Perhaps the sun has gone to my head, but I’m going to bring part of this post to you in the form of a poem. With apologies to Alfred Noyes, whose famous poem I have plundered, here is my story of Lichfield born highwayman Jack Withers, based on information found in Charles Johnson’s “General History of the Lives and Adventures of the most famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers etc” and in the Newgate Calendar.
Young Jack Withers was a Lichfield lad,
Trained to be a butcher, same as his Dad,
And butcher he did, in a terrible way.
This is the villain’s story,
So bloody and so gory,
This is Jack Withers story, I tell to you today.
With no work in Lichfield, the city he departed,
And found himself in London with a band of thieves black hearted.
He found himself in trouble, and away Jack was sent,
Off to be a soldier,
A soldier, a soldier,
Off to be a soldier in the Flanders town of Ghent.
At the local Church in Ghent, coins were collected in a box,
Jack seized his opportunity and picked the holy lock,
His pockets bulged with coins, yet he still took more
And the money of the Virgin,
The Blessed Virgin Mary,
Fell jingling and a jangling upon the marble floor.
Jack was taken to the Cardinal, to receive his punishment
But told him that his heretical life, he did repent
His sinner’s prayers had been answered by a miracle tis true!
The box was opened by the statue,
The Blessed Virgin’s statue
And the coins had been a gift from her to start his life anew.
Jack abandoned then his colours and returned to his homeland
Where he took to the highways, upon which he would demand,
That travellers should, if they valued their life,
Stand and deliver,
Their worldly goods deliver,
Stand and deliver, or else meet his butcher’s knife.
A mile outside of Uxbridge, an ill-fated Postman came,
Jack stole the man’s eight shillings; then to conceal his blame,
He slit the man’s throat open with his sharp butcher’s knife,
Gut filled with stones,
And thrown into a pond,
Jack the Highwayman and Butcher had taken his first life.
In the Norfolk town of Thetford, in April 1703,
Found guilty of foul murder and highway robbery,
Lichfield’s Jack Withers was condemned to be hung,
And no miracle could save him,
Save him, save him
No miracle could save him, from the gallows, Withers swung.
Whilst Jack Withers was born in Lichfield, he committed most of his crimes elsewhere. However, there were other dangerous robbers in the area. On 30th January 1703, a gang held up the Shrewsbury coach in Brownhills, robbing the passengers. A few days later, the same gang robbed two drovers returning from Newcastle Fair, murdering one of them and wounding the other. Two days after the gang attacked none other than the High Sheriff of Staffordshire, accompanying his lady and servants from Lichfield Fair. The gang took sixty guineas, and cut off one of the servants’ hands. However, this latest attack was to prove the gang’s undoing. After a huge search nine of them were apprehended – three of them were women dressed in men’s clothes!
As you would expect, some of the tales about highwaymen in this area can be dismissed as nothing more than fanciful legend (there is a story about Dick Turpin jumping the tollgate at Brownhills, but as BrownhillsBob points out on his website this would have been chronologically impossible.) Others could be true – several pubs in and around Lichfield make claims that they sheltered the notorious Turpin and his associates. Whitehall, on Beacon St, was once an inn called the Coach and Horses and according to a book by H Snowden Ward in 1893 it was a favourite rendezvous of Dick Turpin and his highwaymen. “The inn was kept by Judith Jackson, a famous beauty and a powerful and unscrupulous woman, an efficient ally of Turpin and his men”. People who have visited Abbots Bromley may have noticed that at the Goats Head, a room is named after Turpin, to commemorate the night he spent there after supposedly stealing Black Bess from Rugeley Horse Fair. Also, Turpin’s partner in crime at one point was Matthew ‘Captain Tom’ King, said to have been born either at the Welsh Harp in Stonnall (now Wordsley House) or at the Irish Harp in Aldridge and both these highwaymen and others are said to have frequented these areas!
By coincidence, a certain song was released 30(!) years ago this month. So, we started with a poem and we’ll end with a song. All together now! “Stand and deliver! I’m the dandy highway man who you’re too scared to mention….”