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Asalto al coche (Robbery of the coach), by Francisco de Goya
English highwayman Captain James Hind depicted in an engraving now in the National Portrait Gallery.

A highwayman was a robber who stole from travelers. This type of thief usually travelled and robbed by horse, as compared to a footpad who travelled and robbed on foot; mounted highwaymen were widely considered to be socially superior to footpads.[1] Such robbers operated in Great Britain from the Elizabethan era until the early 19th century. In many other countries, they persisted for a few decades longer, until the mid or late 19th century.

The word highwayman is first known to be used in the year 1617;[2] other euphemisms included "knights of the road" and "gentlemen of the road". In the 19th-century American West, highwaymen were known as road agents.[3] In Australia they were known as bushrangers.


Some robbed individually, but others worked in pairs or in small gangs. They often attacked coaches for their lack of protection, including public stagecoaches; the postboys who carried the mail were also frequently held up.[4] The famous demand to "Stand and deliver!" (sometimes in forms such as "Stand and deliver your purse!" "Stand and deliver your money!") was in use from the 17th century.

A fellow of a good Name, but poor Condition, and worse Quality, was Convicted for laying an Embargo on a man whom he met on the Road, by bidding him Stand and Deliver, but to little purpose; for the Traveller had no more Money than a Capuchin, but told him, all the treasure he had was a pound of Tobacco, which he civilly surrendered.

— The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 25 April 1677, [5]

The phrase "Your money or your life!" is mentioned in trial reports from the mid-18th century:

Evidence of John Mawson: "As I was coming home, in company with Mr. Andrews, within two fields of the new road that is by the gate-house of Lord Baltimore, we were met by two men; they attacked us both: the man who attacked me I have never seen since. He clapped a bayonet to my breast, and said, with an oath, Your money, or your life! He had on a soldier's waistcoat and breeches. I put the bayonet aside, and gave him my silver, about three or four shillings."

— The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 12 September 1781, [6]

Robbers as heroes

There is a long history of treating highway robbers as heroes. Originally they were admired by many as bold men who confronted their victims face-to-face and were ready to fight for what they wanted.[7] The most famous English robber hero is the legendary medieval outlaw Robin Hood. Later robber heroes included the Cavalier highwayman James Hind, the French-born gentleman highwayman Claude Du Vall, John Nevison, Dick Turpin, Sixteen String Jack, the Slovak Juraj Jánošík, and Indians including Kayamkulam Kochunni, Veerappan and Phoolan Devi.

Dick Turpin riding Black Nugget, from a Victorian toy theatre.

British-ruled Ireland

In 17th- through early-19th-century Ireland, acts of robbery were often part of a tradition of popular resistance to British colonial rule and settlement and Protestant domination. From the mid-17th century, bandits who harassed the British were known as tories (from Irish tórai, raider). Later in the century, they became known as rapparee. Famous highwaymen included James Freney, Count Redmond O'Hanlon, Willy Brennan, and Jeremiah Grant.[8][9]

Dangerous places

Highwaymen often laid in wait on the main roads radiating from London. They usually chose lonely areas of heathland or woodland. Hounslow Heath was a favourite haunt: it was crossed by the roads to Bath and Exeter, England.[10] Bagshot Heath in Surrey was another dangerous place on the road to Exeter. One of the most notorious places in England was Shooter's Hill on the Great Dover Road. Finchley Common, on the Great North Road (Great Britain), was very nearly as bad.[11] Many other places could be mentioned.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, highwaymen in Hyde Park were sufficiently common for King William III to have the route between St. James's Palace and Kensington Palace (Rotten Row) lit at night with oil lamps as a precaution against them. This made it the first artificially lit highway in Britain.[12]


The execution of the French highwayman Cartouche, 1721

The penalty for robbery with violence was hanging, and most notorious English highwaymen ended on the gallows. The chief place of execution for London and Middlesex was Tyburn Tree. Famous highwaymen whose lives ended there include Claude Du Vall, James MacLaine, and Sixteen-string Jack. Highwaymen who went to the gallows laughing and joking, or at least showing no fear, are said to have been admired by many of the people who came to watch.[13]


During the 18th century French rural roads were generally safer from highwaymen than those of England; an advantage credited by the historian Alexis de Tocqueville to the existence of a uniformed and disciplined mounted constabulary known as the Maréchaussée. In England this force was often confused with the regular army and as such cited as an instrument of royal tyranny not to be imitated.[14]

In England the causes of the decline are more controversial. After about 1815, mounted robbers are recorded only rarely, the last recorded robbery by a mounted highwayman occurring in 1831.[15] The decline in highwayman activity occurred during the period in which repeating handguns, notably the pepperbox and the percussion revolver, became increasingly available and affordable to the average citizen. The development of the railways is sometimes cited as a factor, but highwaymen were already obsolete before the railway network was built. The expansion of the system of turnpikes, manned and gated toll-roads, made it all but impossible for a highwayman to escape notice while making his getaway, but he could easily avoid such systems and use other roads, almost all of which outside the cities were flanked by open country.

