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In the 18th century, residents living in Richmond were in permanent dread of highwaymen

When Richmond was a much more rural area in the 18th century, travelling could be fraught with danger. At the time, the only police were the unpaid parish constables and the night watchmen. Hounslow Heath, which is now part of Teddington and Twickenham, was notorious for highwaymen.

Horace Walpole, whose villa was at Strawberry Hill, described a number of incidents in one letter, saying it was difficult to have a dinner party, as his guests were too frightened of highwaymen to come. On one occasion, Walpole himself was a victim in Twickenham on the way to play cards and had to hand over his purse containing nine guineas – a large sum then.

Given the lack of an adequate police force, travellers had to take precautions themselves and often went out armed. The actor Colman, who lived in Richmond, always took a blunderbuss – a large-bored gun firing balls – when he dined with David Garrick, the renowned actor, in Hampton. When two highwaymen, who terrorised the road between Richmond and Kew, led to fall in attendances at Richmond Theatre, the manager hired 10 armed men to patrol the road.

The Assistant Keeper of Queen Charlotte’s wardrobe, Charlotte Papendiek, described in her memoirs that once, when she and her family were returning from Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, they were turning from Barnes Terrace into Mortlake Lane, when three men grabbed the horses’ heads and opened the doors of the coach, demanding money. They were eventually satisfied with Mr. Papendiek’s purse.

Strangely enough, despite the fear of highwaymen and footpads (a highwayman on foot), these people were accepted even in a gentil community like Kew. Charlotte Papendiek says, again in her memoirs, that a footpad called Frame lived locally and told her: ‘I always take care to act as to escape justice. Blows and murder belong not to my gang and if I am allowed to, take my beer on the Green, without being insulted, I shall take care that no harm happen here.’ She added: ‘We all spoke with him as a friend.’  One of the most notorious highwaymen, Dick Turpin, operated in both the Barnes area and on Hounslow Heath for a few months.

The safety issue in the area slowly improved with the setting up of the Bow Street runners in 1748 and then Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and their jurisdiction was extended to Richmond and other areas close to London in 1840. The coming of the railways also made life easier for locals – helping to put the highway men out of business. The last prosecution for highway robbery was heard at the Old Bailey in 1897.

The illustration is a ‘A representation of MacLaine the Highwayman robbing Lord Eglington on Hounslow Heath, 26th June, 1750‘. MacLaine was a notorious and prolific highwayman who specialised in robbing the rich and famous

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