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Chronicles of the Cockroad Gang | by brizzle born and bred
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Chronicles of the Cockroad Gang

image above 'Dick boy' (Richard Bryant ) of the Cock Road gang on his horse, outside the Blue Bowl Inn at Hanham in old Gloucestershire about 1856. This public house is still trading today.

 

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In the mid-eighteenth Century Kings Chase was reputed to be one of the most unruly places in the county.

 

A report from the Bristol Gazette dated 23 April 1786 said that Fry and Ward, now under sentence of death,made ten persons who had died on the gallows within 3 years from the Parish of Bitton (Kingswood and Hanham was in that Parish). The gang to which these miscreants belonged kept the neighbourhood of Bitton in so much dread that people used to pay them an annual stipend not to rob them of their poultry and other things. The protection money was usually paid annually at Lansdown Fair.

 

In Brain’s History of Kingswood Forest, dated 1891 it is recorded that perhaps no other village in England surpassed Cockroad for its notoriety in robbery. So full of lawless persons, highway men and burglars was it that constantly many places near were plundered at the same time. It was also recorded as being the home of many ‘hucksters’ (fences) and that these dealers in stolen goods could be seen passing with their carts but no one dared stop or report them.

 

Persons were stopped, grossly insulted and robbed in daylight. Gangs of ruffians by day and by night were always on the watch. The spot on which Cockroad Methodist Church stood seemed to be their general rendezvous and outlook, as from this spot they could see anyone approaching at great distance.

 

Hence they were prepared and no one dared to approach the den. The whole of the village of Cockroad seemed to be robbers and existed on their plunder. Farmers would sometimes come with the Constable in search of lost property, their own livestock being paraded in front of their eyes whilst the robbers laughed. However they dare not touch them as they could not identify their pigs and sheep after they had been killed and dressed.

 

The place was so bad with robbery and violence that it became a serious problem with the Bristol authorities as to how it could be put down. Eventually they called together the watchmen and city guards and sent them in a mass. at the dead of night to Cockroad, where, aided by the local Constable, they surrounded every house, taking every man they could lay their hands on into custody.

 

This was indiscriminate arrest and they took them all to Bristol where subsequently only a few were liberated, the majority being transported or hanged.

 

Several of the notorious Cains or Caines family who came from Cockroad and Cadbury Heath were hanged at Gloucester.

 

This family used to plunder much further afield than the immediate vicinity of Bristol.

 

It was reported in the Bath Press on 11 September 1870 that proceedings had occurred a few days previously on the occasion of the appearance of Benjamin Cains, a robber who had lived in the Cockroad area. He was tried for robbery, condemned, and hanged at Gloucester. The corpse having been conveyed home, the lid of the coffin was taken off and the body exhibited to the people of the area at 2d per head, such monies going towards the expense of the funeral.

 

On the burial day a large number of his associates attended, some on horse back and riding in front with great pomp and ceremony which seemed customary and befitting the heroism of a local desperado.

 

The Cockroad gang could have been classed as the 19th Century Kingswood Mafia and the annual stipend was either 10/6 or 5/- depending on the size of the estate which the owner wished to be protected.

 

The gang must have been in existence for some time because it was reported in 1815 that there were 25 of the ruthless Cockroad gang in Gloucester Jail and these had been operating the protection racket, collecting money at Brislington Fair or the larger Landsdown Fair on an annual basis.

 

One of the gang was Richard Bryant who was known to have robbed as far afield as Gloucester. His haunt was the Blue Bowl Inn at Hanham where he was reported to have always slept with his boots on.

 

One moonless night he and his father decided to go their separate ways to rob and plunder but apparently they both had their eyes on the same target for it is reported that Richard, having gone some way along a dark lane, heard someone approaching. He drew his cudgel and struck hard only to hear his father gasp out 'Dick boy'. His father died of the injury and Richard Bryant was subsequently hanged at Gloucester.

 

The Mount Hill playing fields were, until 1950, the site of a large brick works but prior to this a coal pit existed on this site called Shot Patch Pit and local tradition has it that some constables from Bristol came to arrest members of the Cockroad gang one dark evening. The women associated with the gang rounded up the Constables’ horses whilst they were chasing the gang. They blindfolded the horses and then killed them by driving them down the pit shaft.

 

We have no records of what conditions were like in Ireland in the early nineteenth century but in August, 1814 a Bristol journalist compared the state of the honest population in or near Cock Road to that of the loyal persons in some parts of Ireland who were frequently obliged to sit up through the night with loaded muskets by their side to guard against assaults, depredations or even murder.

 

An account follows of the firing of two guns in the bedroom of a constable who had been summoned to Gloucester Assizes to give evidence against some captured ruffians. A few days later when a gang of robbers were arrested with a quantity of plunder in their possession the constables were nearly killed by the friends of the thieves who attempted to rescue them.

 

The District took on a more civilised appearance in the mid 19th Century however because in 1812 the Bristol Methodist School Society, at first an independent organisation, began its work in Cockroad and it was reported that subsequently the neighbourhood was transformed.

