Highwaymen and other ‘great’ Essex outlaws:
A very potted history.
‘Dick Turpin’s Cottage’ reads the plaque above the beautiful character 15th century house set in Stoney Lane, Thaxted, suggesting the fabled highwayman was once the resident here, a tiny street still cobbled as it would have been back in his day. According to a few biographers Turpin also ran a butcher’s shop in the town (having been a butcher’s apprentice in his youth, in Whitechapel), though due to the fact he is known to have used aliases for much of his adult life, tracking down any verifiable reports of this information continues to prove very difficult. The subject of centuries of local speculation, it has still never quite been established how long the legendary highwayman actually lived here, or stayed here, and several local historians still decry the notion of his ever having even spent a night here. Nonetheless, there does seem to be proof that the Stoney Lane house was at some point occupied by Turpin’s uncle George, and while the sign above the imposing timber-fronted cottage remains, the myth will abide.
Dick Turpin (1705-1739) was finally arrested and sentenced to death by hanging in York. In 1737 an appeal for information about him was printed, declaring:
“Richard Turpin was born at Thacksted, in the county of Essex, is about 30-years-of-age, by trade a butcher, about 5ft 9ins high, of a brown complexion, very much marked with the small pox, his cheek bones broad, his face slimmer towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright and broad about the shoulders.”
We now know of course that the claim regarding “Thacksted” as being his birthplace is apocryphal, and that he was born at what is now known as The Bluebell Inn, in the local village of Hempstead, where his parents lived, and where a plaque and several framed newspaper records pertaining to his career activity take pride of place on the pub’s walls. The Bluebell is another beautiful building and is in many ways unchanged over the centuries, though it’s fascinating to think that such a calm and remote idyll could have been a planting pot for such a notorious creature.
Dick Turpin still remains one of the most internationally gilded examples of “Essex man” and his name features in the pantheon of all-time ‘great’ quintessential British criminals. It’s this ‘great’ notion that particularly interests me, and that’s what we’ll be exploring here, taking just a small handful of examples of Essex man and woman across the ages who have made it into the history books despite and probably because of either the criminal or barbarian acts of havoc left trailing in their wake. I’ve selected a dandy, some East End gangland villains, a baron, an earl, an ice cream man and the most famous British queen of all time, as well as a couple of highwaymen, to tie it all together.
Maybe it’s because of the London to Cambridge corridor linked by the old Great Cambridge Road and providing, back in the day, an excellent thoroughfare for highwaymen to plunder riches from itinerant gentry. Maybe with Essex being the outlying land of the ancient East End boroughs of the capital, the proliferation through history of safe houses and hideaways has always been a mark of the county. Either way there is a reason why Essex has its reputation as a haven for wrong ‘uns, and as history has a habit of turning bloodthirsty vengeful rebels, as well as outlaws with a flair for thinking outside of the box, into either romantic or courageous figures, let’s begin with the woman who started it all in the name of heartfelt personal revenge and the protection of Britain from marauding Romans.
In 61 AD Queen Boudicca was busy sacking English cities and defending the country from the Roman forces who had already established a foothold in several heavily populated regions. The Iceni and Trinovantes tribes of what is now Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk (or East Anglia) made up most of Boudicca’s army. After the death of her husband, Prasutagus, Romans snatched the inheritance that was due to the widowed Queen, then flogged her and raped her daughters. When she returned, understandably hellbent on vengeance, with her army of more than 30,000 men and women and attacked and destroyed Colchester (Camulodunum), England’s Roman governer of the time, Paulinus, who had sent his own army to wipe out Druids in Anglesea swiftly redeployed them to Essex. Following the successful defeat by Boudicca’s army of a newly despatched and ferocious battalion of Romans sent to tame them, the Queen’s army stormed London in one of the most bloody massacres yet to be seen. In a day they had sacked the city, infuriating and terrifying the Roman Empire, who had to decide as soon as possible whether Britain was really worth it, or whether they should back off and be happy with their remaining spoils elsewhere. They decided to step up the game.
