Bristol's Wild Bunch

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    Over two hundred years ago there were 200 different offences you could hang for, anything from chopping down a tree to stealing a sheep.You’d think this would put most people off even minor crime, but it didn’t seem to bother the Bristol area’s wild bunch of the 1780s.

    Some went down in a blaze of glory, like the infamous highwayman from Wotton-under-Edge, William Crew.

    “Some 10,000 spectators attended the hanging,” said the local paper as William, aged just 39, stood on the gallows in 1786. As he died, it was reported, there was even a sudden burst of thunder. But, said some, had a man not known for violence really robbed a woman in her seventies, Anne Fowles, in Huntley, near Gloucester, who was supposedly badly beaten by a stick? Or did they hang him simply because they were sick of chasing him, for in the end it had taken a posse of 50 men to bring him to justice.

    William had started out by stealing from his own family. First it was his,sister’s piggy bank but when his mother remarried after William’s father died, he offered to go to Badminton and “air out” the newlyweds’ house. But when they arrived they found that half the furniture was missing.

    One day William met a maid on a farm. She had £20 saved and was waiting for the right man to come along, but William arrived and married her instead.Surprisingly, both money and husband left soon afterwards. The man wasn’t class-conscious; he robbed everyone he met. But his burgling spree was rudely interrupted when a judge in Thornbury banished him twice, first to the West Indies and then into the Navy, but he kept returning to Wotton.

    Another William, William Hand, also liked to earn his living on the King’s Highway. In 1788 he robbed a man at Corsham, in Wiltshire, of six shillings. Transported to Australia the following year on the Neptune, as part of the Second Fleet, he was tried in Sydney two years later for stealing corn, and ordered to wear an iron round his neck for two years. Five months later, he seems to have bent over backwards to get sent to Norfolk Island, a remote volcanic penal settlement, which was just as well for by that time he was bending over backwards anyway.

    John Murrey was another one who liked to take to the road. In the same year that William Crew was hanged, John was tried “for shooting at Edward Bowles with a pistol in the parish of St John the Baptist, Bristol”. With the tearaway, the other offenders in gaol were even worse. He was reprieved from hanging, being transported to Australia instead.

    Bristol man Richard Morgan, in 1785, tempted fate by making John Trevelyan Ceely Esq deliver over his “one metal watch, value three guineas,” according to Mollie Gillen in the book Founders Of Australia. It was 23 shillings more than the 40-shilling limit beyond which judges felt free to issue the death penalty. Richard made this a bit academic by “threatening to murder him and by force unlawfully obtaining a promissory note for the payment of 500 pounds,” says John Cobley in The Crimes Of The First Fleet Convicts.

    Although, amazingly, he was transported to Australia instead of being hanged, Richard’s little case of intrigue backfired on him. He told the court he’d found out his wife was having an affair with “one Ceely of Bristol, a man of property,” and to test this he hid with a witness in the house and then found Ceely in bed with his wife. Richard said Ceely then offered him £500 as compensation. Most robbers would be happy with this but Richard said that Ceely, in his fright, had left a watch in the bedroom, and that he had kept it, thinking he had a right to do so. John can’t have liked the way Richard referred to blackmail as “compensation”. Instead of walking “free” with monies worth more than £20,000 today, Richard grabbed the watch and settled for nothing.

    The village of Chew Magna has in its graveyard an early 19th-century limestone round- topped stone which bears the inscription to William Fowler "shot by an Highwayman on Dundry Hill 14 June 1814 aged 32 years".

    On 7 July 1763. A highwayman robbed a gentleman's servant of 5/- at Tog Hill turning, amongst other robberies. He is described as being a short young man, much pitted with the small pox ; well mounted on a dark brown horse with a flick tail and blind in one eye. One of the stirrups is new and the other old, and the highwayman had on a brown surtout coat. He later that day fatally injured a pig killer at Wickwar.

    On 29 January 1798 three highwaymen well-mounted and armed, stopped Mr Stephen Toghill of Marshfield at lynch Hill and with dreadful imprecations, demanded his money, which he hesitating to comply with one of them struck him on the arm with such violence as to deprive him of the use of it. Another with a knife cut his breeches from the waistband through his pocket down to the knee and robbed him of notes amounting to £43. Mr Toghill has offered a reward of £50 for discovering the offenders. (Bath Journal 29/01/1798). Also in the Gloucester Journal.

