Not every highwayman throughout history has achieved the fame of Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), Rob Roy (1671-1734), Dick Turpin (1705-1739), or Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). The names of most of the highwaymen who flourished in London during the eighteenth century have faded into insignificance. William Hawke is one such highwayman whose life story, while just as interesting as the robbers alluded, never had his story picked up by the likes of Walter Scott (1771-1832) or William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882).
William Hawke was born at Uxbridge, Middlesex around the middle of the eighteenth century. He moved to London after the death of his father. Once in the capital, he gained employment in a public house in St. Giles. This area of London was known for its high levels of criminality, and it is during his time as a bar tender that he first became acquainted with some shady characters from the Georgian criminal underworld.
The men that he fell in with encouraged him to try a few turns as a highwayman, running with a partner named James Field.
Both Hawke and Field were apprehended by the authorities in January 1771 for stealing a leather notebook and £20 from a gentleman named John Gordon.[i] Although the theft of a sizeable sum of £20 would have warranted the death penalty in the eighteenth century, it seems the evidence against them was inconclusive. Both men produced witnesses who testified to their good character, and Field claimed that the £20 was his own money:
I have had many a twenty pound note of my own property.
I was going to the play with my wife’s sister and Mr. Field. Roades came up and walked with us; I did not know him at first; he saw me pull my watch out; and wanted to buy it; he got from me; he was to give me two guineas and a half for it; he gave me a guinea; Mr. Field gave him his watch; he gave him nothing. We were several times after him about the money.[ii]
This is probably why Field and Hawkes got off with the comparatively lighter sentence of Transportation to the Americas for a total of 14 years (this is the time, it will be remembered, that Britain still “owns” the Thirteen American Colonies, later to become the USA).
Somehow, and the details here are sketchy, the pair managed to escape from the Americas, and by 1772 were back in London practising their former trade. The Newgate Calendar records that Hawkes,
Upon his return to England he committed a surprising number of most daring robberies; and several months elapsed before the thief takers knew him to be the man by whom the roads about London were so dangerously infested.[iii]
Hawkes proved to be quite a hard man to catch indeed. The ingenious Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding (brother of the novelist-turned-magistrate, Henry Fielding), directed London’s rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, to watch Hawkes’ wife (the Metropolitan Police would not be established until the 19th century).
The Runners kept watch over the wife, and one night, as Hawkes lay sleeping in her arms in a rented apartment, Constables Bond and Lee went up the stairs and,
Entered the front room, and there discovering Hawke slumbering in bed, threw himself across the highwayman, who, twisting the sheet around Bond’s head, reached at a pistol that was under the pillow, at which instant Smith entered, and caught hold of his hand. With much difficulty Hawke was secured.[iv]
In court the next morning, on 18 May 1774, two gentleman named Captain Cunningham and Charles Hart appeared to give evidence against him:
Hart. A gentleman: I live in May’s Buildings. On the 28th of last March, between the hours of nine and ten in the evening, Capt. Cunningham and myself were stopped in a coach near the Half-way-house leading from Knights-bridge to Walham Green , by one man on horseback; he said to the coachman, God d – n your blood stop, or I’ll blow your brains out! uponwhich I let the glass down which was then up, and he put a pistol to my breast, and demanded my money; I had one shilling and sixpence and some halfpence loose in my waistcoat pocket; I gave him that; I had half a guinea in my fob, which I preserved; he said to me, God d – n you, do you give me nothing but halfpence! I told him it was all I had, and desired him to take the pistol from my breast. In the interim Capt. Cunningham was moving a pocket book from his right hand waistcoat pocket into his left hand breeches pocket, in which were bank notes to the amount of between four and five hundred pounds; he had twenty-six or twenty-seven, guineas in his breeches pocket, but being in liquor he refused being robbed, and said he would not be robbed; the prisoner saw the pocket book, and took the pistol from my breast, and said, God d – n you, give me the pocket book![v]
Hawkes maintained his innocence throughout the whole trial, simply saying:
I am innocent of this affair: I leave myself entirely to the mercy of this honourable Court. I have been guilty of affairs of the kind, but am innocent of this. I am a jeweller by trade: I am twenty-three years old: I have a wife and two small children.[vi]
Despite the protestations of his innocence, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging.
By the account recorded in The Newgate Calendar, he was quite stoic about the whole affair.
When he was taken to Tyburn on 1 July 1774 (the site of public executions until 1783), he gave a good show to the assembled mob. He dressed in his smartest coat, with a flower affixed to the breast pocket, gallantly saying ‘how do you do’ to spectators as he passed by in the cart.
The noose was placed around his neck at the foot of Tyburn tree, and as he felt the cart about the move away he leaped up into the air. This ensured that his neck was instantly dislocated and that he never suffered in pain.
ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM BOOKS IN MY PERSONAL COLLECTION
[i] James Field, William Hawke, Theft > pocketpicking, Theft > receiving, 16th January 1771 (t17710116-39) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].
[iii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), p.133.
[v] William Hawke, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 18th May 1774 (t17740518-26) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].
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