While Paulinus mobilised his army Boudicca’s battalions were once more on the move and within days they had stormed Verulamium (St. Albans). Paulinus could take no more and employed every effort to follow her up country (actually up the old Roman road Watling Lane). When the showdown eventually came it was, on Boudicca’s side at least, a family affair, as her legion of men and women had brought carts full of supplies, as well as their children. It was expected to be another bloody victory for them and, in the tradition of the day, a darn fine spectacle for all the family. The Roman army eventually caught up with them at the edge of a forest in the West Midlands, and the ensuing slaughter on both sides was, effectively, the first Battle of Britain.
While the Queen watched from her chariot, however, her army was sneakily outmanoeuvred by the victorious Roman army who had chosen their position (one which offered a lot of foliage for cover) very carefully. Defeated, her decimated army fell amid the carnage, and Roman victory ensued. The Queen eventually either fell ill and or she took poison to end her life, but she had put up a brutal display of heroic defiance before she left behind what still remains an enormous reputation as a British folk hero. There’s an intriguing urban myth about her being buried underneath platform 9 at Kings Cross station, though interestingly Kings Cross was formerly known as Battle Bridge, and has been mapped by historians as a location for one of Iceni/Roman battles launched by Boudicca.
What’s also interesting is that for centuries Boudicca was written out of British history, only showing up again when Tacitus’s work was rediscovered during the Renaissance. It was only in 1534 that she was recorded by Polydore Vergil, marking her entry into British historical documents. She was probably the first famous Essex woman, and if only more accurate documents existed we could find out more about the army’s probable routes up and down the county to London.
Moving forward several centuries, and from monarchy to nobility, this next character is categorically more locally well known. The establishment of Saffron Walden as a market town dates from the time of one Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. An outlaw of the highest order, he used his Earldom (alleged to be the first Earldom ever granted by the King) to play power games with the monarchy in order to establish both the Saffron Walden Priory (later the Abbey), help to have the castle built and achieve the elevation of the town’s status to market town of the region (the market was moved from Newport to his castle in Saffron Walden). For quite some time though he based himself out in the Fens, where he operated a formidable army of bandits and anti-monarchists, and wreaked complete havoc from his base in Ramsey Abbey, Cambridgeshire from where he had ejected the resident monks in order to take up ungodly residence as an energetic rebel and pillager. He is known to be responsible for several serious acts of considerable massacre and ransacking in the area and, not surprisingly, he was excommunicated on his death following a fatal blow to his body from an arrow in 1144. Nonetheless, he contributed considerably to creating an important place on the map for Saffron Walden, and he is, largely, remembered today as a progressive and efficient nobleman.
The next local example comes in the form of an infamous rebel baron, Robert Fitzwalter, a powerful and influential landowner based at Little Dunmow. A known anti-monarchist, Fitzwalter was actively involved with a whole group of landowning barons who, in 1215, exerted pressure on King John to sign the Magna Carta, the most important document in English constitutional history (the original document states, amongst other clauses, that no man could be punished without going through a proper legal system). Fitzwalter, the self-appointed ‘Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church’ was exasperated to discover that King John was seen not to be complying with the terms set out in the Magna Carta, and vowed to take action on his own terms. Many of the barons behind the preparation of the Magna Carta were from Essex, and included Robert de Vere, Geoffrey de Mandeville (a descendant of the aforementioned Saffron Walden Earl of Essex), Richard de Montfichet and William de Lanvallei. With the help of the Pope’s regulatory intervention King John succeeded in getting the charter annulled, the barons were excommunicated and orders were issued to seize their estates.
Devastation ensued when the King’s army moved in, and Mountfichet Castle was destroyed. Castle Hedingham was soon captured too, along with other local properties. Undeterred and spurred on to further vengeance, Dunmow’s rebel baron secured help from France. By offering to put the monarch’s son, Louis, on the English throne, he drew the French to the negotiating table. The French support helped their cause considerably and King John’s men withdrew their force. After eventually making peace with the new King Henry III, the barons managed to get their estates back, and a revised Magna Carta was signed. When the rebel baron died in 1235 he was buried at Dunmow priory (now the church at Little Dunmow).