Cities such as London were becoming much better policed: in 1805 a body of mounted police began to patrol the districts around the city at night. London was growing rapidly, and some of the most dangerous open spaces near the city, such as Finchley Common, were being covered with buildings. However this would only move the robbers' operating area further out, to the new exterior of an expanded city, and does not therefore explain decline. A greater use of banknotes, more traceable than gold coins, also made life more difficult for robbers,[16] but the Enclosure Act [17] of 1773 was followed by a sharp decline in highway robberies; stone walls falling over the open range like a net, confined the escaping highwaymen to the roads themselves, which now had walls on both sides and were better patrolled.[18] The dramatic population increase which began with the Industrial Revolution also meant, quite simply, that there were more eyes around, and the concept of the remote place, in England became a thing of the past.[19]

Outside Anglophone countries

Hungarian outlaw Sándor Rózsa in Theresienstadt prison.
The protocol from the trial with Juraj Jánošík. Jánošík is called here "agili Georgius Janošík Tyarchoviensis latronum et praedorum antesignatus" - cautious (or agile) Juro Jánošík from the Terchová, the chief of the thieves and outlaws.

The Holy Land

Tradition identifies Saint Dismas, or the Penitent Thief, as a highwayman. Crucified with Jesus Christ, he repented of his sins and was told by Jesus, "This day you shall be with Me, together in paradise."


The bandits in Greece under Ottoman rule were the Klephts (κλέφτες), Greeks who had taken refuge in the inaccessible mountains. The klephts, who acted as a guerilla force, were instrumental in the Greek War of Independence.

Hungary and Slovakia

The highwaymen of 18th- and 19th-century Kingdom of Hungary were the betyárs. Until the 1830s they were mainly simply regarded as criminals but an increasing public appetite for betyar songs, ballads and stories gradually gave a romantic image to these armed and usually mounted robbers. Several of the betyárs have become legendary figures who in the public mind fought for social justice. The most famous Hungarian betyárs were Sándor Rózsa (Slovak: Šaňo Róža), Jóska Sobri, Márton Vidróczki, Jóska Savanyú. Slovakia's Juraj Jánošík (Hungarian: György Jánosik) is still regarded as the Slovakian Robin Hood.


The Indian Subcontinent has had a long and colorful history of organised robbery for millennia. Most famous of these were the Thuggees, a quasi-religious group that robbed travellers on Indian roads until the cult was systematically eradicated in the mid-1800s by British colonial administrators. Thugees would befriend large road caravans, gain their confidence, strangle them to death at the right moment, and then rob them of their valuables. According to some estimates the Thuggees murdered 1 million people between 1740 and 1840.[20] More generally, armed bands known colloquially as "dacoits" have long wreaked havoc on many parts of the country. In recent times this has often served as a way to fund various regional and political insurgencies that includes the Maoist Naxalite movement.

Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia

The bandits in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia under Ottoman rule were the Hajduks (Hajduci, Хајдуци), rebels who opposed Ottoman rule and acted as a guerilla force, also instrumental in the many wars against the Ottomans and especially the Serbian revolution. Serbian and Croatian refugees in Austro-Hungarian (and Habsburg) lands were also part of the Uskoci. Notable freedom fighters include Starina Novak, a notable outlaw was Jovo Stanisavljević Čaruga.

