We have been experiencing a rash of motorbike robberies lately. They appear to be carried out mainly by young men, working in pairs, grabbing valuables like phones and handbags. One of my colleagues had a run-in with a pair of these thugs on Finchley High Road recently and as we talked through the incident I was reminded that this used to be a very dangerous road indeed for travellers. The reason? – the dreaded highwayman.
A “highwayman” was a robber who stole from travellers. 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. Such robbers operated throughout the land from the Elizabethan era until the early 19th century. In London they generally patrolled the main roads out of the city where there was heathland or woods to hide in. The Great North Road, through Finchley Common was one of their favourite spots. Take a look at the map above – you will see where the common used to be. It is rather lovely to notice the Bald Faced Stag pub which stands right opposite our Easy Finchley office today.
Sir Gilbert Elliott, Earl of Minto in the late 1700s stated in a letter to his wife that he would not “trust my throat on Finchley Common.
Poor Edmund Burke was actually murdered here by highwaymen in 1774 – a tragic end for such a fine man. Famous villains associated with the common include Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin. Neither was ever known to have actually committed any crimes on the common.
Jack Shepherd was taken prisoner there in September 1724 reputedly wearing the blue and white apron of a butcher, and kept overnight at The George Inn in the Hog Market. Here he takes a drink on his way from Newgate prison to his execution, as per the custom of the day.
It has been said that enclosure was the end of the highwayman on Finchley Common; but actually the period of this kind of crime was ending with the encouragement of paper money (then easily traced) through an Act for “Restricting Cash Payments” (1797). This enabled the use of £1 notes, and consequently travellers to London no longer carried huge amounts of gold on them. The other was the introduction of a simple police force: the Bow Street Horse Patrol patrolled the high road from Highgate to Barnet between 1805 and 1851. It was this patrol rather than enclosure that terminated the age of the highwayman on Finchley Common, but enclosure was generally held as responsible at the time. The last recognisable highwaymen are George Hurt and Enoch Roberts, who robbed Charles Locke in 1807 which is also the first case in which a member of the patrol is mentioned.
Subscribe to our blog