    In the mid-eighteen Century Kings Chase was reputed to be one of the most unruly places in England. A report from a Bristol newspaper dated 1786 said that Fry and Ward, now under sentence of death, this made ten persons who had died on the gallows within 3 years from the Kingswood area

    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 usally paid once a year at Lansdown fair Bath. In the history of Kingswood Forest, dated 1891 it is recorded that perhaps no other village in England surpassed the Cock Road Gang of Kingswood 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 `husksters` (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 broad daylight. Gangs of ruffians by day and by night were always on the whatch. The spot on which Cockroad Methodist Church once stood seemed to be their general rendezvous and outlook, as from this spot they could see anyone approaching for many a mile. Hence they were prepared and no one dared to approach the robbers den.

    The whole of the area 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 very eyes whilst the robbers laughed. However they could 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 of Bristol 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 and 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 family who came from Cockroad and nearby Cadbury Heath were hanged at Gloucester. This family still has its roots in the area today, I know of a local school teacher who is directly related to the Cains Gang.

    It is reported in the Bath Press 1870 that proceedings had accurred 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 day of the funeral a large number of his associates attended, some on horseback and riding in front with great pomp and ceremony which seemed customary and befitting the heroism of a local desperado.

    The Cock Road Gang could have been classed as the 19th Century Kingswood mafia. 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 in Bristol.

    One of the most famous gang leaders was Richard Bryant who was known to have robbed and murdered as far away as London. His haunt was the Blue Bowl Inn at Hanham where he was reported to have always slept with his boots on, ready for a quick get away.

    The notorious Kaines or Cain's family of Cock road are still talked about even today, of the family of five sons and one daughter, three were transported, and the daughters' three husbands were transported also. An old inhabitant of the village, used to say one of his earliest recollections was that of paying a penny to see the two Cains brothers, who had been hanged, lying in their coffins; for the bodies had been given up to their relatives, and they made money on the side by making them a show. These men were buried at Bitton, by the late Rev.Ellacombe,then a curate, at the parish church. And so the story ends.

    Some supposed that the name Cockroad took its name from cock-fighting, as being in character with the villagers in early times. It would appear, however,that it took its name from a practice of keeping narrow clearances or roadways in forests for the purpose of trapping woodcocks; nets were spread across the road, and the birds driven into them.


    Published in the local journals by a committee of the respectable inhabitants. The document stated that robberies, burglaries, and other crimes were daily committed by an extensive combination of villains, who extended their ravages for miles around.

    “This scheme of enormity has been maturing for a long series of years, and whole families are dependent on this combination for their maintenance, and many hundreds of the younger branches are well known to be in training for the like purposes. Labourers are decoyed from employment and admitted into the society; great numbers of hucksters are in alliance with them, and the vendors of the [stolen] goods are seen passing with cartloads by night, none presuming to interrupt them”.

    The address goes on to say that many of the malefactors were known, but that the terrorism they exercised deterred honest persons from giving information, “and when it is recollected that thousands are connected, by receiving and vending the goods, it will not appear surprising that very few remain sufficiently virtuous or courageous to unite with us”. Appeals were therefore made to the citizens of Bristol and Bath for subscriptions to crush the gigantic conspiracy.

    Funds having been obtained, patrols were established in the district, which had a temporary effect in intimidating depredators. Nevertheless, throughout the severe distress which occurred during the winter of 1812-13, the number of robberies and burglaries in Kingswood exceeded anything before known. In 1813 the Wesleyan body, desiring to strike at the roots of the evil, started a school at Cock-road, in which locality seven-tenths of the children were found to be ignorant of the alphabet. Owing to lack of funds, however, the school for several years could not be kept open on week days. Improvement under such circumstances was necessarily slow.

    In August, 1814, a Bristol journalist compared the state of the honest population in and near Cockroad to that of loyal persons in some parts of Ireland. “They are frequently obliged to sit up all night with loaded muskets by their side to guard against assaults, depredations, and even murder”.

    An account follows of the firing of two guns into 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 was 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.

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