Coaching and Highwaymen

Clare Bull

From the 17th century onwards, a stage coach service was well established from London to Oxford, passing though Uxbridge, Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. Timetables of the regular services running towards the end of the 18th century show that there was a lot of coming and going along this road, both coaches and wagons. At one time as many as twenty coaches came by in a day. Many were destined for places further on than Oxford – Woodstock, Banbury, Bicester, Cheltenham, Shrewsbury, Brecon, and even ‘Aberistwith’. The Gloucester and Worcester coaches also passed through the town.

Despite the advent of the ‘flying coach’ most travellers chose to break their journey by staying in one of the many coaching inns in Beaconsfield. Travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort. Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to get here through some of the most notorious danger-spots in this country. On the London side, Gerrards Cross Common was one of the highwaymen’s favourite haunts. From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur – much steeper then than now and badly surfaced – presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses. The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite haunts.  At first there was some scepticism about these ‘travellers’ tales’. A French visitor recorded, ‘They tried to frighten us with the danger of highwaymen on the road, which I thought they did out of vanity, to the end that Paris might have nothing to upbraid London with’. But, by 1713, it was said that ‘almost every coach running between London and Oxford was robbed’.

Jack Shrimpton & Claude Du Val

On the Oxford Road the most notorious of these malefactors was Jack Shrimpton, who was a native of Penn. ‘He always did,’ they said, ‘the most damage between London and Oxford, insomuch that scarce a coach or horseman could pass him without being robbed.’ But, eventually, he was caught, sentenced and hanged in 1713. Earlier still, Claude Du Val, renowned for many stories of his gallantry, diverged here occasionally from his usual beat on the Bath Road. Once, when visiting Beaconsfield on a Fair Day, Duval noted a farmer going into The Crown Inn with a bag of money under his arm. He bribed the ostler to let down a chimney a dog with a cow’s hide on his back, horns and all. The dog, running about the room where young men and maids were dancing, caused great confusion, all crying out ‘the devil, the devil’, during which Du Val seized the farmer’s bag containing £100 and made off on his horse to London. He too was hanged at Tyburn in 1670 at the age of twenty-seven, after strenuous efforts by ‘female admirers of high station’ to secure his reprieve. [A romantic story, but it seems to be well-authenticated] Failing in that, they visited him in prison and attended his public execution.  After lying ‘in state’ at the Tongues Tavern, his followers paid for a ‘good funeral’ for him and he lies in the middle aisle of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden.  His epitaph begins: “Here lies Du Vail: Reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if Female to thy heart. Much havoc has he made of both: for alI Men he made stand, and women he made fall “. Fan worship seems to be nothing new! This form of crime was prevalent for a period of more than a century. The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery near here was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury.

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