The true story of a 'garrotting' robbery on a Hitchin highway

Hitchin Hill in the late 19th century, where the robbery took place

Hitchin Hill in the late 19th century, where the robbery took place - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

Simon Walker of Hitchin Historical Society shares the true story of a 19th century highway robbery.

Simon Walker, who edited Hitchin - Glimpses of the Past and The Hitchin Journal

Simon Walker of the Hitchin Historical Society - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

In the evening of November 23, 1855, James Clark was walking towards his home on Hitchin Hill (now called Park Street).

He noticed three men on the footpath, walking slowly; as he passed them the tallest of the three seized him by the throat, and held him while the other two rifled through his pockets.

They stole his purse, containing four sovereigns, as well as his keys. The three men ran off down the hill, and cut off into the Priory Park. But there were witnesses, apart from James himself.

Sarah Jeeves, aged 15, saw the three men as she passed them. James Banks came upon the scene as Clark was getting up from the road; he saw three men run off into the park. Ellen Izzard saw the men too, as they passed her in Taylor's Hill.

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Mary Ann Izzard found James's purse the following morning.

George Clark, James's grandson, on hearing of the events, tried to contact Inspector George Cocksedge at the police station (later demolished to provide an entrance to Sainsbury's Supermarket from Bancroft) and then went in search of the men.

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As George made his way, with a man named Bowen, to the railway station; he saw the three men he believed to be the robbers at the Nightingale Inn and, leaving Bowen to watch them, he went again for the police.

George returned with Inspector Cocksedge, who attempted to hold the tallest of them, but he struck the policeman and ran away. The other two were not so lucky. George Clark held his man, and they got him to the police station. George went out and was lucky enough to capture the second man as well. The third man was never found.

John Cunningham and William Jones appeared before Hitchin Magistrates and were committed for trial at Hertford Assizes early in December 1855. After a short trial, before Mr. Justice Compton, the jury found them guilty of highway robbery.

Compton said, in sentencing Jones and Cunningham, "If any great violence had been used on this occasion, I should have felt it my duty to sentence you to transportation or penal servitude for a long period; but I always think it right to make a distinction where no particular violence has been used, and as you did not kick or otherwise ill-use the man, the sentence will not be as severe as it otherwise would have been. The sentence upon each of you is that you have four years of penal servitude."

It emerged that the two men were both out of prison on licence (ticket-of-leave men as they were called), and had been released only a week before. In particular, Jones had a long criminal history.

This case was an example of what became known as 'garrotting' robberies, which caused a panic after the press in 1856 reported them widely as a new phenomenon. In 1862, when Hugh Pilkington, MP for Blackburn, was attacked and robbed in Pall Mall.

Within a year the resulting panic brought about knee-jerk legislation, which became known as the "Garrotting Act", aimed specifically at this offence. In fact similar crimes had been perpetrated for years.

To what extent the methodology was spread amongst offenders by the press reports we shall never know.

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