Mail Coach Robberies in the 1700 and 1800s

Mail coach robberies occurred regularly on the coaches that carried the mail and passengers. It did not matter that by the early 1800s “the coachmen and guards [wore] the king’s livery, scarlet, faced with blue and gold lace; and [were]  an intrepid and fearless class.”[1] It also did not matter that at the rear of the coach, the mail box, which was supposedly large enough to “hold a man doubled up,”[2] was tightly secured. The box, approximately “three or four feet wide and deep, and perhaps a couple of feet broad,”[3] was where the mail bags were deposited, after which the lid was securely locked with a key.

Mail coach robberies

Mail coach. Author’s collection.

One nineteenth century traveler claimed that the signal for the horses to start and for the coach to move was “the thunder of lids locked down upon the mail-bags.”[4] The mail was protected by an armed guard with a blunderbuss and two pistols. Moreover, the guard followed strict rules:

“The rule was for the guard, when sitting on his perch as the back of the coach, to keep his feet on the locked lid. On the Bristol and Portsmouth mail, it was not unusual, when the box was full, for the guard to sling some bags beside him. No passenger was allowed to sit at the back of the coach with the guard; that was a rule which was sternly enforced, and admitted of no exception.”[5]

Despite all the precautions mail coach robberies often occurred. One of the first mail coach robberies involved three robbers — John Hawkins, a clerk named Ralph Wilson, and a former bailiff named George Sympson (also spelled Simpson) who began conducting mail coach robberies in April of 1722. The three men “first proposed to rob the Harwich mail, but gave up that design because the mail was ‘as uncertain as the wind.’ They then decided to rob the Bristol mail … [and] set out Sunday, April 15th.”[6] Although the trio were successful, they were soon apprehended. Wilson turned on his partners and Sympson and Hawkins were executed 21 May 1722.

Mail Robbed near Colnbrook by Hawkins and Simpson, Public Domain

Mail robbed near Colnbrook by Hawkins and Simpson. Public domain.

Long after Hawkins and Sympson dangled from a noose at Newgate, an act was passed that stated:

“[F]rom and after the first day of November, 1767, … if any person or persons whatsoever shall rob any mails or mails, in which letters are sent or conveyed by post, although it shall not prove to be highway robbery or robbery committed in a dwelling-house, yet such offender or offenders shall be ‘deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death as a felon, without benefit of clergy.'”[7]

However, the decree did not stop the mail coach robberies. They continued with one of the next interesting stories about a mail coach robbery happening in the early 1800s. A gentleman riding in a mail coach was advised by a female passenger to safeguard his money as it was inevitable that a highwayman would appear. She advised the gentleman that the best hiding spot was his boot. He followed her suggestion by depositing all that he had, ten guineas, into his right boot. Soon the predicted highwayman appeared and when the robber demanded money, the female passenger pleaded poverty and quickly pointed to the man’s right boot, announcing his money could be found in it. “As a consequence, the highwayman rode off ten guineas the richer.”[8] Fortunately, all turned out well for the gentleman. It seems the female tattle-tell had a strategy. She had secured a thousand pounds in her own pocket and in appreciation “presented the gentleman with a hundred pounds, in compensation for his loss and mortification.”[9]

The London Mail by Charles Cooper Henderson, Public Domain

The London mail by Charles Cooper Henderson. Public domain.

Another interesting mail coach robbery occurred in June 1826 to the Dover mail. “Seven mail-bags and a box of letters mysteriously disappeared from the night mail.”[10] Apparently, two sly thieves were involved. The story goes, that they dressed themselves in similar clothes, “conspicuous in pattern and cut.”[11] One man went to several inns and made a noisy obvious spectacle of himself, and then he “treated guests … complimented the barmaids, flattered the landlords. He [also] paid his bills liberally and promptly … and won the good opinion of all.”[12] In the meantime, his confederate, who had been busy robbing the Dover mail, was apprehended.

“[At trial] plenty of honest people … — barmaids, commercial travellers, and landlords — came forward and swore an alibi. The poor gentleman languishing in the dock they would know amongst a thousand.”[13]

As the eyewitnesses were certain the supposed thief was the same man who had treated, complimented, and flattered them, the jury had no choice but to declare the thief “not guilty.”

The Mail Coach circa 1845, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The mail coach circa 1845. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another mail theft of the 1800s occurred one calamitous night when a mail coach with three passengers was within sight of the turnpike gate and three men emerged from a hedge. They “stopped the horses, … knocked down the driver, and after rifling the mailbags, … proceeded to rob the passengers.”[14] One hostage, a Mr. Howard, found a chance to escape and took it. But when he began tussling with a robber, the robber exclaimed, “Is that you?” and then he screeched, “take this!” Suddenly, Mr. Howard was shot through the brain. Moments after the murder the three robbers rode off with pursuers hot on their trail. They came to a spot where one robber separated from the others, and, so, they followed the single tracks to the home of Mr. Stanhope, who was a married man who had lost his job. He was arrested and it was believed he would be convicted as the evidence against him was strong. However, just before the jury rendered their verdict, a woman appeared saying she knew the murderer.

