Outlaws and Highwaymen

Passages from a letter by Jean Bernard Le Blanc
Jean Bernard Le Blanc, Letters on the English and French Nations, trans. from the French, 2 vols (London, J. Brindley, 1747), II, pp. 291–3, 295–6


Letter LXXIX

To Monsieur De Buffons.
Newmarket, &c.

You have heard of the bad management in England with regard to the highways, and you know that here, as in Turkey and Persia, a man cannot travel without running the hazard of being robb’d. Your friend M. C.**, who arrived yesterday at Newmarket, was surprized last year near Cambridge by the celebrated Turpin, the Cartouche of his nation.1 The highwayman, after having repeated in vain the word of command to stand, in order to punish him for his disobedience, fired a pistol at him; but the ball happily miss’d him. M. C.** fearing a second summons of the same kind, resolved to obey. The highwayman took his money, his watch and his snuff-box, leaving him only two shillings to continue his journey. Before he left him, he required his word of honour that he would not cause him to be pursued, nor inform against him before a justice; which being given, they both parted very courteously.

They met together at the races, and renew’d their acquaintance. M. C.** kept his word religiously: he not only avoided causing him to be seiz’d, but now boasts of having got back some of his money in a more honest way. The highwayman offer’d him a bet, which your friend accepted with as good a grace as he could have done from the best gentleman in England, and had the lucky fortune to win it. Mr. Turpin, smitten with his generous behaviour, paid him honestly the money he had won, and was very sorry that the trifling affair, which had happened between them, did not permit them to drink together.

If any foreigner, instead of laughing at such humours, which are here thought very genteel, takes the liberty to blame so ridiculous a conduct in private persons, and so sensible a defect in the government; the English, prejudiced in favour of their nation, defend with the utmost warmth their most vicious customs, as well as their wisest laws, and are as sanguine for the defects of their constitution, as for the most essential advantages attached to it. They will rather joke upon this want of security on their roads, if you reproach them with it, than own it is a scandalous thing, in a government otherwise so well regulated, that a man cannot travel in safety. There are some Englishmen not less vain in boasting of the address of their highwaymen, than of the bravery of their troops. I was one day told a story, which the relator was much delighted with, concerning a highwayman in his county, who stopp’d a gentleman that he knew to be very rich; but not finding about him above five or six guineas, took the liberty to tell him that the next time he met him so ill provided he would give him a handsome licking.

Jokes of this sort are very much in the English taste, and a noted thief is a kind of hero, in high repute among the populace.


... it is usual in travelling to put ten or a dozen guineas in a separate pocket, as a tribute to the first that comes to demand them: the right of passport, which custom has established here in favour of the robbers, who are almost the only highway surveyors in England, has made this necessary; and accordingly these fellows are by the English called Gentlemen of the road, the government letting them exercise their jurisdiction upon passengers without much molestation.2 To say the truth, they content themselves with only taking the money of those who obey without disputing: 3 but notwithstanding their boasted humanity, the lives of those who endeavour to get away are not always safe. They are very strict and severe in levying their impost, and if a man has not wherewithal to pay them, he may run the chance of getting himself knock’d on the head for his poverty.

Jean Bernard Le Blanc


Notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Text added to site on 20 September 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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