Travel, even between local areas, is quite a modern concept. People only began to move around the country from the time of the Industrial Revolution (c1760-c1830), and this only became commonplace as the 20th century dawned.
In the years before the Civil War few ordinary people travelled beyond their own town or village; unless they were on ‘official’ business for the state or the Lord of the Manor. Merchants would travel around too, as would people going to a market or fair. However, most people lived, worked, and died in the place where they were born, and never left it. In fact, until the mid-18th century there were only a few roads connecting Britain's communities, which were mostly self-sufficient.
When people did need to travel they would do so on foot, unless they were wealthy enough to afford horses, carts, or wagons. In and around Liverpool, especially to the east, all travellers would have to cross ‘The Great Waste’. This was a vast area of open heath, grass, and scrubland, covering the area for miles around. Narrow, winding tracks crossed ‘The Waste’, leading to the nearest villages, such as Childwall, Wavertree, Woolton, or West Derby.
Travellers would make their journeys during the day, because that was the only time they could actually see where they were going, and because it was safer – well, up to a point! Even though these were distances of only 3 or 4 miles, they were vulnerable to attacks by ‘Footpads’; operating in small groups or acting alone.
These were vicious thugs, who would suddenly leap out from behind hillocks, large rocks, or occasional copses or woodlands, terrifying isolated travellers. Footpads were ruthless, and demanded goods, money, and even the clothing of their victims. Failure to hand everything over quickly would certainly result in the Footpad using his ‘hanger’ (short sword); or a great bludgeon; or perhaps, his heavy, weighted cosh, to beat, maim, mutilate, or kill. Indeed, the footpad and his gang would probably kill you anyway, leaving your naked corpse lying forlornly on the open heath.
But these villains did not always have it their own way. Sometimes the traveller would give as good, or better than was being handed out! Sometimes too, the Law would catch up with the robbers, when they would face the ultimate penalty for their crimes – the slow, strangled hanging at the end of a noose, in front of baying crowds at their public execution.
By the closing decades of the 1600s, and before the development of canals, Liverpool was growing into an important mercantile centre. More and more goods and supplies were being transported in and around the Town by road. It was cheaper, and marginally safer to move goods this way, rather than by sea, although roads were no more than beaten footpaths, pack-horse trails, or cart tracks, worn into place by centuries of use.
But travel could also be hazardous because even the main routes were seldom maintained; although local parishes were legally obliged to do so. This meant that the roads became overgrown, strewn with rocks, rutted and uneven, or full of hollows and pot-holes – many quite deep. In bad weather these might fill with rainwater, and many travellers might fall into these and drown. Often, roads would be washed away in storms, or rendered completely impassable.
But, as travel became increasingly frequent and necessary, especially by the mid-1700s, most male travellers would journey on horseback; either alone or in small groups. Families would travel by cart, carriage, or coach, if they could afford them, and women never travelled alone, because this was considered indecent! Also, the mails were being transported around the countryside, and mail coaches and post-boys were now targets for robbers. But these newer, faster forms of travel meant that the Footpad was soon replaced by a much more sophisticated breed of roadway thief – the Highwayman.
History paints a romantic portrait of these robbers, with Dick Turpin being the most famous but, in reality, there was nothing romantic about them at all. On the loneliest stretches of road they would ride up to block the passage of a coach and, brandishing a pistol – sometimes one in each hand, they would shout to the coachman, “Halt, or I shall surely shoot!”
And, for fear of his life, the coachman would reign in the horses and the carriage would come to a stop. The Highwayman might then fire a warning or a wounding shot. Next, he might actually demand, “Stand and deliver! Your money or your life!” This phrase was in common use on England’s coaching roads from the 17th century.
With a distinct advantage over the Footpad; that of being able to attack from a safe distance, the robber would force driver and passengers to hand over jewelry, money, silk handkerchiefs, and any ‘new-fangled’ pocket watches. Once these were in the thief’s possession he would use his other advantage over the Footpad; that of being able to make a fast getaway on horseback. But, as with the Footpads, Highwaymen did not have it all their own way.
As highway robberies became more prevalent on Liverpool’s roads, travellers began to carry their own pistols and swords, and coaches would often have armed escorts. Soon, Highwaymen too would find themselves captured, and locked up in small, purpose-built local gaols or bridewells. One such was in Old Swan village, where there was a tavern and stables at the junction of four, principal roads.
But the Old Swan bridewell, which once stood at what is now the corner of Derby Lane and Prescot Road, was not well constructed. The large blocks of sandstone that comprised its walls were not very well mortared, leaving narrow gaps between them. The roof and the iron door may have been secure, but the friends and associates of the captives would push the long, curved stems of clay ‘churchwarden’ pipes through the cracks.
Placing the outside ends of these into bowls of wine or ale, and the inside ends between his lips, the prisoner could suck up as much drink as his friends could supply. This meant that a Highwayman might be locked up completely sober, yet be unlocked and taken to be hanged in a state of advanced drunkenness – perhaps this made his slow strangulation less of an ordeal.
The Highwayman began to vanish from British roads by the early years of the 19th century, in fact, the last recorded robbery by a mounted highwayman took place in 1831. It was the development of better-maintained, wider, turn-piked, stage-coach roads, with manned toll-houses every few miles, which eventually saw off these mounted robbers. Now it was almost impossible for a Highwayman to make a getaway without witnesses, or without lots of people to chase him to ground.
All we have now, in popular mythology, are tales of glamorous, masked, cloaked, ‘gentlemen thieves of the road’ when, actually, these were dangerous, unscrupulous, violent thugs and murderers.