John Hawkins and James Simpson were eighteenth century highwaymen who turned mail robbers. They lodged in Green Arbor Court, opposite the Old Bailey and were finally committed to the latter on the evidence of a young man whom Hawkins had seduced into a life of crime. They were executed at Tyburn and their bodies gibbeted on Hounslow Heath in 1722.
John Hawkins was born at Staines, in Middlesex, and for some time lived as waiter at the Red Lion, at Brentford; but leaving this place, he then engaged as a gentleman's servant. Having been at length in different families, he became butler to Sir Dennis Drury, and was distinguished as a servant of very creditable appearance. His person was uncommonly graceful and he was remarkably vain of it. He used to frequent gaming-tables two or three nights in a week, a practice which led to that ruin which finally befell him. About this time Sir Dennis had been robbed of a considerable quantity of plate; and as Hawkins's mode of life was very expensive it was suspected that he was the thief, for which reason he was discharged, without the advantage of a good character.
Being thus destitute of the means of subsistence, he had recourse to the highway, and his first expedition was to Hounslow Heath, where he took eleven pounds from the passengers in a coach; but such was his attachment to gaming that he repaired directly to London and lost it all. He continued to rob alone for some time, and then engaged with other highwaymen; but the same fate still attended him -he lost by gaming what he acquired at so much risk, and was frequently so reduced as to dine at an eating-house and sneak off without paying his reckoning.
Several of his old companions having met their deserts at the gallows, he became acquainted with one Wilson, a youth of good education, who had been articled to a solicitor in Chancery, but had neglected his business through an attachment to the gaming-table. These associates, having committed several robberies in conjunction, were tried for one of them, but acquitted for want of evidence. After which Wilson went down to his mother, who lived at Whitby, in Yorkshire, and continued with her for about a year, and then, coming to London, lived with a gentleman of the law. But having lost his money in gaming, he renewed his acquaintance with Hawkins, who was now concerned with a new gang of villains, one of whom, however, being apprehended, impeached the rest, which soon depressed the gang, but not until some of them had made their exit at Tyburn; on which Hawkins was obliged to conceal himself for a considerable time.
But at length he ventured to rob a gentleman on Finchley Common, and shot one of his servants too, who died on the spot. His next attack was on the Earl of Burlington and Lord Bruce, in Richmond Lane, from whom he took about twenty pounds, two gold watches and a sapphire ring. For this ring a reward of one hundred pounds was offered to, Jonathan Wild but Hawkins sailed to Holland with it and there sold it for forty pounds. [Note 1] On his return to England he rejoined his companions, of whom Wilson was one, and robbed Sir David Dalrymple of about three pounds, a snuff-box and a pocket-book, for which last Sir David offered sixty pounds' reward to Wild; but Hawkins's gang having no connection with that villain, who did not even know their persons, they sent the book by a porter to Sir David, without expense. They next stopped Mr Hyde, of Hackney, in his coach, and robbed him of ten pounds and his watch, but missed three hundred pounds which the gentleman then had in his possession. After this they stopped the Earl of Westmorland's coach, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and robbed him of a sum of money, though there were three footmen behind the carriage. The footmen called the Watch, but on the robbers firing a pistol over their heads the guardians of the night decamped.
Hawkins had now resolved to carry the booty obtained in several late robberies to Holland, but Jonathan Wild, having heard of the connection, caused some of the gang to be apprehended, on which the rest went into the country to hide themselves. On this occasion Hawkins and Wilson went to Oxford, and paying a visit to the Bodleian Library, the former wantonly defaced some pictures in the gallery, and one hundred pounds' reward being offered to discover the offender, a poor tailor, having been taken up on suspicion narrowly escaped being whipped, merely because he was of Whiggish principles. Hawkins and his friend returning to London, the latter, coming of age at that time, succeeded to a little estate his father had left him, which he sold for three hundred and fifty pounds, a small part of which he lent to his companions to buy horses, and soon dissipated the rest at the gaming table.
The associates now stopped two gentlemen in a chariot on the Hampstead Road, who both fired at once, by which three slugs were lodged in Hawkins's shoulder and the highwaymen got to London with some difficulty. On Hawkins's recovery they attempted to stop a gentleman's coach in Hyde Park, but the coachman driving hastily, Wilson fired, and wounding himself in the hand found it difficult to scale the Park wall to effect his escape. This circumstance occasioned some serious thoughts in his mind, in consequence of which he set out for his mother's house in Yorkshire, where he was kindly received, and fully determined never to recur to his former practices. While he was engaged in his mother's business, and planning schemes for domestic happiness, he was sent for to a public house, where he found his old acquaintance, Hawkins, in company with one George Simpson, another associate, who was a native of Putney, in Surrey.
Hawkins & Simpson robe the mailThey went to London together and formed connections with other thieves, and committed several robberies, for which some of the gang were executed. At length it was determined to rob the Bristol mail, and they set out on an expedition for that purpose. It appeared at the trial that the boy who carried the mail was overtaken at Slough by a countryman, who travelled with him to Langley Broom, where a person rode up to them and turned back again. When passing through Colnbrook they saw the same man again, with two others, who followed them at a small distance, and then pulled their wigs over their foreheads, and holding handkerchiefs over their mouths came up with them and commanded the post-boy and the countryman to come down a lane, when they ordered them to quit their horses; and then Hawkins, Simpson and Wilson tied them back to back and fastened them to a tree in a wet ditch, so that they were obliged to stand in the water.
This being done, they took such papers as they liked out of the Bath and Bristol bags, and hid the rest in a hedge. They now crossed the Thames, and riding a little way into Surrey put up their horses at an inn in Bermondsey Street. Having equally divided the bank-notes, they threw the letters into the fire and then went to their lodgings in Green Arbour Court, in the Old Bailey. A few days after this, information was given at the Post Office that suspicious people frequented the house of Carter, the stable-keeper, at London Wall; accordingly some persons were sent thither to make the necessary discoveries.
Wilson happened to be there at the time and suspected their business, and later he was apprehended and conducted to the Post Office. On his first examination he refused to make any confession, and on the following day he seemed equally determined to conceal the truth, till two circumstances induced him to reveal it. In the first place the Postmaster General promised that he should be admitted an evidence if he would discover his accomplices; and one of the clerks, calling him aside, showed him a letter with out any name to it, of which the following is a copy:-
"SIR, As Wilson knew this letter to be in Simpson's handwriting, he thought himself justified in making a full discovery, which he accordingly did, in consequence of which his associates were apprehended at their lodgings in the Old Bailey two days afterwards. At first they made an appearance of resistance and threatened to shoot the peace officers; but on the latter saying they were provided with arms the offenders yielded, and were committed to Newgate. A verdict of guilty was returned against both prisoners. They suffered at Tyburn, on the 21st of May, 1722, and were hanged in chains on Hounslow Heath.
"I am one of those persons who robbed the mail, which I am sorry for; and to make amends, I will secure my two companions as soon as may be. He whose hand this shall appear to be will, I hope, be entitled to the reward of his pardon."
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1 [Jonathan Wild: A notorious Thief-Taker. He styled himself "Thieftaker-General of Great Britain and Ireland". Between 1712 and his execution in 1725 he ruled the London underworld. As thief-taker he sent more than 100 to the gallows.] Back
2 The complete text of the Newgate Calendar is available online here.
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