Outlaws and Highwaymen

Passage from Ralph Wilson’s A Full and Impartial Account
Ralph Wilson, A Full and Impartial Account of all the Robberies Committed by John Hawkins, George Sympson (lately Executed for Robbing the Bristol Mails) and their Companions, Third edition, (London, J. Peele, [1722], pp. 5, 7–;10, 17–18, 23–26


I shall now say something of myself. I am now 22, and was brought up at Kirkleatham in Cleveland, Yorkshire, at the School built there by Sir William Turner, formerly Lord-Mayor of London. At 17 I left the School, and was put Clerk to Mr. Dixon of Lincoln’s-Inn, a very eminent and honest Practitioner in Chancery, whose Advice, if I had observed, no doubt I had at this Day been very happy. But his Business being very great, and my Industry at that time very little, we could not agree: in short, Mr. Dixon returned the Money he received at our Articling, and so we parted.


[Wilson, as he acknowledges, was a compulsive gambler. He grew acquainted at the gaming tables with the highwayman John Hawkins, though at first he did not know that Hawkins was a criminal. After Hawkins was arrested for a robbery of which he was later acquitted, Wilson returned to Yorkshire for a year, before becoming articled to a second London lawyer. Once again, his gambling destroyed his relationship with his employer, and at this point he renewed his friendship with Hawkins.]

I was very fond of Hawkins’s Company, because I took much pleasure in hearing him speak of his merry Pranks and many Robberies. Wright being now recover’d, he and Hawkins fell to their old Game, and when they came home at Night, I used to drink with them.1


It happen’d about this time, that meeting with a good-natur’d Countryman, I borrowed 20 l. of him; this was a great Novelty to me, who had been starving for some Weeks past, notwithstanding that I made all the haste I could to the Tables, and lost it every Farthing. This ill Luck made me rage like a Madman, and was the first thing that made me capable of any Impression from bad Company. From the Gaming-Tables, I went to Hawkins and Wright. We had drunk ourselves to a good pitch, when Hawkins began a Discourse about robbing in the Streets, but said it could not be done without a third Man, and ask’d me if I durst take a Pistol, and mount a Horse: I told him, Yes, as well as any Man, and that the want of Money had made me ready for any thing. Upon this, he who was always glad of new Companions, and, I am satisfy’d, with a very bad Intent, offered very kindly to get me a Horse against the next Night; I consented, and so we went to bed. The next Morning I remembred what pass’d the Night before, but resolved nothing less than to put what I had promised in execution: however, Hawkins was as good as his word.

When the Night came, we fell to drinking again, and at a proper time of the Night Hawkins told us all was ready; I being now as hot as the last Night, and so in the same Humour, objected nothing, but went away with them to the Horses: we mounted about ten a-clock, and a little while after robbed Sir David Dalrymple by Winstanley’s Water-works. It was put upon me to stop the Coach by way of tryal, whether I was capable of being made a Man of Business; to my great Misfortune, I performed my part so well, that Hawkins never cared to part with me afterwards.

We had but a very small Booty from Sir David, I think about 3 l. in Money, a Snuff-box and Pocket-book, which Sir David offered 60 l. for to Wild; but we returned it by a Porter gratis, for we never dealt with Wild, neither did he know any of us.2

The next Morning after this Robbery, it is impossible for me to express under what Anxieties I labour’d, on a consideration that I had engaged in such base Actions which I then apprehended, as I have found since, bring nothing but Poverty and Shame to him that follows them: Besides, there is no Life so gloomy as the Life of an Highwayman; he is a Stranger to Peace of Mind and quiet Sleep; he is made a Property of, by every Villain that knows or guesses at his Circumstances: such a Life is a Hell to any Man that has ever had any Relish of a more generous way of living. But I was entred, and must go thorough; for Jack Hawkins, who before was all good Humour and Complaisance, was now become my Tyrant: he gave himself a great deal of trouble to let me know, that I was as liable to be hang’d as he, and in all his Actions express’d a Satisfaction that he had me under a hank.3 I have great reason to believe that this Pleasure of his did arise from his having one more added to his Number, to make use of when his Occasions required.4 The World may think I speak this to justify what I have lately done, but when they shall be apprized how vilely his Brother has acted that part, and that such a Method of saving their Lives was always concerted beforehand between the two Brothers, they will be of another opinion. In short, after this Robbery I led a Dog’s Life, and was much against my will obliged to take every thing in good part, for fear, by quarelling, of bringing us all into trouble.

The next Coach we robb’d, was Mr. Hide’s of Hackney; we had from him ten Pounds, and a Watch: Mr. Hide has told me since, that he had about him at that time 300 l. in Bank Notes, but we miss’d them. It would be too tedious to mention all the Robberies we committed, for we seldom failed of doing two or three a Week for a Month together in or about the Town. We seldom went above five Miles from the Town, and when we came into it again, we fell to work with the Coaches in the Streets. One Night in August 1720 when all Mankind were turn’d Thieves, we robb’d a Coach against the dead Wall in Chancery-Lane, another the same Night in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields; and in going off, we stumbled upon my Lord Westmoreland with three Footmen behind his Coach: we robb’d his Lordship, but with a great deal of difficulty, for the Watch poured in upon us from all parts; yet at the Fire of a Pistol over their Heads, they retired as fast, and gave us an opportunity of getting clear.

These Robberies had put me into a good Condition, if the pernicious Itch of Gaming had not been so prevalent upon me; whatever Movables we got, I sold my part to J.Hawkins and Wright, and play’d away the Money.


