Highwaymen!

A sub-section of the criminal fraternity, the highwayman, found the smock frock very useful to wear.  This may have been partly as a disguse.  As it was worn by so many men the garment tended to equalise appearance and make them indistinguishable from other smock frock wearers.  As in the case of the high vis jacket today, all witnesses remembered was the smock frock, and no other details.[1]  As early as 1784, two highwaymen were at work outside Salisbury brandishing pistols to rob a horse chaise and a post chaise [a fast carriage].  One was wearing a blue round frock, the other a dirty white round frock.[2]  An attempted robbery of a gig on the road by a man disguised in a smock frock with a handkerchief over his face and large slouched hat, was fought off by the traveller in the carriage, Mr Fayerman, a surgeon from Norwich, using a whip in 1816.[3]

During the 1820s and 1830s, the smock was commonly used by many men including criminals. In 1822, George Church was robbed of a silver watch on the road near Aldbourn, by two footpads, that is robbers without horses, the men ‘dressed like farmers’ labourers, in smock frocks’.  A fifteen guinea reward was offered for information leading to arrest.[4]  Mr Johnson of Ashbourne in Derbyshire was robbed of nineteen sovereigns near Manton in Rutland in 1828, by three men looking like a ‘lower class of hawkers’, two dressed in smock frocks.[5]  In 1834, just outside Salisbury, ‘a tall athletic man, disguised in a mask and white smock frock’, stopped Mr Beckingsale, a shopman travelling on a horse, held a pistol to his head and asked for his money and his watch.  The robber escaped, although only with eighteen shillings and the watch.[6]  In 1832, David Abraham, a hawker of jewellery from Birmingham, was returning home with goods and money worth £107, when he was robbed by two men on the road, one with a pistol who was wearing a white smock frock over a blue coat.[7]   Four men dressed in white smock frocks also attacked the elderly Roderick M’Grigor and his son returning home to Iver from Uxbridge, stealing a silver watch and other silver money.[8]

In 1857, it was still being used as a disguise, a man shooting Mr Ovenden, a draper, with a pistol on the road between Nutfield and Warwicktown, Redhill, in Surrey and stealing his money. The draper had given the man, who appeared to be a labourer, a lift in his cart before he turned on him on a lonely part of the road demanding his money or his life.  The draper first thought it a joke but was then shot.  A large reward of £100-200 was promptly offered for information, the suspect carefully described by Mr Ovenden, as wearing a short navigator’s slop or smock frock, ‘very much worked about the breast and neck’.[9]  Many smocks would have been relatively plain and ready-made with little to distinguish one from another, so where there was something different to note, this was remembered.  However, it appeared to be a successful disguise with few reports of the capture of any of these ‘highwaymen’.

[1] See also the gilet jaune protests in France, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/03/who-are-the-gilets-jaunes-and-what-do-they-want.

[2] Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 July 1784.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 5 October 1816.

[4] Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 23 May 1822.

[5] Northampton Mercury, 20 September 1828.

[6] Sherborne Mercury, 24 February 1834.

[7] Coventry Herald, 28 September 1832.

[8] West Kent Guardian, 2 December 1837.

[9] Cheltenham Chronicle, 24 February 1857.

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