The High Court Dun

A High Court Dun is a strange animal perhaps not much encountered these days but in the past I recall one gentleman in particular who shall remain nameless, whose path crossed the path of an unfortunate client of mine and who pursued her mercilessly for outstanding debts that he had acquired from elsewhere.


A Dun would acquire the debts owed by somebody and then “dun” the individual for the money, that is to say press them for payment.  This might take the form of Court proceedings but more often than not took the form of harassing them by calling at their home and doing everything in their power to frighten them into paying up.


On balance it is perhaps not that different from the modern debt collector who very often resorts to not dissimilar means of extracting money from people.  Also one has to admit that if somebody does owe money then it is not unreasonable to require them to pay it and given that some of the people who incur debts and do not honour them turn it into a lifestyle, it is perhaps appropriate that there is an individual who makes his living out of preying on them.



There was something very Dickensian about the idea of a High Court Dun and if you ever came across the individual, their appearance reflected the murky world in which they lived and made a living.  The one in question was short, tubby, balding and middle aged.  He wore a long greasy khaki raincoat beneath which a tie which had seen better days was visible which encircled a grimy shirt collar that was tattered and frayed.  He carried a thin old briefcase in which were a collection of what looked like glossy tissue and which might have been mistaken as lavatory paper were it not for the fact they were covered in tiny closely written words and sentences.


One would be tempted at first sight to disregard these pieces of paper as little more than rubbish but to do so would be fatal because the gentleman in question knew the rules of the Supreme Court inside out and indeed was reputed to read them in bed every night by the light of a guttering candle.  He would issue applications based upon those rules and woe betide the Solicitor who treated those applications as contempt.  If they missed an appointment or a deadline then the only way they would be able to recover or retrieve the position when they discovered their error would be by paying his “costs” of the application that was necessary to put matters right.


In this way this grimy and very unsavoury but cunning individual made his living.  He not only dunned debtors but also fleeced unwary Solicitors.  He is probably working for the devil at this very moment or at least one can hope that he is.


Is it fate or is it Dick Turpin?

dick-turpinIt is a curious thing, fate. Most people comply with the proverb of Master Shakespeare:

“Some are born great; some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them”

But then occasionally you get a person who lives a squalid, mean little life, and yet who is celebrated and idolised as a hero while nothing could be further from the truth. An example of the latter person was Dick Turpin. 

About Dick

Dick Turpin born 1705 was an English highwayman whose crimes and exploits were romanticised after he was hanged in York for horse theft in 1739. 

His early activities revolved around poaching and burglary with a gang known as the Essex gang who committed some very unpleasant crimes including breaking into people’s houses and on occasion torturing them to reveal the whereabouts of their money and valuables.

On one occasion they made a 70 year old man sit on a fire to try and get him to tell them where his money was but he steadfastly refused to do so.  

There are other such instances before the gang was broken up and its members captured, after which time Turpin took to highway robbery which is what he is famous for.

Largely because after he died a Victorian novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth, writing almost 100 years after Turpin was hanged created a romanticised account of his life for public consumption including an overnight ride from London to York on his horse, the famous Black Bess. 

As that part of the fictionalised and romanticised account of Turpin’s life was concerned, this is far more likely to be related to an earlier highwayman known as Swift Nick whom I will come onto later. 

Turpin’s career as a highwayman was not long lived. 

Rewards were offered for his capture and he moved around the Country a good deal including a spell up in York where he lived under an assumed name.  One would have expected him perhaps to maintain a low profile as we say these days but he still engaged in some of his old activities, including horse theft which in the 18th century was a capital offence.

He was arrested in connection with the horse thefts and whilst he was in detention he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, the letter was kept at the local post office because the brother-in-law refused to pay the delivery charge when he saw that the letter had come from York and so it was transferred to another post office at Saffron Walden where the postmaster happened to be one James Smith who had taught Turpin how to write whilst Turpin had been at school.

James Smith recognised the handwriting and brought the matter to the attention of the authorities and so Turpin’s cover was blown.

Smith received the reward of £200 which is well over £20,000 in today’s money and Turpin was hanged at York, going to the gallows in a new coat and shoes defiant to the last bowing to spectators as he passed them.

An account in a magazine written in April 1739 recorded:

       “Turpin behaved in an undaunted manner as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble he spoke a few words to the top man then threw himself off and expired in five minutes”.

In effect using the short drop method of hanging customary in those days, people who were executed were killed by slow strangulation.  His body is buried in St George’s Church, Fishergate in York.

Would the real Dick Turpin please stand up

Now to ‘Swift Nick’ as he was known. Also known as one John Nevison who lived in the 17th century and was one of England’s most notorious highwaymen.  He was nicknamed Swift Nick by King Charles II after a famous 200 mile gallop from Kent to York to establish an alibi for a robbery that he had committed earlier that day.

It was this feat that earned him the epithet of Swift Nick.

