James Whitney: Hertfordshire’s dandy highwayman
- Credit: North Wind Picture Archives/Alam
The ‘most celebrated captain of banditti in the kingdom’ James Whitney began life in poverty in Stevenage before embarking on a career of highway robbery at the head of a notorious Herts gang
In the 17th century, travelling the major roads outside of London, especially during the hours between sunset and sunrise, could be a risky undertaking. Wayfarers were preyed upon by footpads and highwaymen, and some highwaywomen. Various spots along the roads, including in Hertfordshire, became notorious for highway crimes.
On November 9, 1690 near South Mimms, several highwaymen stopped a London-bound convoy and robbed it of the £15,000 in taxes it was carrying from the Midlands. During the holdup the highwaymen waylaid other passing travellers, plundered them and tied the victims to nearby trees.
Despite some arrests and the threat of execution by hanging, bands of highwaymen continued to target travellers in the area. One of the most famous of these highway crimes occurred on the summer evening of August 23, 1692. John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, veteran of the battles of Sedgemoor and Walcourt, was riding in his coach attended by an escort of dragoons along the St Albans Road near London Colney (he had an estate in St Albans). The coach carried a treasure chest packed with gold and silver coins. A band of perhaps 40 highwaymen ambushed Marlborough and his retinue. In the ensuing melee with the dragoons, as many as 10 highwaymen were killed. The bandits nevertheless managed to relieve the duke of 500 guineas. The ringleader of this and other escapades in the area was 'Captain' James Whitney.
Whitney was born into a poor family in Stevenage in about 1660. He started work as a butcher's apprentice in Hitchin, and later became the landlord of the George Inn at Cheshunt (some sources report the name of the establishment as the White Bear or the Bell). His position as a publican put Whitney in contact with a stream of colourful characters, and highwaymen were among his patrons.
The business however proved unprofitable, and some of his criminal friends tried to convince Whitney to join their ranks and 'take to the road.' Tempted by visions of adventure and riches, the landlord ultimately agreed. Whitney's cleverness, and perhaps his penchant for fancy clothes and manners, soon had him promoted to leader of his own gang, and he came to be referred to as 'Captain'.
The size of the band varied, and Whitney periodically broke up the group and operated alone - the latter a tactic intended to confuse the authorities. The number of Whitney's gang is reported to have been anywhere between 30 and 80 men. He is thought to have had 50 by 1690.
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A few months after the robbery of the duke, a group of eight or nine bandits, probably led by Whitney, struck near Barnet, taking £1,500-£2,000 from a wagon. Such immense hauls created an intolerable situation for the Protestant king, who suspected the bands were made up of Jacobites and Roman Catholics. As a countermeasure, William III (William of Orange) posted detachments of dragoons on all the great roads, each group positioned 10 miles from London. On December 6, 1692 there was a skirmish between Whitney's company and one of these patrols near Barnet. Several of his men were wounded and one dragoon was killed.
A wanted man, and ever looking for an opening, Whitney sought to secure a pardon for his crimes. He sent emissaries to the king to offer the services of his horsemen plus a financial incentive. This endeavour apparently came to naught.
Sometime after the Barnet engagement Whitney slipped into London. An acquaintance however saw him go into a house in Houndsditch and alerted constables at Aldgate to arrest him. Whitney was captured on New Year's Eve 1692 in Bishopsgate Street. He was taken to Newgate prison. A differing account, showing how tales abound around notoriety, tells that a Madam Cozens, who ran a brothel in Milford Lane near St Clement's Church in the Strand, betrayed Whitney who was then arrested after making a dash to the nearby religious house of Whitefriars, a sanctuary for criminals until 1697.
Either way, the prisoner was recorded as being of average height, with scars on his face and missing one thumb - injuries probably sustained in combat with dragoons. On January 16 he was tried for the robbery, the previous November, of a John Smith at South Mimms Wash. The highwayman was accused of stealing 100 yards of lace valued at £50. Whitney was identified, and not providing a solid alibi, convicted.
Whitney purportedly attempted to gain clemency by offering to give evidence against his accomplices. The highwayman also claimed he had information about a Jacobite plot to assassinate the king in Windsor Forest. Whitney was granted a reprieve, and examined over the plot and also who robbed the mails so regularly. It was concluded however that he knew nothing of substance, and he was taken back to Newgate to await his execution.
On February 1, 1693, Whitney was hauled by cart to Porter's Block near Cowcross to be hanged. He is said to have spent an hour and a half penitently speechifying and praying about his ill-spent life until he gave a signal, the cart rolled forward, and he dropped.
Two pamphlets, The Jacobite Robber and The Life of Captain James Whitney, were published following the execution. Both are sensationalist, though the latter is considered by historians to contain useful information about Whitney's career. Contemporary records of Whitney's trial and execution can be found on the Old Bailey website, oldbaileyonline.org.
Through the centuries, the exploits of Captain James Whitney have been told and retold, variations appearing in such fabulously titled books as A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts & Cheats of Both Sexes by Captain Alexander Smith; Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers by Captain Charles Johnson and Charles Whitehead, Esq; and Half-hours with the Highwaymen by Charles G Harper.
Because of his attention to his dress and manners, Whitney was renowned as a 'gentleman highwayman', with many a quip put into his mouth that achieved the feat of turning robber into dashing hero and his victims into greedy cowards. He became the inspiration for the character of Captain Tom Faggus in Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor (1869) by Richard Doddridge Blackmore.
In his best-seller The History of England from the Accession of James II, Vol IV (1855), Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay put the poor boy from Stevenage on a pedestal of notoriety, calling him 'the most celebrated captain of banditti in the kingdom'.