The Female of the Species
When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
We have several pages on women who resort to murder but where are the posts on women smugglers or burglars or highwaywomen?
Before the advent of police forces, the railways and fairly decent roads there were some pretty scary women about. Crime isn’t simply the province of the male.
We’re all familiar with the stories of the dashing highwayman like Dick Turpin but what about Highwaywomen?
Highwaywomen, as might be expected, were far less common than their male counterparts but, having said that, they were not unknown. Although sorting out fact from fiction is never easy especially when dealing with a topic that has been glamourised and immortalised over the centuries by the creators of such characters as the Wicked lady AKA Katherine Ferrers, and Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse and later Moll Flanders.
‘As early as the 13th century, there are records of female robbers working the highways, usually as part of a gang or with their husbands. Whole families might make a living this way, with wives and children acting as lookouts or decoys. Sometimes women were more than just convenient bait. The Middlesex Session records, covering 1549-1688, contain several cases of women accused of ‘robbery with violence’. In one case of 1564, one woman was hanged for robbing another at Hammersmith, then no more than a village on the road out of London. But in most cases, the nature of these crimes is not elaborated.’ Katherine Clements
Highway robbery seems an unlikely female profession but through the ages there have been women who have proved to be just as daring, courageous and aggressive as their male counterparts. However there is only one official record of a woman actually dressing as a man during the robbing of a stage coach.
‘If we look to a later but more reliable source, the Old Bailey Proceedings from 1681 – 1800, there are around 300 transcripts reporting female highway robbers. Only one case, in 1744, involves a woman, heavily disguised, acting alone and on horseback, displaying all the expected attributes of the gentleman highwayman.’ Katherine Clements
A life of crime
Many women worked alongside their lovers or husbands and there were cases of whole families working together as a gang. A life of crime was a dangerous business as the punishment for stealing anything from a loaf of bread to a gold watch was the same, the gallows. Yet it was a risk worth taking before the development of the modern police force and for many poor people it was the only way to put food on the table.
Philips and Bracey
In the late 1600s Joan Philips eloped with Edward Bracey. Joan would lure men into a quiet spot and Edward would then beat and rob the them. Joan and Edward enjoyed a good run of success but were eventually arrested and hanged in the April of 1685.
James and Anne
James and Anne Wilson were another husband and wife team. James would disguise himself and during the course of many robberies, they would cut the girths and bridles of those they robbed and tie the victims to trees. They were both arrested, tried and executed in 1705.
Hereford and Kirkham
Nan Hereford worked with her male partner, Kirkham, and their speciality was holding up drunk and extremely rich gentlemen staggering back from a night at their clubs. When the pair tired of this, they took to the road. Kirkham was caught soon afterwards and hanged at Tyburn but Nan carried on alone for another six years.
Pickpocketing was a common practice for many young girls and women. Mary Frith, for instance, was born around 1584 and proved a proficient pickpocket, gaining the nickname of Moll Cutpurse.
‘She set herself up as a fence or receiver of stolen goods, and since she was handy with her fists and could handle pistols and swords, she was somebody people didn’t meddle with. She was seen as fair in business, though, to both the thieves who sold her their wares and those who had been robbed who came to her shop to buy back their possessions. When she died, she left twenty pounds to her drinking companions, a very large sum at the time, to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy in1660.’ Isabelle Goddard
There is evidence of women working as accomplices in highway robbery if we look hard enough. Susan, Lady Sandys, wife of infamous gentleman robber Sir George Sandys, was implicated in his crimes several times and charged twice, though she escaped her husband’s eventual comeuppance. After his execution in 1618 it’s believed she continued to act as accomplice to her son and even, possibly, in her own right. Katherine Clements
Lady Catherine Ferrers
One of the most famous highwaywomen was Lady Catherine Ferrers born in 1662. Aged just sixteen she was married to the much older Sir Ralph Ferrers.
She was a spirited girl and cast around for a way to enliven her life, settling on becoming a highwayman. She used a secret passage from her bedroom which led into the grounds, to leave the house unnoticed.
Her career on the road almost came to an abrupt finish when she mistakenly held up another highwayman, Jerry Jackson, and found herself looking down the barrel of his gun. But he saw the humour of the situation and no doubt was swayed by her physical attractions. They became lovers and partners-in-crime. Jackson was caught and hanged at Tyburn while Catherine’s fate is uncertain. In 1684 she is said to have been wounded when she attempted a hold-up and, bleeding profusely, she made her way back to her house. She managed to climb half way up the staircase before she collapsed and died from her injury and loss of blood. She was twenty two years old.
There is very little evidence to suggest that Katherine was connected with any criminal activities Her cause of death is unknown and searches by various authorities can find no trace of her grave. However, the legend persisted in local memory, and it was fuelled further in the 1800s when a secret chamber was discovered by workmen at Markyate Cell behind a false wall next to a chimney stack.
Although highwaywomen may not have been very prevalent, they certainly captured popular imagination both at the time and still today.
Near the cell, there is a well
Near the well there is a tree
And under the tree the treasure be
This is the well known Hertfordshire rhyme regarding the whereabouts of treasure stolen by the ‘Wicked Lady’, Katherine Ferrers.
Women of the Road Isabelle Goddard