When Hounslow Was The Most Dangerous Place In Britain

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 13 months ago
When Hounslow Was The Most Dangerous Place In Britain

What drags most Londoners through Hounslow in 2017 is the Piccadilly line, to or from Heathrow. Few realise that their route roughly traces one which was once the most perilous in London.

Parts of Hounslow Heath today are redolent of the age of the highwayman. Photo: Dudley Miles.

"To head west out of London towards Bath and Bristol meant a hazardous journey across this land that was so infested with highwaymen and footpads it was dubbed the most dangerous place in Britain," says John Rogers in This Other London. The website Stand and Deliver agrees:

The Heath occupied perhaps 25 square miles. No one was really certain where its boundaries lay, and no one cared, for it was a tract of country to be crossed as quickly as possible.

Dick Turpin possibly did some hold-ups in Hounslow, although his preferred stomping ground was further north in London, and Yorkshire.

Indeed, the Heath was once far more expansive than the sticking plaster of green it is now — housing and the airport has swallowed much of it up. From the mid-17th century to the beginning of the 19th, it became London's version of the Wild West; a tree and shrub ensconced haven for armed robbers, who could subsequently flee into the undergrowth (that was the idea, anyway. Many of the most notorious highwaymen wound up on the gallows).

By 1692, the problem had grown so severe, that an "An Act for encourageing the apprehending of Highway Men" was passed. It wasn't all that effective, and tidings of heists in Hounslow were barely ever out of the papers. Here's one from the Newcastle Courant in January 1737:

Image © The British Library Board.

No one, it seemed, was safe — not even lords and MPs, as this article from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News attests:

Image © The British Library Board.

Though it wasn't exactly a pleasure to be held up by a highwayman (unless you were Horace Walpole), most of the killings these criminals made were of those trying to apprehend them. Dick Turpin is remembered for allegedly killing one of his accomplices, rather than anyone he was holding up. And anyway, if a highwayman murdered, it meant no repeat custom from that particular coach.

Of course, many highwaymen were renowned for their chivalrous ways. Claude Duval's reputation as a charmer preceded him. An infamous Hounslow Heath escapade rumoured that Duval insisted on dancing with one woman after relieving her husband of £100.

Claude Duval: the original Russell Brand. Image: Manchester Art Gallery.

Not all highwaymen were cut out for the job. In the book Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England, 'born loser' Thomas Barkwirth is remembered for being caught just an hour after his first robbery on Hounslow Heath, and hanged not long after that. Oh, the embarrassment.

A marvellously hyperbolic comparison between a tyre boycott and highwaymen on Hounslow Heath. From The Army and Navy gazette, 1913.

Of course, you shouldn't believe everything you read. British History Online suggests that "many of the stories commonly told of the Hounslow highwaymen have little foundation".

Still, highwaymen were a pest, not to mention a real public danger. Here's a grim account of a murder, heard in Newgate in 1736:

Samuel Alexander had the Misfortune to be killed, by the Blow of something that was heavy and blunt, and this the Evidence explained to be the But-end of Watson’s Whip, with which he broke in Pieces some Part of the Skull of the Left Side of the Deceas’d’s Head

You weren't ever quite sure who you could trust. Philip Twysden, Bishop of Raphoe, was reportedly killed in action as a highwayman on Hounslow Heath. It's said a bankrupt Twysden had turned to crime to in order to live out his days. He had fewer days left than he'd banked on.

Adam Ant wasn't the first to sing about highwaymen. Poems and ballads were written for the criminals in their day. This is a songsheet for a song from Broadway 1898 musical The Highwayman.

As the 19th century loomed, highwaymen petered out. The first locomotive was steaming away in 1804, but it was things like a greater police presence, and various enclosure acts — effectively fencing Hounslow Heath in — which really put paid to the practicalities of highway robbery. By 1833, over 200 coaches were passing through Hounslow each day, yet the last recorded robbery by a highwayman had happened two years previously.

They never really went out of vogue. Just as highwaymen were perversely revered in their day, they have been ever since — from films starring Larry Olivier, to west London street art, to this new romantic ditty (come on, we had to end on this):

From December 2015-November 2016 in Hounslow Heath there were just 21 recorded personal robberies — a figure we can picture old Claude Duval laughing at heartily.

Last Updated 12 January 2017