She claimed Nat Powers was the murderer. Apparently, Powers had been fired by Howard unfairly and taken up a life of crime, and when he recognized Howard, Powers shot him dead. With the discovery, Stanhope was freed and “the real murderer was subsequently tried, found guilty, and hung.”[15]

In the middle of Madame Tussaud‘s waxwork tours between 1802 and 1835, there was a report in 1818 of a mail coach robbery from S.C. Hall, a man of letters who stated:

“I was travelling in Ireland … between Cork and Skibbereen, when I witnessed a stoppage of the mail to rob it. The road effectually barricaded by a huge tree, passage was impossible, and a dozen men with blackened faces speedily surrounded the coach. To attempt resistance would ave been madness; te guard wisely abstained from any, but surrendered his arms; the priming was removed, and they were returned to him. The object of the gang was limited to acquiring the mail-bags; they were known to contain some writs against a gentleman very popular in the district. These being extract, the coach pursued its way without further interruption. The whole affair did not occupy five minutes. It was subsequently ascertained, however, that there had been a further purpose. The gentleman had that day paid his rent – all in banknotes; when the agent desired to mark them there was neither pen nor ink in the house; <the mail-bag contained these notes. Where they eventually found their way was never proved, but it was certain they did not reach the landlor, whose receipt was in the hands of his tenant, duly signed.”[16]

Sometimes mail robbers were well-known and sometimes those who suffered losses got “lofty revenge.” One way they obtained revenge was by writing descriptions that were “hypercritical” and “deficient in politeness.” For instance, Huffey White, was a dandy, burglar, and robber known for committing mail coach robberies. He often wore a white waistcoat, a blue under-coat, blue pantaloons, and a yellow Belcher handkerchief at his neck. When he robbed the mail, it could not be “more genteelly rifled.” In October 1812, the Leeds mail was robbed when the guard left his seat at the back of the mail. During the guard’s short absence, White and two accomplices opened the lock and carried off sixteen mail bags. The robbery was not immediately detected. However, when it was discovered missing, it became clear that White was involved and so the following description of him was promptly published:

“[White] is marked with the small-pox in large pits deep in the skin; his nose turns up; he has a squeaking voice; he has served on board the hulks; he has been transported for life; he is well known at all the police offices … He is mild in manner, and does not talk much.”[17]

Mail coach robberies

The Bristol, Bath and London coach taking up mails without halting. Public domain.

 

Despite the laws, threats of hanging, and armed guards, mail coach robberies continued to occur regularly. No laws or acts deterred the robbers from their nefarious desires. Luckily, guards were well paid and earned generous pensions, otherwise they might have found it more profitable to rob the mails too. But as the mail was a guard’s sole charge, most guards faithfully remained with the mail from beginning to end, unlike the driver who changed almost as frequently as the horses that pulled the coaches. Guards were also given a timepiece to ensure the timely delivery of the mail. In addition, they were responsible to blow the posthorn (a valveless cylindrical, or sometimes straight, brass or copper instrument that acted as siren) to warn tollgate keepers to open the gates or to warn other approaching travelers to give the right of way. Their posthorns also announced the coach’s imminent arrival.

The horse-drawn mail coaches continued unchallenged until railway lines appeared in the 1830s. By the 1840s, numerous rail lines were constructed, and the final service from London to Norwich ended in 1846. A few regional mail coaches remained, but, by the 1850s, these too were replaced with trains, and as the mail coaches disappeared so too did the mail coach robberies.

Bristol and Exeter Railway Train Bringing Mail to Bristol in 1844, Public Domain

Bristol and Exeter railway train bringing mail to Bristol in 1844. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Pyne, W.H., The World in Miniature: England, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. 1, 1827, p. 100.
  • [2] Baines, Frederick Ebenezer, On the Track of the Mail-coach, 1895, p. 13.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] De Quincey, Thomas, The Works of Thomas De Quincey, 1862, p. 312.
  • [5] Baines, Frederick Ebenezer, p. 13-14.
  • [6] St. Martin’s-le-grand, Volumes 13-14, 1903, p. 408.
  • [7] Tombs, Robert Charles, The King’s Post, 1905, p. 126.
  • [8] Baines, Frederick Ebenezer, p 16.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 84.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 85.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Graham, George R., Graham’s Magazine, Vol. 18-19, 1841, p. 229.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 234.
  • [16] Hall, S.C., Retrospect of a Long Life, 1883, p 4-5.
  • [17] Baines, Frederick Ebenezer, p. 14.

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