Last week I briefly mentioned I’d come across a highwayman named John Poulter who wrote an account of his criminal adventures, and of course I had to explore this further.
The Dictionary of National Biography says “His early life is obscure, and nothing is known of his parents, his siblings, or his education”, but some editions of Poulter’s own book, The Discoveries of John Poulter,do have a short biographical note:
I was born at Newmarket; in Cambridgeshire, the noted Town for Horse Races, in the Year 1715, and in the Year 1728, I went to live with his Grace the Duke of Somerset, in the Running Stables, which Place I stayed in till the Year 1734, and then went to live with Lord James Cavendish untill 1737, and then to Colonel John Lumley, the Earl of Scarborough’s Brother untill 1739, and have been in France three Times with Horses and Hounds; once to his Grace the Duke of Kingston another Time to King Stanislaus near Sankelne, and once with Captain Rutter. I afterwards went to Bristol, which Place I sailed out of several Voyages to Africa, and to all Parts of America, and one Voyage out of Weymouth, in a Ship commanded by Captain Tivitoe, and another Voyage from London to Jamaica.
The Newgate Calendar(a long-running and haphazard collection of criminal biographies and lists of executions published from the mid-18th century onwards for almost a century) elaborates that Poulter went to school until he was 13 and “was considered as an honest and industrious servant” (although of course we don’t know what evidence there as for these claims). It further explains that his conversion to crime came about after he came ashore in the 1740s: “he connected himself with Mary Brown and Mary Davis, women of abandoned characters; and they, in conjunction with John Brown, persuaded him to join them in committing depredations on the public.”
Another source, Devon, (to wit) the voluntary information, examination, and confession of John Poulter (1753), which I haven’t managed to find directly, alleges that in the 1740s (when he was apparently working as a keeper at the Gatehouse prison in London), Poulter was caught receiving stolen goods and sentenced to transportation to America for 14 years – but if he went at all, he was certainly back by 1749, the earliest date of a crime (the theft of a chest of silks in Lichfield, Staffordshire) he confesses to in the Discoveries. His book even explains how criminals sentenced to transportation had a way for getting back, so perhaps that’s what he used.
After the Lichfield caper, we have an amusing little event which nearly led to his capture:
…at the same Time I sent for a Taylor to take Measure of me for a black Plush Waistcoat, and in his measuring of me Pistol went off in my Waistcoat Pocket, and the Bullet went under his Arm, and through the Cieling [sic], without doing any Hurt, which very much surprized the Taylor; Brown standing by me, I said, what are you always playing your Tricks putting Crackers in my Pocket: But the Taylor was not to be so deceived, for he took home my Plush and Lining with him, and wen to Westchester to the Mayor, and told him he thought we were all Highwaymen. The Mayor ordered him not to let me have any Thing, until he had sent to search the [Bull Dog], and bring us before him; but we did not stay for his Coming, for I made the best of my Way for Holy Head, through Wales, and directly went for Dublin…
Poulter’s narrative, first published in 1753 and re-published in no fewer than 17 editions over the next year or so, including versions with a dictionary of Thieves’ cant added, as well as lists of fellow criminals that Poulter named in the hope of pardon. The short book reveals that the life of Poulter and his fellow rogues did not quite match the romantic view of the highwayman we might have, but rather it was a more erratic career of opportunistic thieving, burglary and pickpocketing. But what’s also interesting is that the book reveal details of a network of organised crime across the south of England, focused around ‘flash houses’, various inns where criminals could meet and share intelligence or support, as well as fence their ill-gotten gains. I will share two of Poulter’s stories with you, both of crimes that didn’t quite go as planned, revealing the precariousness of these endeavours. Here’s the first.
[The story begins at one of the most notorious flash houses, the Pack Horse Inn in Bath, owned by John Roberts. Poulter explains various bits of thieves’ cant in italics below – my editorial additions are bracketed.]
The latter end of November, 1751, I being at Bath at John Roberts’s, he came to me one night, and to Richard Branning, and told us both in about a fortnight’s time he could help us to about five or six hundred pounds if we were both willing. I said, “How, John?” He answered, “on the scamp, and the cull does not come above seven straches of”; that is, on the highway, and the man does not come above seven miles off. I said, “how do you know, John?” He told me the gentleman came every setting day [this probably means the settling days when accounts were cleared] from Trowbridge to Bath, to change bills for money, for he is a gentleman clothier, and his money is to pay his men; he has never missed a setting day for years, and I have threatened him several times before now, but could never get any of the family to do it; Little Dick would have done it last year, but his partner, when the day came, got drunk, and so it passed off; but now is your time to make us all, for it is a great deal of blunt, and worth venturing your scraggs for; that is, it is a great deal of money worth venturing your necks for.
I then told him I had no pistols; and he said you must go to Trinder’s at Faringdon [another flash house, this one in Oxfordshire], and send him to Oxford to buy them, and keep your horses there until two days before the time; the setting day is Tuesday the tenth of December. Accordingly we agreed, and set out for Faringdon to Trinder’s, and I sent him to Oxford, to buy me a brace [i.e. a pair] of pistols and a hanger, which he bought, and we stayed there till the 8th of December, and told Trinder what we were going to do, and that he must set up all Tuesday night, and have two horses ready to carry us sixty miles further, and we told him we would be there on Wednesday morning by four o’clock.
It was all agreed, and we set out for Gea’s at Chapel Plaster [a flash house in Box, Wiltshire], but we did not trust him with our design. I went to Roberts’s on the ninth, to agree what time we should come on the tenth, and for him to show us the way over the water at Clarken Down Mills [Claverton Down, Bath], which he did. We agreed to give him fourscore pounds out of our Booty. Roberts said that he would be the last man that would pay his excise in at the Bar, and then said he, “I shall be able to give you an account what money the gentleman receives, and where he puts it, and if you come into the inn will show him and his man to you, that you may not be mistaken when they come on the Down.”
Accordingly I did as he said, and about four o’clock Roberts met me and told me that the gentleman had changed his bills, and had received upwards of five hundred pounds, and he then shewed me the gentleman and his servant. My horse was left at Mount Pleasant, and did not show myself there; but just as the gentleman was going he was persuaded not to go that night, for it was just dark, and a robbery was committed but on Saturday before at Stocks Bridge, in his road home on a farmer, and he was used very ill after being robbed by some Footpads, which made the gentleman stay in Bath till the morning. [This story is confirmed by a newspaper report of the time, the farmer being treated “in a very barbarous manner”).]
If he had went home that night he would have lost all if it had been thousand pound, for we had made a place in the Wood, just before he came to the Flower-de-luce, to take him and his servant into and tie them, but Fortune was not on Roberts’s side that time. We both went to Faringdon that night according to our promise, and found the horses ready and our landlord up, but he was disappointed. I advise all people that have got a charge of money or bills not to travel after sunset.
[I will continue this story next week!]
Full title The discoveries of John Poulter, alias Baxter; who was apprehended for robbing Dr. Hancock of Salisbury, on Clarken Down, near Bath; and thereupon discovered a most numerous gang of villains, many of which have been already taken…!
A wonderful story. Looking forward to more.