This occurred when in 1676 after Nevison had robbed a traveller near Rochester in Kent he took a ferry across the Thames and galloped via Chelmsford, Cambridge and Huntingdon to York some 200 miles away from where the crime had been committed.  He arrived at sunset and made a point of bumping into the City’s Lord Mayor by challenging him to a wager on a bowls match.

When he was later arrested and tried for the robbery in Kent he was able to produce the Lord Mayor as a witness to support his alibi that he could not possibly have been in Kent and he was duly found not guilty.

Like most men of his kind however he continued with his offending and in due course he again found himself before the Court, this time tried for the murder of a constable who tried to arrest him.  He was convicted and taken to York where he was hanged in March of that year.

Over the years these tales have been told and re-told, becoming more and more embellished in the re-telling, and slowly two charmless, cruel and murderous young men, one whom killed his own partner were turned into ‘dandy highwayman, folk hero of his day’.

But whoever said that life was fair?

Transportation: Australia bound

convicts sent to australiaI am often drawn to matters in history when writing my books, more recently regarding the transportation of UK convicts to Australia.

Most people are aware that during the late 18th and 19th centuries UK felons were transported to Australia to what was known as Botany Bay and what became modern day Australia.

Some even believe that the term pom comes from the initials ‘POHM’ stamped on clothing and equipment used by English convicts. It meant Prisoner Of His/Her Majesty and marked out felons transported to Australia.

Searching for relatives amongst British convicts sent to Australia in your family tree has become somewhat the ‘norm’, and there is a wealth of resources to help you do this.

The history 

The thirteen colonies as they were originally known were the New England colonies along the Eastern sea board of what became the United States of America.

Emigrants to these colonies from the British Isles were not only free men and women but often indentured servants and individuals transported for criminal offences which had the useful effect not only of increasing the population of the youthful colony but also removing them from England’s shores.

Convicts were transported from as early as the 1610’s until the American Revolution in the 1770’s.  The number of convicts transported to North America is thought to be by some authorities 50,000 individuals although it has also been put as high as over 100,000 individuals.

Those transported included not only convicts but also individuals taken as prisoners in battle from Ireland and Scotland some of whom were even sold as slaves to the Southern States of America.

The American Revolutionary War brought transportation to America to an end and the British Government was forced to look elsewhere which is why from 1787 convicts were transported to Australia which continued until it was officially ended in 1868, although it had become uncommon some years before that.

Convict Transportation Registers 1788-1868 from include some notable figures:

  • 39% of male and 35% of female convicts had no prior convictions
  • 70% were English, 24% Irish, 5% Scottish and 1% from other parts of the Empire
  • The oldest convict transported was over 60 years of age and the youngest just nine years old
  • 85% were male and 15% female
  • The majority of convicts were illiterate and convicted for crimes of poverty (theft)
  • When transportation ended, 40% of Australia’s English speaking population were convicts

When the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868, more than 160,000 convicts had been transported to the continent.

‘Prince of pickpockets’

The journey to Australia by boat took eight months and the majority of the convicts were men. Although a small number had been found guilty of serious crimes such as murder and assault, most had committed minor offences.

Among the thousands of convicts detailed in the collection are a number of infamous criminals including Israel Chapman, a highwayman who later became one of New South Wales’s first police detectives.

The journey of George Barrington – the so-called ‘prince of pickpockets’ – is also there. He was a gentleman thief who received an absolute pardon in 1796 after helping to quell a mutiny during the voyage.

Do you have a distant relative descending from these times of transportation?

The closing executions

highwayman.jpg-smallA man called Robert Snooks who is reputed to be the last highwayman to be hanged for robbery died in the best highwayman tradition.  The Judge at his trial directed that he be hanged at the scene of his last crime on Boxmoor, a wild area as it once was near modern day Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.

The highwayman made his last journey to Boxmoor, apparently in good spirits and stopped at a public house which is still there known as The Swan Inn on Box Lane to have a last glass of ale.  As some spectators on the way to the execution passed by he is said to have called out:

“Don’t hurry – there’ll be no fun till I get there!”.

The final address

Before being hanged Snooks gave a final address to the assembled crowd which was recorded as follows:

“Good people, I beg your particular attention to my fate.  I hope this lesson will be of more service to you than the gratification of the curiosity which brought you here.
I beg to caution you against evil doings, and most earnestly entreat you to avoid too evils, namely Disobedience to Parents – to you youths I particularly give this caution – and, The Breaking Of The Sabbath.
These misdeeds lead to the worst of crimes: robbery, plunder, bad women and every evil cause.

It may by some be thought a happy state to be in possession of fine clothes and plenty of money but I assure you no one can be happy with ill-gotten treasure.
I have often been riding on my horse and passed a cottager’s door whom I have seen dressing his greens and perhaps had hardly a morsel to eat with them.  He has very likely envied me in my station, who although at the time in possession of abundance was miserable and unhappy.  I envied him and with most reason for his happiness and contentment.

I can assure you there is no happiness but in doing good.  I justly suffer for my offences and hope it will be a warning to others.  I die in peace with god and all the world.”

