Some 200 years ago it was generally accepted that the sons of well-heeled landowners and members of the establishment living in these parts would sometimes inject a little excitement into their lives - and money into their pocket books - by turning to highway robbery.
In his 1876 book “Environs of London” James Thorne noted “it was no uncommon thing for the gay young cavalier to take to the road as the readiest mode of mending his fortune by lightening the purses of the well-to-do citizens he held in contempt” and Hounslow Heath was the place to do it. Sitting over the main road running westwards from London to Bath the Heath was lonely, desolate and covered with plenty of thickets of thorn bushes and furze to provide cover. As the British politician, writer and sportsman Grantley Berkeley, wrote “The wide extent made pursuit of a malefactor on a fast horse very difficult, the latter of course well acquainted with all the furze bushes, while his pursuers, if they were mounted, would be riding at random, and in the dark blundering over every impediment.”
One such malefactor was William Parsons, the son of a baronet, an Eton old boy and an Army officer. Finding himself deeply in debt he took to “High Toby” - highway robbery - as a way of clearing his liability. He was arrested and sentenced to transportation but managed to escape and return to Hounslow Heath to pick up where he had left off. Unfortunately for him he was arrested once again and this time sentenced to death. He was executed at Tyburn on 11th February 1751.
The historian Peter Burke tells a story of another monied mugger who operated in the late 1600s during the reign of King George 2nd. A gentleman paid a visit to a friend, a baron living across the Heath. When the visitor prepared to return home to London a groom discretely advised him to examine his pistols and check that they were still loaded. He did so and was surprised to see that the charges in both pistols had been removed. He reloaded them. It was getting dark as he crossed the Heath where he was stopped by a masked highwayman who pointed a pistol at him and demanded his money. In self-defence the gentleman pulled out his own pistol and fired at the highwayman who dropped down dead. It was then that the gentleman discovered that the malefactor was the son of the same baronet that he had visited that afternoon. The conclusion was that during the visit his friend’s son had removed the load from his pistols.
But it wasn’t just the sons of the household that turned to robbing their own guests. Another aristocratic highwayman or rather highwaywoman was Lady Katherine Ferrers. She was born on 4 May 1634 at Bayford in Hertfordshire to Knighton Ferrers and his wife, Katherine Walters, who was heiress to a considerable fortune. According to legend, their young - and apparently slightly mad - daughter Katherine married at the age of 14 to 16-year-old Thomas Fanshawe, described by the diarist Samuel Pepys as “a rascally fellow, without a penny in his purse”. Thomas not only treated her badly but also seemed content to spend great chunks of her family’s fortune. In an attempt to save her inheritance Katherine, known locally as “The Wicked Lady”, supposedly donned men’s clothing and became a highwaywoman, often robbing the very guests she’d shared a meal with earlier that evening. At the age of 24, while committing one of her crimes, Katherine was shot. Still dressed in male clothing the girl died of her wound on the steps of her family home in Markyate. It is said that the ghost of “The Wicked Lady” still haunts the neighbourhood to this day.
Although there is no real historical evidence to support the legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers her story lives on. In 1944 the historical novelist Magdalen King-Hall came across the story and adapted it for her novel ‘Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton Skelton’, in which the bare bones of the legend are considerably embellished. In 1945 the movie “The Wicked Lady” starring Margaret Lockwood, James Mason and Patricia Roc, was released by Gainsborough and became the highest grossing film of 1946 at the British box office.
“I never could resist anything that belonged to somebody else.”
– FROM THE 1945 FILM “THE WICKED LADY”
– from Martyn Day