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Highwaymen abounded in the 17th and 18th century, when they were regarded as ‘common as crows’. England’s roads were no more than rutted tracks, or worse, where you travelled alone at your peril. The heaths and byways in and out of London in particular were the haunt of the footpad and the highwayman, who attacked lone horseriders and stagecoach alike.
These outlaws murdered, or threatened to murder, as well as perpetrating other atrocities, including rape. Resistance to the highwayman’s demands was futile – he would hang for ‘highway robbery’, so killing his victim made no difference to the punishment, if caught – death by hanging.
When horse patrols were established around London around 1800, the highwaymen were forced further out into the counties, after which the newly-formed police force meant things got too hot for them!
The last highwayman to hang
Standing unobtrusively on Boxmoor Common, Hemel Hempstead, a white stone is said to mark the grave of James Snooks, reputedly the last highwayman in England to hang.
Snooks was born in 1761, at Hungerford. Before he was forty he was well established in his career as a highwayman, and became a wanted man, forever on the run. In May, 1801, Snooks robbed a postboy, John Stevens, who was carrying the mail between Tring and Hemel Hempstead. He then fled to London.
The robbery was reported to High Constable John Page, of Berkhamsted, who posted ‘Wanted – £300 Reward’ notices for Snooks’ capture. Snooks remained at liberty until December, when he was captured and taken to Newgate Prison, thence to Hertford Assizes for trial.
Snooks was sentenced to death, whereupon the High Constable, who obviously also had high powers, stipulated that he should be hanged as close to the scene of the crime as possible. So James Snooks was hanged and buried at Boxmoor, an event reputedly witnessed by thousands of people who came from far and wide especially for the occasion. Evidently the officials at the ‘ceremony’ repaired to the Swan public house, by the side of the old A41, a fitting location, since this was the road where highwaymen would accost the stagecoach on its journey between London and Markyate.
Strangely, the white stone-marker on Snooks’ grave bears the name ‘Robert’, possibly deriving from ‘Robber Snooks’. This is fitting, too. After all, that’s what he was.