[The gang suffered a series of setbacks. Wright was betrayed to the famous thief-taker Jonathan Wild, and arrested. Wilson and Hawkins were then joined by Hawkins’s brother Will, recently discharged from jail. After a few months, John Hawkins was shot in the shoulder in the course of a robbery; a spell of very bad weather prevented the gang from operating; and when the good weather finally came, they found that their horses had contracted a disease. In this situation, they decided to rob on foot. However, they were not experienced in this kind of robbery, and in the course of their first abortive attempt, Wilson shot himself through the hand. This gave him time to think, and he began to get cold feet. He returned to Yorkshire and lived with his mother in Whitby, until John Hawkins arrived in the town with a new companion, George Sympson. Hawkins told Wilson that his brother Will had been arrested and had impeached everyone he had ever committed a robbery with, and that Wilson was about to be arrested. However, when Wilson returned to London, he found that this had all been a lie. John Hawkins merely wanted Wilson to return to robbing with him. Soon afterwards, as it happened, Will Hawkins was indeed arrested, and impeached all his associates, among them Wright, who had been acquitted of the robbery for which he had been arrested and had been leading an honest life. Wright was hanged for a robbery he had committed nearly two years earlier. Meanwhile, Wilson, John Hawkins and the new man, Sympson, were turning out to be a highly efficient team.]

All this time we play’d least in sight our most convenient House was by London-Wall: This Man knew all our Circumstances, and in that Knowledge found his Account, for we seldom committed a Robbery, but he had his Snack by way of Reckoning. We did not mind that, for as he kept a Livery-Stable, we had an Opportunity of getting out at all times in the Night; so that we harrass’d almost all the Morning Stage-Coaches in England. One Morning we robb’d the Cirencester, the Worcester, the Glocester, the Oxford, and Bristol Stage-Coaches, all together; the next Morning the Ipswich and Colchester, and a third Morning perhaps the Portsmouth Coach. The Bury Coach has been our constant Customer; I think we have touch’d that Coach ten times: For any of these, we never went further than the Stones-End; if we brought away their Portmanteaus, we carried them to our old Cock C——, where we ransack’d them. I cannot help saying, that as this Man participated of our Prosperity, it is a pity he should not have his Snack of our Adversity; it would be of infinite Service to the Nation, if such a Man could be sent abroad for better Education.5 He has undone several young Fellows, by spurring them to such Actions as bring them to the Gallows.

Our Evening Exercises were generally between Hampstead, Hackney, Bow, Richmond, and London, and behind Buckingham Wall, &c. We three committed numberless Robberies, for Sympson was a stout brisk Man, so that we carried every thing on with great Success, and might have lived in that unhappy Way several Years, if we had not meddled with the Mails, which are certain Destruction to any body that rob them. Not one has escaped yet, that ever meddled with them.


[Wilson, Hawkins and Sympson robbed the Bristol Mail twice in the same week. After the second attack, Wilson was arrested on suspicion and taken to the General Post Office for questioning.]

All the Post-Officers, besides Mr. Carteret, were pressing above measure with me, insomuch that it appeared to me that they had as great regard to my Welfare as their own Interest.6 One of them, in particular, called me aside, and putting his Hand into his Pocket, produced a Letter, and bid me read it, which I did, and found as follows:

I am one of the Persons who robbed the Mails, which I am sorry for; and to make amends, I’ll secure my two Companions as soon as may be: He whose Hand this shall appear to be, I hope will be entitled to the Reward and his Pardon.

I am yours unknown.

As soon as I read it, I knew it to be Sympson’s Letter, so that without any more Words I made a Discovery, and I am of the opinion any Man in England would have done the same. That League of Friendship that was between us was certainly dissolved by this Design against me. As for they who talk of solemn Oaths and Protestations, I can assure them there never were any such amongst us; and if there had, no Oath is binding, the keeping whereof is a greater Sin than the breaking of it: An Oath is always administer’d for some laudable Purpose, but such Oaths tend to nothing but the Destruction of our Country.

They were not taken till the Thursday after my Discovery; from the first of their Apprehension, they prepared themselves very devoutly for another World.

Upon their Tryals they appeared both very well dress’d; but, as the Judge observed, their Habit was not correspondent with the Character their Friends gave of them, viz. that they had both been Footmen.


After the Jury had been sent out twice, at last they were found guilty. Hawkins, when he came to receive Sentence of Death, upbraided the Judge as partial, a Charge he did not deserve; for never any Prisoners were used with more Lenity and Justice. They were executed on Monday the 21st of May, 1722. I hope their Souls are in Heaven; and tho my Crimes deserved the same Punishment, I hope Providence has reserved me to a better End: and tho several Persons who have saved their Lives this way, have at last been hanged themselves, I doubt not but to make a better use of my Deliverance. I wish with all my heart that our Story may be a Caution to other young Men, and then I shall get my End in writing these few Sheets; by which they will find that we enjoyed none of those Sweets which tempt Mankind to unlawful Actions. If their Duty to God will not restrain them from such Actions, let our old Proverb, which says, That Honesty is the best Policy; for certainly in the end that Proverb proves itself infallibly true. The greatest Means of our Destruction, is setting at nought the first Causes of it; we do not consider how naturally we go from one thing to another, till at last we get to the end of a Rope. I have this Comfort however in my Misfortunes, that I never was concerned where any Murder was done.

Ralph Wilson


Notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Text added to site on 29 October 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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