Within a few centuries the main highways and forests of the county had become the lair of that most Essex of criminals, the notorious highwayman. Author Daniel Defoe published an account of a notorious highwayman who he claims was the real rider of the London to York journey that has since become synonymous with Turpin and Black Bess. Defoe’s character, the aptly named Swift Nicks, who hailed from the Tilbury area, had, according to Defoe, committed a robbery in Kent on a fine day in 1676, before charging his way at first by ferry to Tilbury (where his ghost was said to have later appeared many times at the pub he frequented there) and, after stopping briefly in Chelmsford, he eventually managed to make it all the way to York by late evening of the same day. The whole trip was an alibi – an attempt to distance himself from the scene of the crime, so once in York he managed to conveniently cross paths with the Mayor of York and strike up conversation with him, establishing his presence in the city at a stroke. Little is known of this early Essex highwayman, though Defoe himself was also a Tilbury local for some time.
Little is known either of another intriguing figure known as Cutter Lynch, who was based in Leigh-on-Sea by Southend. One of the stranger features of his mythology is that he managed to equip his mare with false ears made of sculpted wax (her natural ones having for some reason been excised from her) in order that she remain as inconspicuous as he allegedly was himself. By day Lynch (whose real name was Gilbert Craddock) was a ‘respectable’ London gent and businessman; by night an Essex highwayman, who ended up dead in his own pond at Lapwater Hall in Leigh, following a police chase.
This was the period when highwaymen were featuring in many a wanted poster and we can bring Dick Turpin back into our narrative here. Turpin is often associated with a gang of outlaws he befriended in his London days who were known nonetheless as the Essex Gang, or the Gregory Gang (after the brothers Jeremiah, Jasper and Samuel Gregory – the central crew of the gang), a band of deer thieves operating around the Essex forest areas, as well as being responsible for several house burglaries in and around London. Other recorded members of the gang include the forger Tom Rowden, the wig-maker Herbert Haines, and the ex-con Mary Brazier (whose family also hailed from Hempstead, and who was sometimes known as Mary Rose, her married name), who was the gang’s fence, due to her many underworld contacts. Their youngest member, John Wheeler, was a mere 15 years old when he joined them.
The gang were largely based in London back in the early 1730s, around Westminster, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. The next few years saw them commit various house burglaries in and around the city, as well as both minor and major assaults on their victims. In 1735 and at the peak of their reign the Gregory Gang was finally broken up, with members either being sent to penal colonies (in the case of Brazier) or hanged. John Rowden and Dick Turpin were the only two who remained, and this is when Turpin’s reputation as a highwayman really snowballed.
The first known record of Turpin’s highway misbehaviour appeared on July 10th, 1735, wherein “Turpin the butcher, and Rowden the pewterer” apprehended two men on horseback in Barnes, then turning them adrift they rose off towards Roehampton where a gentleman was robb’d, as is supposed, by the highwaymen, of a watch and about £3 4s in money”. From this moment their names were officially known and tagged as ‘wanted’ (with substantial financial reward for information) and the mythology was set in motion.
“His name was synonymous with villainy, though time has been kind to him, the Dick Turpin most know today being a romantic figure in the style of Robin Hood. However, Turpin did not rob from the poor to give to the rich. He stole whatever and from whomever he could, terrorising residents and travellers in and around Epping Forest, which was to Turpin what Sherwood Forest was to Robin Hood.”
–Paul Wreyford, author/Essex criminal historian
After a few more two-handed holdups on the highways and byways Rowden went back to his counterfeiting ways, basing himself in Gloucestershire (where he was eventually caught) and Turpin cautiously went underground (some reports even claim he reappeared in Holland, where he had some kind of rogue network to protect him, for a time), and is likely anyway to have already been using aliases to hide his whereabouts, since he was using the name John Palmer even up to the time of his arrest.
Another notorious highwayman, one John Rann, went by the fantastic moniker of Sixteen String Jack. The dandiest of all known highwaymen (his legend has undoubtedly been used to embelish later romantic visions of Turpin), he was said to sport eight brightly coloured tassels from each knee, ruffled shirts, elaborate waistcoats and highly decorated headwear. There is now a famous pub in Theydon Bois named The Sixteen String Jack (where local lad Rod Stewart often enjoys a quiet pint) in his memory. Rann was a well known figure not just around Epping Forest where he was mostly known, but all over London, and precisely for his flamboyant persona and appearance. He also had the gift of the gab and is recorded as having talked his way out of execution several times before he was finally hanged at Tyburn in 1774 at the mere age of 24 (after having an allegedly exuberant and riproaring party with several female companions in his jail cell on one of his last nights).
