In an earlier blog I mentioned what was possibly one of the few true stories of a Highwaywoman, now for some whose reality is much less certain.
I first came across the most famous of all legendry highwaywomen in Haunted England by Christina Hole (1941), a fascinating collection of traditional ghost stories, which includes the tale of the wicked Lady Ferrers.
Markyate Cell, near Dunstable, was long haunted, and perhaps still is, by the ghost of the “wicked” Lady Ferrers. She is said to have taken to highway robbery in the seventeenth century from sheer love of excitement and power. She used to leave the house by a secret way at night and ride about disguised as a man, robbing such belated travellers as were abroad on Watling Street and killing those who showed signs of resistance.
She had a secret room prepared against emergencies which was reached by a concealed staircase in the kitchen chimney. Here she fled one night, after being badly wounded in a fight, and died at the foot of the staircase. Her body was found there next morning, and after her funeral the staircase was bricked up. But if the family hoped the curious circumstances of her death would be forgotten, they were disappointed.
Her ghost haunted the neighbourhood, sometimes swinging on the branch of an old tree under which she was supposed to have buried the proceeds of her robberies, sometimes riding along the roads or over the tree-tops. She was also seen near the kitchen chimney and in various parts of the house. Like Peg O’Nell, she was regarded as the author of every local misfortune, and three serious fires in the house were ascribed to her.
Historians have pointed out that, for example, Lady Ferrers never lived in Markyate Cell, and though she had owned the property it had been sold years before she died. However folk tales have never allowed truth to get in the way of a good story and this is a good story. It was read by a, sadly almost forgotten but very fine, novelist Magdalen King-Hall. Inspired by the tale she wrote Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1945), this novel was dramatized as The Wicked Lady a classic 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood (and a very poor 1983 remake starring Faye Dunaway).
This tale includes one detail that is to be found in most stories of Highwaywomen, and which I think almost guarantee’s its fictional nature, she is supposed to have dressed as a man and ridden a horse. Whilst cross dressing is, of course, perfectly possible, riding astride is more doubtful. If she had learnt to ride she would naturally have been taught to ride side saddle, riding astride is a very different skill. To learn this would have taken time, and would have to have been accomplished in secret.
This is just one of the reasons I find the following story doubtful.
Oxford Journal – Saturday 23 July 1763
We find the following extraordinary Letter in the London Chronicle of this Day:
SIR, July 19
You may depend on the Truth of the following Robbery. – Last Friday a Gentleman and his Lady were attacked on the Harrow Road by a supposed Highwayman, who demanded their Money with the usual Imprecations, making them dismount. The Gentleman, after delivering his Money, imagining all was over, was going to remount, when the Robber unbuttoning, shew’d herself to be Woman, and insisted he should go into yonder Lane to her a Favour; which being backed by his Lady, he withdrew with her. Being under a thick Hedge, the real Highwayman made his Appearance, and insisted that the Gentleman’s Spouse should retire with him for the fame Purpose, saying, One good Turn deserves another. All being reconciled, they were about part, when our former Highwayman whisper’d the Gentleman, that she heard the Ticking of a Watch when under the Hedge; and should be glad if he would make her a Present of it: which with some Reluctance he did. We hear these Blades are of the Hatters Gang; and that the Posse of a certain Magistrate is now in Pursuit of them. I am your constant Reader and humble Servant, R. C.
An extraordinary letter indeed.
I think I should return to the ghost of the wicked Lady Ferrers
The last record of her appearance being early in the present (20th) century, when she was seen by a number of people at a parish tea. One cannot help wondering whether this manifestation does not go to prove the survival of a sense of humour in ghosts; it is difficult to imagine Lady Ferrers taking an interest in anything so humdrum as a parish tea except from a desire to frighten the company.
Highwaymen, armed robbers who held up travellers on the highway, were a real problem in eighteenth century Britain. However there are very few references to highwaywomen, and most of them are probably fictitious. One of the few cases that I have found, that sound at all plausible, took place in Essex in 1735.
Ipswich Journal – Saturday 22 November 1735
On Monday last a Wholesale Butcher was robb’d in a very gallant Manner, near Rumford in Essex; the Affair was as follows: He was attack’d at first by a Woman, mounted on a very good Horse, with a Side Saddle, &c. she presented a Pistol at him, and demanded his Money; he was amaz’d at such a Behaviour in one of her Sex, and told her he did not understand what she meant : By this Time a Gentleman of her Acquaintance came up, and told him he was a Brute, to make any Hesitation in granting what a Lady requested of him, and swore D— m his B—d if he did not immediately gratify her Desire, he would shoot him thro’ the Head. At the sight of the Gentleman’s Pistol, the Butcher thought proper to grant the Lady fix Guineas, some Silver, and his Watch; which done they parted in the most complisant Manner imaginable.
‘Mounted on a good horse’ Silhouette by James Edward Austen-Leigh
Unusually there is a sequel, not the arrest of the highwaywoman and her accomplice but something very different.
On Wednesday Night last one David Davis, a Welchman, came into an Inn in Bishopsgate-street on Horseback, dressed like a Countryman, and Complain’d to Mr. Hudson, the Landlord, that he had that Afternoon been robbed by two Men and a Woman, in the Fields near Islington, of 350L. in Money, and that he had got Intelligence that they were to lodge that Night at Highgate; and therefore he desired Mr. Hudson to get him a Coach and Four, a Constable and proper Assistance, in order to go and take them; which Mr. Hudson accordingly did, and went himself along with them to Highgate at Eleven o’clock that Night, where they found one Man and the Woman in Bad together, whom they brought to Town and secur’d in the Poultry Compter; and they were on Thursday carried before Sir Richard Brocas and examin’d separately, where the afore-mention’d David Davis declar’d, that this was the Woman who robbed the Butcher of Rumford, lately mention’d, and that he himself was the Man who aided and assisted in the said Robbery; upon which the said David Davis was committed to Wood-street Compter, and Eleanor Davis (his supposed Wife) and Thomas Jones (the Person found in Bed with her) to the Poultry Compter for further Examination; and the Butcher is sent for in order to see them. Jones, when taken, had a Pistol with several Balls, and other Materials proper for the Highway, found upon him.- .And one William Jones coming to Holloway to enquire for the said Jones and Davis, was taken up as a supposed Accomplice, and brought before Justice Robe, and after Examination committed to New Prion for further Orders. (Derby Mercury)
The Magistrates were clearly rather confused by the accounts of David Davis, and one can understand why they committed everybody to prison for further enquiries. There was one person who could clear this up, and that was the butcher who had been robbed. He was sent for, and his response was surprising.
Ipswich Journal – Saturday 06 December 1735
Last Night Mr. Barker, a Butcher of Rumford, who was robbed of four Guineas and 10 s. in Silver on the 19th of November last, near Ingatestone in Essex, by a Woman on Horseback that drew a Pistol and bid him stand, came before Sir Richard Brocas, and having viewed the Woman that was taken up at Highgat, and David Davis who informed against her, and said he aided and assisted in committing; the said Robbery, declared he could not swear to them, the Fact being committed in the Dusk of the Evening, and that neither their Voices nor Sizes answer’d to those who attack’d him; and Davis saying he was intoxicated when he gave the Information, and that he knew no Ill either of the Woman or the Man taken along with her, they were all three discharged out of Custody.
One wonders what David Davis was up to, he may have been drunk as he said but perhaps the fact that his wife was in bed with another man may have led to his claiming she was a highwaywoman. As for the real highwaywoman she seems to have escaped on her good horse and was never heard of again.