See also


  1. Rid, Samuel. "Martin Markall, Beadle of Bridewell," in The Elizabethan Underworld, A. V. Judges, ed. pp. 415–416. George Routledge, 1930. Online quotation. See also Spraggs, Gillian: Outlaws and Highwaymen: the Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, pp. 107, 169, 190–191. Pimlico, 2001.
  2. Fennor, William. "The Counter’s Commonwealth," in The Elizabethan Underworld, p. 446.
  3. Brewer, E. Cobham. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898, defines road-agent as "A highwayman in the mountain districts of North America," citing the generation earlier, W. Hepworth Dixon, New America, p. 14: "Road-agent is the name applied in the mountains to a ruffian who has given up honest work in the store, in the mine, in the ranch, for the perils and profits of the highway."
  4. Beattie, J. M.: Crime and the Courts in England, 1660–1800, pp. 149–158. Clarendon Press, 1986; Extracts from Wilson, Ralph: A Full and Impartial Account of all the Robberies Committed by John Hawkins, George Sympson (lately Executed for Robbing the Bristol Mails) and their Companions. 3rd edition, J. Peele, 1722.
  5. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: fellow, theft with violence : highway robbery, 25th April, 1677.
  6. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey born in 1706: JOHN BUCKLEY, THOMAS SHENTON, theft with violence : highway robbery, 12th September, 1782.
  7. Spraggs, Gillian: Outlaws and Highwaymen: the Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, pp. 2–3, 7–8, 255. Pimlico, 2001.
  8. Dunford, Stephen. The Irish Highwaymen. Merlin Publishing, 2000
  9. Seal, Graham. The Outlaw Legend: a cultural tradition in Britain, America and Australia, pp. 69–78. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  10. Maxwell, Gordon S. : Highwayman's Heath: Story in Fact and Fiction of Hounslow Heath in Middlesex . Heritage Publications, Hounslow Leisure Services, 1994.
  11. Beattie, J. M.: Crime and the Courts in England, 1660–1800, pp. 155–156. Clarendon Press, 1986; Spraggs, Gillian: Outlaws and Highwaymen: the Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, p. 93. Pimlico, 2001. Harper, Charles George: Half-hours with the Highwaymen: picturesque biographies and traditions of the "knights of the road", pp. 245–255. Chapman & Hall, 1908; Online edition of Half-hours with the Highwaymen. via Internet Archive.
  12. Hibbert, Cristopher; Weinreb, Ben; Keay, John; Keay, Julia (2011). The London Encyclopaedia. Pan Macmillan. p. 424. ISBN 0230738788.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Spraggs, Gillian: Outlaws and Highwaymen: the Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, pp. 212–233. Pimlico, 2001
  14. Alexis de Tocqueville L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution
  15. McLynn, Frank: Crime and punishment in eighteenth-century England, p. 81. Routledge, 1989.
  16. Spraggs, Gillian: Outlaws and Highwaymen: the Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, p. 234. Pimlico, 2001.
  17. 'The Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution', Wendy McElroy, 2012
  18. SHP History B-- Crime and Punishment 1750 - 1900, 3.3 Highwaymen. https://www.pearsonschoolsandfecolleges.co.uk/FEAndVocational/Humanities/History/EdexcelGCSESHPHistory2013/Samples/Crime(1B)andProtest(3B)/HistoryB1BHighwaymenpreview.pdf
  19. 'The Ecological Impact of the Industrial Revolution', Eric McLamb, 2011 http://www.ecology.com/2011/09/18/ecological-impact-industrial-revolution/
  20. Rubinstein, W. D. (2004). Genocide: a history. Pearson Education. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0-582-50601-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Ash, Russell (1970). Highwaymen, Shire Publications, ISBN 978-0-85263-101-0; revised edition (1994) ISBN 978-0-7478-0260-0
  • Billett, Michael (1997). Highwaymen and Outlaws, Weidenfeld Military, ISBN 978-1-85409-318-9
  • Brandon, David (2004). Stand and Deliver! A History of Highway Robbery, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7509-3528-9
  • Dunford, Stephen (2000). The Irish Highwaymen, Merlin Publishing, ISBN 1-903582-02-4
  • Evans, Hilary & Mary (1997). Hero on a Stolen Horse: Highwayman and His Brothers-in-arms – The Bandit and the Bushranger, Muller, ISBN 978-0-584-10340-3
  • Haining, Peter (1991). The English Highwayman: A Legend Unmasked, Robert Hale, ISBN 978-0-7090-4426-0
  • Harper, Charles George (1908). Half-hours with the Highwaymen: picturesque biographies and traditions of the "knights of the road", Chapman & Hall. Online edition, via Internet Archive.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric (1969). Bandits, Delacorte Press; Revised edition (2000). ISBN 978-1-56584-619-7
  • Koliopoulos, John S (1987). Brigands with a Cause, Brigandage and Irredentism in Modern Greece 1821–1912. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-822863-9
  • Maxwell, Gordon S (1994). Highwayman's Heath: Story in Fact and Fiction of Hounslow Heath in Middlesex , Heritage Publications, Hounslow Leisure Services, ISBN 978-1-899144-00-6
  • Newark, Peter (1988). Crimson Book of Highwaymen, Olympic Marketing Corp, ISBN 9789997354792
  • Pringle, Patrick (1951). Stand and Deliver: The Story of the Highwaymen, Museum Press, ASIN B0000CHVTK
  • Seal, Graham (1996). The Outlaw Legend: a cultural tradition in Britain, America and Australia, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-55317-2 (hbk), ISBN 0-521-55740-2 (pbk)
  • Sharpe, James (2005). Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, Profile Books, ISBN 978-1-86197-418-1
  • Spraggs, Gillian (2001). Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, Pimlico, ISBN 978-0-7126-6479-0
  • Sugden, John and Philip (2015). The Thief of Hearts: Claude Duval and the Gentleman Highwayman in Fact and Fiction, Forty Steps, ISBN 978-0-9934183-0-3

External links