The rogues who roamed Whitby’s roads

Highwaymen once roamed around the Whitby district'Outfit courtesy of Pandemonium, Whitby'w142703a'Picture by Scott Wicking
Highwaymen once roamed around the Whitby district'Outfit courtesy of Pandemonium, Whitby'w142703a'Picture by Scott Wicking

“Stand and deliver”, is the immortal cry of the romantic highwayman.In truth these dashing criminals may never have proclaimed those words, but nevertheless highwaymen once roamed the Whitby countryside.

These Georgian criminals were perceived as Georgian Robin Hoods, distinguishing themselves from the common thief by only stealing from the rich and wealthy.

Gallows similar to these, at Tyburn in London, were used in York

Gallows similar to these, at Tyburn in London, were used in York

The affluent Whitby area, booming thanks to the alum, whaling and shipbuilding industries, was ripe for the picking, and as the landed gentry made its way home on an evening in horse-drawn carriages, highwaymen would sometimes be lying in wait.

Among the earliest of these ‘gentlemen criminals’ recorded in the area was the trio of Michael R. Lindop, O. Williams and T. P. Reynolds.

The three committed highway robbery near Whitby on a dark November night in 1659, and their names have been recorded as, like many of their compatriots, they ‘lived fast and died young’ - executed in York in 1660.

The story of life as a highwayman was recalled by Ralph Wilson, whose family lived in Whitby and to whom he would return for periods if he felt the noose tightening.

John Hawkins and his gang

John Hawkins and his gang

Aged just 22, in 1722 Wilson produced his book, entitled A Full and Impartial Account of all the Robberies Committed by John Hawkins, George Sympson and their Companions.

Wilson was one of these companions, and like most highwaymen he was not shy about recalling his exploits.

Addicted to gambling, it was at the card tables that Wilson met the notorious highwayman John Hawkins, and the two would strike up a friendship.

“I was very fond of Hawkins’ company,” wrote Wilson. “Because I took much pleasure in hearing him speak of his merry pranks and many robberies.”

A stone marks the location of the gallows in York

A stone marks the location of the gallows in York

After losing his employment and money to gambling, Wilson joined his idol in his criminal activities. He explained: “Hawkins ask’d me if I durst take a pistol, and mount a horse: I told him, Yes, as well as any man, and that the want of money had made me ready for any thing.”

It would have been a profitable partnership, had the pair not frequently lost their ill-gotten gains while gambling with the proceeds.

Wilson soon found his friend was not as amicable as he had presumed, and Hawkins became his ‘Tyrant’, who often reminded him that the gallows beckoned for anyone who became careless in the execution of a job.

A botched robbery led to Wilson shooting himself in the hand, and during his period of recovery he returned to Whitby to stay with his mother.

While there, Hawkins arrived in the town with a colleague, George Sympson, and the pair tricked Wilson into returning to a life of crime.

The gang were finally undone following the robbery of the Bristol Mail. Wilson confessed and implicated his former partners, who were later executed for their crimes.

Wilson was spared the hangman’s noose, and wrote: “I hope their souls are in Heaven; and though my crimes deserved the same punishment, I hope providence has reserved me to a better end: and though several persons who have saved their lives this way, have at last been hanged themselves, I doubt not but to make a better use of my deliverance.”

For the highwayman caught in North Yorkshire, a stay at York Castle Prison would soon follow. If found guilty after a trial, the scoundrel would be executed at Tyburn, on the outskirts of the city.

This was the fate of Whitby highwayman Thomas Lawrence, who on March 15 1773 was hanged for robbing William Knaggs of 30 shillings.

Another Whitby outlaw was John Williams, who stole £66.10s from the Whitby Mail Coach at Thornton Gate two years later and was hanged on July 29 at the same spot.

In doing so, the two men shared the fate of the most famous highwayman to have ever lived - Dick Turpin.

Having been found guilty of horse theft, Turpin was taken from York Castle Prison’s condemned cell and driven in a horse drawn cart to Knavesmire, near the modern-day York Racecourse.

During the mile and a half journey, the convicted would have plenty of time to reflect on their fate. In true gentlemanly style, Turpin is said to have conducted himself with much dignity throughout and, after speaking a few final words, threw himself from the ladder and died within minutes.

He may never have visited the Whitby area, but Turpin’s legacy lives on and a spot near Mickleby is to this day known as ‘Turpinlands’.

Located to the east of the village, legends of highwaymen stalking the area have been told for centuries.

A coin hoard dating to the 18th Century was discovered in a field by a farmer and experts say it gives credence to the myth of highwaymen near Whitby.

While the truth behind these sharply-dressed rogues, robbing from the rich to satisfy their own lust for glory, may be more mythology than fact, the legend of Whitby’s highwaymen is set to live on for many centuries to come.