 

Although credit was claimed by that association, at the same time another association was formed which was called the Association for the Prosecution of Thieves and Housebreakers. A prospectus was issued by some of the more respectable inhabitants of the district which set forth the objects of the association and called for persons 'to combine for mutal protection against the alarming depredations continually committed by a very daring and daily increasing combination of villains extending their ravages for many miles across the Country and was known chiefly to reside in the neighbourhood.

 

Also for the purpose of promoting the welfare of the community by adopting such measures as may tend to produce the desired effects by striking a decisive blow at the roots of such a system of iniquitous practices as is supposed was neither equalled in any other part of the Kingdom

 

Subscriptions were naturally invited for promoting the objects of the association and the first meeting was convened in the Flower Pot Inn, Kingwood Hill on Monday, 9 September 1811.

 

Through one of the associations or by a joint effort a troup of yeomanry was raised and this was called the Bitton Troup of Yeomanry and reported to have provided great assistance to the Constabulary. We will never know whether it was the energy of these associations, the religious rival or the actual strong arm of the law which eventually brought the Cockroad gang to task.

 

The Caines Family of Oldland Common

 

COCKROAD was a village in the 18th century. Today it is remembered as modern Cock Road, and a chapel now stands on the site of a look-out point where the fearsome Cockroad Gang kept watch - a spot no outsider ever dared approach. Virtually everyone in the village belonged to the gang, which terrorised the entire Bristol area for decades. They stole livestock, robbed travellers, demanded money with menaces, collected protection money at the annual Lansdown fair and passed counterfeit coins. They were so violent, so unstoppable, that their very names invoked terror. The same surnames - especially the Caines - appear with monotonous regularity in accounts of the gang, and it must have been nearly impossible to have led a blameless life if you were born into one of these families.

 

Many Cockroaders had colourful nicknames or aliases. Abraham Isles, for instance, was known as Scramhanded Jemmy and, curiously, Twink. There was the legendary Richard (Dick Boy) Haynes, Charles (The Squire) Fuller, and the acknowledged Captain, Thomas Caines. Nor were the women stay-at-home innocents - they regularly stood trial alongside their menfolk. Over the years, numerous intermarriages took place, so that by the first half of the 19th century, everyone seems to have been in some way related. Infamous names included the Frys, Brittons, Brains, Bryants, Wilmots, Webbs, Wards and Isles (or Iles). The legendary Dick Boy Haynes started his career early. At the age of seven he masterminded a scheme for stealing bread by making a hole at the back of the bakery ovens.

 

One night Dick and his father were out together and, in the darkness, Dick mistook his father for a passer-by. He half-kicked him to death before he became aware of who he was attacking. Haynes senior was so badly injured that Dick had to carry him three miles home on his back. He also teamed up with a childhood chum called Carey and the murderous pair roamed the countryside, killing and stealing anything they fancied. A Downend man called Crach was foolish enough to fight back so Dick shot at him. The gun jammed so he hit him over the head with it instead. Crach was found dead the next day.

 

The pair were charged and Carey was hanged soon afterwards. But Dick Boy was acquitted, recovered Carey's body from Taunton gaol and brought it home for burial. When he later discovered Carey had confessed to the Crach slaying, he swore that had he known, he would have dumped the corpse in the nearest river. Dick pursued his murderous career alone until he was transported to Botany Bay for a London robbery. He escaped and arrived back in England with a young wife in tow. He told everyone she was the daughter of a German nobleman - in reality, she came from Westerleigh.

 

The pair lived in London, where Dick Boy mixed criminal activities with boxing until his equally villainous wife was caught and executed. He then returned to Bristol, where he was arrested for shooting at a police officer. He was strung up on St Michael's Hill on Friday April 25, 1800. But the most notorious of all were the Caines. Benjamin and Ann Caines had six sons, two of whom were hanged and the rest transported. Their two daughters each had relationships with three men, and all six men were transported. One grandchild was hanged and at least three transported.

 

James Caines was hanged in 1825 for his part in the murder of pound keeper Isaac Garden after an argument at the Tennis Court Inn, Warmley, and his brother Francis was transported for highway robbery. George Caines and Francis Britton were arrested for passing counterfeit coins at a horse fair, and George was later transported for attempting to kill a constable. His younger brother, Francis, was part of a gang which stole £400 worth of cloth from Freshford and a horse and cart to carry it. He was hanged at Ilchester in 1804 with other gang members, including Thomas Batt and Charles (The Squire) Fuller.

 

Elizabeth Caines (aka Elizabeth Bush) was arraigned at Ilchester for robbing a butcher. When her house was searched, six pigs were found locked in her parlour. Sampson Fry, half brother to the Caines, was jailed for assault in 1809 and possibly later transported. Then Benjamin Caines junior and other gang members broke into the home of elderly Sarah Prigg of Bitton in 1817 and threatened her and her nephew with guns. Benjamin and another gang member were caught and hanged. Benjamin's father then charged locals to see the body to pay for funeral expenses and held a mighty party.

