Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest's cut-throat past

David Boote on the history of highway robbery in the borough

Hero for Waltham Forest's cut-throat past
‘The Post Boy c.1830’ (credit: Royal Mail Group courtesy of The Postal Museum)
19 February 2022

While Waltham Forest as we know it today is home to both rich and poor, 300 years ago it was a far more homogeneously up-market area. North East London in the 18th century acted as a kind of stockbroker belt, where wealthy city businessmen bought large second homes to flaunt their status and regularly commuted into work in the City of London. However, this constant movement in and out of London created the perfect opportunity for a new industry, highway robbery, and eventually saw the birth of the still-famous legacy of Dick Turpin.While Waltham Forest as we know it today is home to both rich and poor, 300 years ago it was a far more homogeneously up-market area. North East London in the 18th century acted as a kind of stockbroker belt, where wealthy city businessmen bought large second homes to flaunt their status and regularly commuted into work in the City of London. However, this constant movement in and out of London created the perfect opportunity for a new industry, highway robbery, and eventually saw the birth of the still-famous legacy of Dick Turpin.

Highwayman Dick Turpin (credit: Wikimedia)Highwayman Dick Turpin (credit: Wikimedia)

Conditions in the area were perfect for these muggers of yesteryear to operate. The boundary between Maryland and Leyton was unproductive land, sparsely populated and therefore lonely, and there was no street lighting in this era. In fact, what we now know as Crownfield Road, leading away from Drapers Field, was in those days so plagued by crime that it was called Cut-Throat Lane. Conditions in the area were perfect for these muggers of yesteryear to operate. The boundary between Maryland and Leyton was unproductive land, sparsely populated and therefore lonely, and there was no street lighting in this era. In fact, what we now know as Crownfield Road, leading away from Drapers Field, was in those days so plagued by crime that it was called Cut-Throat Lane.

Stagecoaches were a particularly attractive target, offering the opportunity to rob a large group at once, and highwaymen did not even need to wait for the cover of nightfall. On 19th January in 1745, two horse drawn coaches from Walthamstow and a gentleman’s chariot were robbed near Ruckholt House in Leyton at between 4 and 5pm, with the thief making off with three gold watches, money and belongings worth an estimated £100. However, not every highwayman got away - in 1713 a John How of Essex was publicly hanged at what is now Marble Arch for his criminal activity in the area.Stagecoaches were a particularly attractive target, offering the opportunity to rob a large group at once, and highwaymen did not even need to wait for the cover of nightfall. On 19th January in 1745, two horse drawn coaches from Walthamstow and a gentleman’s chariot were robbed near Ruckholt House in Leyton at between 4 and 5pm, with the thief making off with three gold watches, money and belongings worth an estimated £100. However, not every highwayman got away - in 1713 a John How of Essex was publicly hanged at what is now Marble Arch for his criminal activity in the area.

Green Man Inn mid-19th century (courtesy of Stephen Harris)Green Man Inn mid-19th century (courtesy of Stephen Harris)

The Green Man Inn in Leytonstone (now O’Neills pub) was unfortunately located right in the middle of this criminal hotspot. In 1695, philosopher John Locke recounts a visit to the inn where his group were told of “several people robbed in Epping Forest the same morning we passed it” which he said made the hearts of the ladies in his company go “pitapat”. Decades later, in 1737, then-landlord Richard Bayes would step in to help a victim of highwaymen, Joseph Major, recover his racehorse after it was stolen nearby, along with a horse whip, a knife and the equivalent of at least £7 in gold and silver. Inspired by this incident, Bayes went on to write ‘The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin’, who he blamed for the robbery, creating a legend which is still very known today.The Green Man Inn in Leytonstone (now O’Neills pub) was unfortunately located right in the middle of this criminal hotspot. In 1695, philosopher John Locke recounts a visit to the inn where his group were told of “several people robbed in Epping Forest the same morning we passed it” which he said made the hearts of the ladies in his company go “pitapat”. Decades later, in 1737, then-landlord Richard Bayes would step in to help a victim of highwaymen, Joseph Major, recover his racehorse after it was stolen nearby, along with a horse whip, a knife and the equivalent of at least £7 in gold and silver. Inspired by this incident, Bayes went on to write ‘The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin’, who he blamed for the robbery, creating a legend which is still very known today.

To find out more read ‘Dick Turpin and the Knights of the Road’ by David Ian Chapman, published by the Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society.To find out more read ‘Dick Turpin and the Knights of the Road’ by David Ian Chapman, published by the Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society.