite. Goodwill between Robber and Victim. It’s like a lesson in caring and sharing with the other children. Excepting the lady of uncommon Resolution. Maybe he lacked style?

“… he then rode off wishing them a good Journey. He was well mounted on a Black Horse about 14 hands high, is a middle sized genteel Man, with a long dark visage, had on a blue Surtout Coat, and a round Buck Hat.”

Alright, so apparently the part about being dashing and well-dressed is true.

What we’ve learned from this exercise is that eighteenth-century highwaymen may be assumed to have been violent outlaws with no respect for the law and no regard for the plight of the victim, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, highwaymen were fluffy Carebears. Only better dressed.

Now go use this in a story. “Join Highwayman Bear as he adventures in the Land of Care-a-lot and the Forest of Feelings.”

It’s going to be great.


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