While there’s so much to say about the years in between I’d like to shift fast forward to modern times, simply because the myth of the outlaw Essex man still has so much currency today. Thaxted’s very own Parrishes has itself some kind of unpindownable history with East End heroes/villains Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who are said to have once been patrons, even silent partners in the business; and known Kray associates have certainly kept houses in or around the town. After the Kray twins were arrested, it is acknowledged that several of their key associates fled the capital and made their way into the green pastures and unguarded shorelines of Essex, after all more than 50 times the size of the East End, so with a lot more space and privacy to offer. With many of them going underground once Ronnie and Reggie were finally busted, Kray associates found they could nonetheless remain quietly active in the more spacious surroundings of their Essex mansions and once again they managed to re-establish the county as a safe haven for criminal activity.
Kray associate Billy Blundell, to take one, got rich selling ice cream in London in the 1970s. To stave off any hint of competition he and his brother Eddie deployed a gang of heavies who they’d send round to have a word with other ice cream vendors. The resultant ‘ice cream wars’ saw them clean up, and get rich. Billy could now afford the Essex mansion with the barn, farmlands and lake he had dreamed of. The Blundells were the caterers and ran security at an Essex music festival at Weeley in 1971 which featured acts including T-Rex and Rod Stewart. Then the Hells Angels turned up to offer their own security. All hell broke loose until the Hells Angels were taken away, for their own protection, by the police. Blundell has since appeared in several TV documentaries relating to the Essex drugs wars, and has written a memoir.
Latter day highwaymen are basically just a new breed: hijackers. Lorry-jacking became prevalent along the Essex coastline during the 1980s, and spoils were taken back to rented barns usually located in the greener, leafier reaches of North Essex. To some modern social historians, Margaret Thatcher is seen as the vital link between the renewed outbreak of ‘entrepreneurial’ actions such as lorry-jacking and the manufacture of party drugs (both activities huge in Essex) and in several documentaries on this period Thatcher is given semi-drooling vocal support by renowned ‘businessmen’ involved in Essex underworld commerce. There is no doubt that the most modern incarnation of the Essex boy stereotype (made in the 1980s) is Thatcherite in character, political self-interest and competitive (on every level) social aspiration.
“Half the country’s top criminals have moved out of London, the underworld’s traditional heartland, and are now living in Essex, a major investigation into organised crime in Britain has revealed. In the past 15 years, hundreds of successful armed robbers, drug dealers, fraudsters and contract killers have migrated out of the capital and into the county, where they are able to live more comfortably on the fruits of their illicit labour. The remaining 50 per cent of criminals are believed to be dealing directly with the Essex contingent.”
— The Guardian, 26 November 2000
When illegal raves were being staged on farms and unused land across Essex during the late 1980s, it is said that the security was provided by gangland, in order to prevent the theft of the huge amounts of entrance money that was just sitting around in bin liners. Drugs came in from the coast, which added to the mix of underground notes being exchanged. So the rave organisers had no choice but to keep their enemies close, and effectively brought back the protection racket in order to keep their parties safe.
“The organisers were better than we were. I only wish I’d had them as my lieutenants, because they were brilliant. They could organise thousands of people in two hours to go from one spot to another. The military can’t do that even now..!”
–Ken Tappenden, Government appointed National co-ordinator of intelligence and operations for ‘Acid/Rave’ parties.
Could there be a better county for smugglers and modern day highwaymen? Essex has not only the longest, but still the most unguarded of any coastline in the country. The fact that you can walk past crate upon crate of stacked and unwatched Mersea Island oysters destined for L’Escargot and other reputable and expensive London eateries still says something. The wild curving coastline, plus the open and usually empty fields, plus the forests and woodlands, the farms and huge old barns…and very, very easy access (via either motorway or nippy country lanes) to London. This is surely a land made in heaven for many an operational Mr. or Ms. Big looking to hang back from the capital and plan, with the open fields for inspiration…