Highway Robbery

The story below concerns a highway robbery which took place near Gore Cross on 21st October 1839. Gore had once been a part of the parish of Market Lavington even though it was physically separate from the bulk of the parish. Sensible boundary changes saw this area transferred to West Lavington.


by John Kirkaldy

The present age, despite a crime wave, finds highwaymen romantic; the reason is not too difficult to comprehend – highwaymen are non-existent. At one time, however, they were a major problem to travel in Wiltshire. Aubrey, the diarist, talks of “Salisbury Plain – never without a thief or twain” and also noted the grim retribution that society meted out, “a gallows or two with its appendages” was not an uncommon sight. Men such as Biss, William Davis, James Witney, Thomas Boulter and James Caldwell often terrorised the unwary. The modern traveller in Wiltshire may easily miss two monuments commemorating one of the last episodes of highway robbery in the county. At St. Joan a Gore’s Cross (two miles from West Lavington) on the A360, about 150 yards from the Imber turning, stands· the first of the Robbers’ Stones.

In the evening of 21st October 1839, ·Mr Mathew Dean of Imber was returning from Devizes Fair. As he approached the spot marked by this Robbers’ Stone, Mr. Dean was attacked by four highwaymen. The contemporary Devizes and WiItshire Gazette now takes up the story. “They pulled him from his horse to the ground; two rifled his pockets, one pressing his hand over his eyes. They took from his pocket a pocket book, containing £20 in notes, and from another pocket one sovereign and a half in gold and £2 in silver. The horse galloped away during the scuffle.”

The highwaymen, however, did not reckon on the resolution of the Wiltshire farming community. Mr Dean was not at all cowed by this rebuff and gave chase on foot. Within fifty or sixty yards he met Mr Morgan of Chitterne, who immediately gave chase on horse. “He soon lost sight of one of them.” continued the report, “the other three he kept in view until two labourers came up and overtook then, but they threatened to shoot any man who came near them ”Even this did not stop the pursuit for long, Mr Morgan calling on Mr. Hooper, another local farmer, for assistance.

Over the downs raced the highwaymen followed by the two farmers; when suddenly the stoutest of the felons fell flat on his back. The chase continued and the hunters were joined by another ally,” Mr Sainsbury from West Lavington, The quarry was soon cornered and ordered to surrender. The men were armed with large fold sticks and threatened Mr. Sainsbury if he touched them; upon which Mr Sainsbury, holding up the large end of his hunting whip, said, ‘if this is not enough for you, I have a brace of bulldogs (pistols) in my pocket, and if you make the Least resistance I will shoot you dead on the spot’”. The highwaymen then rather naturally decided that discretion was really the better part of valour and conceded defeat.

The bizarre circumstances of the chase were, however, by no means over. After the three hour chase, which had lasted, according to Mr. Morgan, for sixteen miles, Mr. Dean’s pocket book and notes were found on the down.

Next morning a more sensational discovery was also made near the same place – the dead body of the man who had fallen during the pursuit. At an inquest, presided over by Coroner Whitmarsh, the dead man, Benjamin Colclough, was found guilty of felo-de-se. Mr. Whitmarsh explained to the jury that this crime was “one who deliberately put an end to his own existence, or who commits any unlawful act, the consequence of which is his death.” The jury accepted the verdict of Mr Hitchcock, the surgeon, that “the death was occasioned by the rupture of a large vessel on the brain, produced by over-excitement in the running from the hands of justice”. The foreman summed up their verdict, “Why, we finds as he busted himself.” The wretched Colclough, the’ “Coroner decreed, was to be ·buried without any church service outside the Chitterne burial ground. (Local legend has it that CoIclough was hit by a ‘vossil’ thrown by a shepherd – a “vossil” is a nut stick which supports: the hurdles of a sheep pen). At the end of the inquest, Colclough’ s wife arrived from Fisherton to explain that her husband had left home on the Monday and had not been seen since. The next day further incriminating evidence was found near the robbery – twenty stolen keys, two instruments for picking pockets, a box of Lucifer matches and a candle. About three quarters of a mile further on, a crowbar and a pocket handkerchief with a heavy stone tied to it were also found. Mr. Dean was fortunate enough to also recover thirty-nine shillings and a small key.

Justice in those days was harsh and brutal. At Devizes Sessions on December 31st 1831, the three other villains, Richard Harris, George Waters and Thomas Saunders were sentenced by Mr, Ludlow-Bruge to fifteen years transportation to Australia. The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette for that week reports that after sentence was passed, Saunders “was very violent and swore that ‘if he had a knife he would have run’d it through Mr. Dean”‘· Later they all agreed that they had received a fair trial. “They said that they had a good deal of trouble with the man who fell dead on the down; they assisted him as far as they could and when their pursuers were pressing close upon them and they were about to leave him to his fate, ‘he exclaimed, ‘Don’t leave me, for God’s sake don’t leave Me. ‘” Mr Morgan was later rewarded by a public subscription and a grateful Mr Dean gave Mr. Hooper a snuff-box,

Two monument s were erected, one at the scene of the robbery and the other on Chitterne Down where Colclough dropped dead. Both briefly record the events and warn by quotation of scripture “those who presumptuously think to escape the punishment God has threatened against thieves and robbers. “For once public advice has been heeded and highwaymen no longer lurk on Wiltshire’s roads.

The author would like to thank Mrs. Hooper for her assistance in the preparation of this article.



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2 Responses to “Highway Robbery”

  1. John Young Says:

    A fascinating tale. As a child in the early 1950’s I lived at No1 Cornbury Farm Cottages on Robert Hooper’s Cornbury Farm not far from Gore Cross and knew of the Robbers Stone and a little of its history. This posting has greatly enhanced my knowledge of this most interesting episode. Thanks for posting it. Sadly both my parents died several years ago – they would have been very interested in the full story.

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