 

The hanging led to an outbreak of vengeful animal maiming and killing and torching of hayricks, but the level of crime soon settled down to normal for the area. By the time Elizabeth Caines (born 1781) was 41, one son and two of her brothers had been hanged and her two common-law husbands, two other brothers and another son had been transported. As Ian Bishop commented drily in Oldland - the Village and the Parish: 'To have three male relatives hanged and five transported, all in the space of 21 years, is either down to extreme bad luck or gross negligence.' As a further two (Thomas and Samuel Caines) were later transported, it is not surprising there were no Caines left in Oldland by the census of 1841.

 

One interesting sidelight is that George Caines, nephew of Elizabeth, was transported in 1815 and ran a pub in Parramatta, New South Wales. He called it The Jolly Sailor, presumably after the pub in Hanham - and it was just down the road from Brislington House, home of the Brown family of doctors from Bristol's Brislington (see Appeals on Page seven). But by 1811, local residents had had enough and set up the Kingswood Association for the Suppression of Crime and a vigilante group called the Bitton Troop.

 

The number of gang members arrested increased, so the Cockroaders travelled further afield where they were unknown, committing crimes as far away as London and Birmingham. Then one night, the Bristol city watchmen and the guards crept into the village and surrounded every house. Every man they found was arrested, regardless of whether they were suspected of any particular crime, and herded into Bristol. The majority were found guilty on some charge or other, and most were either hanged or transported, although there is some doubt whether the gang leaders were caught. Certainly there were no Caines on the list.

 

Ironically, members of the Cockroad Fry family found themselves on the other side of the dock in the 1820s when they were prosecution witnesses at the trial of John Horwood. He was accused of killing a girl who had rejected his advances and was hanged. He was then flayed by a local surgeon and his skin used to bind a book about the case which is still kept in Bristol today. But the heyday of the Cockroad Gang was nearly over. Mr Braine believed it was the influence of new and highly successful day and Sunday schools, sponsored by Bristol provision merchants.

 

On the first day, 75 children turned up of whom none could read and only 17 knew any of the alphabet. But it was a start. Cock Road nowadays is lined with smart new houses, but memories of the past still linger - a small cluster of homes near the Cockroad lookout post has been named Cains Close.

 

Tales of Cockroad from the Kingswood Chronicles

 

IN 1781, colliers John Read and John Ward were executed at Gloucester for housebreaking. They were described as members of 'a desperate gang which has long infested the country'.

 

Two years later, James Bryant, Benjamin Webb and George Ward were hanged for stealing sheep from Isaac Lewis of Bitton. While in Gloucester jail they sawed through their leg-irons and nearly escaped. After that, they were restrained by a device known as The Widow's Arms until their execution. Colliers seized two bailiff's men evicting a tenant for non-payment of rent in 1795. They were kept in a pit for 24 hours, only being let out once for a snack of gin and gingerbread. When they were eventually set free, they had to pay six shillings for their overnight board and lodgings.

 

That same year, Bristol Corporation offered a reward of 50 guineas for the arrest of Kingswood men preventing coal and other goods entering the city. Among those detained were Moses Isles and William Fry. Abraham Isles and Abraham Scull were horse thieves who once held up the toll keeper at Chelwood at gunpoint before committing two more robberies. Isles was arrested at his home that night, and the loot was found under his pillow.

 

George Groves made a living by stealing from country fairs between 1808 - 1822. He was arrested in Derby, and sentenced to seven years transportation. William and Samuel Bryant were accused of stealing linen, silver buckles and other goods from a house in Bitton. Samuel was jailed in 1812 for stealing wheat at Mangotsfield. Joseph Bryant, aged 40, was jailed in 1812 for attempted housebreaking and Dennis Bryant, 23, for setting fire to a hayrick. He was transported a couple of years later for stealing a bed.

 

Robert and Thomas Cribb were transported for 14 years soon afterwards for horse-stealing. William Hathway was arrested in Warmley in 1813 for highway robbery, and seven Cockroaders were rounded up after trying to rescue a comrade from the constables. The men - William Powe, Henry Willis, Samuel Brain and John Fry walked free but the women - Hannah Jones, Sarah Lacey and Hester Britton were all jailed for six weeks.

 

Joseph Willis, Thomas Wilmot and Timothy Bush were all transported for life for the crime of horse stealing. Ann Powell was convicted of theft from a Bitton house in 1814. She was reprieved but her husband, Joseph, was sentenced to seven years transportation for receiving stolen goods. Samuel Brain (aka Black) served two years for stealing poultry and Joseph Bryant, Isaac Ballard, Joseph Parker (aka Evans) and James Baker were charged with house breaking. Not long afterwards Henry and Ambrose Willis were arrested for trying to free another gang member from police custody!

 

Being a member of a Cockroad family had its disadvantages in court. Sampson Cooke, for instance, was transported for 14 years, simply for stealing a hay knife worth two shillings.

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Taken on March 1, 2009