All is gone but the pudding stone

The eloquent Snooks was then hanged and buried in a grave nearby.  Two pieces of pudding stone, which is a particular type of Hertfordshire stone, mark the spot.

Most people will be familiar with the oft quoted line from Shakespeare’s King Henry Vl, namely the remark by the ploter of treachery Dick the Butcher who says:

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

Many people have enjoyed repeating this. Few people will be aware that the last Solicitor in the British Isles to be hanged was one Herbert Rowse Armstrong who was hanged in 1923 for murder.

It seems that lawyers are universally unpopular.  It is said that the last mafia boss to be electrocuted when asked if he had a final request said:

“Would you please put my lawyer in my lap”.

How unkind.

The Journey of the condemned

london noose smallAs a crime fiction author, I spend much of my time untangling the stories in my head into tales and finding an appropriate abode. This story, however, seems to warrant some coverage of its own.

The venue

The London gallows moved from the site at Tyburn (modern day Marble Arch) in 1783 and relocated to Newgate where public executions continued outside the prison until 1868.  These were great crowd pullers with people in Charles Dickens’ time even hiring seats at a public house opposite the prison called The Magpie and Stump, so they could get a better view than those in the crowd in the street below.

The Old Bailey now stands on the site of the former Newgate Prison and to this day part of the old prison, known as “Dead Man’s Walk” can still be seen.  This was the route along a gradually narrowing passageway, from the condemned cell to the gallows situated just outside the prison walls.

The last journey

As the ill-fated soul neared the end of the walk they entered “The Bird Cage” which was a space between the walls of the prison and the gallows with netting overhead, from which the prisoner stepped out onto the gallows and faced the crowd assembled to watch him or her die.

The night before an execution a verse would be read outside the door of their cell;

All ye that in the condemned hold do lie,

Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die,

Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near

That you before the almighty must appear;

Examine well yourselves in time repent,

That you may not to eternal flames be sent.

And when St Sephulcres’ bell in the morning tolls

The Lord above have mercy on your soul.

At the nearby church of St Sephulcres the Execution Bell was rung the night before a hanging.

A prayer of preparation

In earlier times, carts carrying the condemned from Newgate to the gallows that were then situated at Tyburn would stop briefly outside the church whilst a short sermon was delivered, although whether this fortified them as much as the drink they consumed on their last journey is an open question.

The last person to be hanged in public outside Newgate Prison and indeed Great Britain was Michael Barrett in May 1868. A member of the political movement the Fenians . Michael was the last man to be publicly hanged in England, for his part in the Clerkenwell bombing in December 1867.

Executions then took place inside the prison and continued until 1964, When Peter Anthony Allen was hung for his part in the murder of John Alan West.  Although the penalty was not applied thereafter, it was not actually abolished finally until 1998!

Punishment Britain 18th century style

justice hammer smashed.jpgWith the examination of our benefits system in a recent channel 4 documentary causing all sorts of debate, would a similar probe into our justice system have similar effect?

The principal means of punishment during the 18th century was transportation, prison or hanging.  Hanging was the most severe punishment with the number of offences punishable by hanging in the region of 200. These ranged from serious crimes, such as murder to much more petty crimes, such as pick pocketing or theft of food.

Public concern about the harshness of the penalties led to a gradual reduction in the number of people sentenced to be hanged. However, even after 1823 when the number of capital offences punishable by death was reduced, there were still about 100 offences on the statute books for which you could be hanged and of course many people were.

Interesting and odd get-out pleas were also raised including for example for women who were sentenced to death.  If in their case they “pleaded their belly“, that is said that they were pregnant and if having been examined by a jury of matrons that was found to be the case, then their punishment was postponed until after the baby was born.

Whilst in principle it could then be carried out, in practice the mother was often pardoned.

Another interesting get out for those sentenced to die was what is known as “Benefit of Clergy“. This was where many defendants found guilty of offences punishable by death were spared and given a lesser punishment instead.

The idea went back to the middle ages and was a right accorded to the Church so that it could punish its own members itself.  In this instance somebody claiming Benefit of Clergy would be handed over to the Church Authorities to be dealt with.

In time, however, any convict who claimed Benefit of Clergy and who were then able to read a passage from the Bible could obtain a lesser punishment.  In an age of general illiteracy this was not easy but usually verses were chosen from the 51st psalm which was known as “The Neck Verse” as if correctly read it could save many people from being hanged.

Basically, if Benefit of Clergy was claimed, the judge would indicate the passages to be read – as I mentioned usually from the 51st psalm – and provided they were read satisfactorily a lesser punishment might be imposed.

It is said, possibly with some justification, that many if not most people being illiterate, there were those who learned the psalm by heart as a form of insurance so as to be able to recite it before a judge should the need arise!

There is little doubt that the public feel a review of modern day punishments is required, 18th century comparison may seem a little harsh, however reoffending rates would certainly reduce, you only get sentenced to death once after all! 😉