A Man Unknown

Did you know that Valley End was once the haunt of highwaymen?

The parish reached Broomhall Lane, and included a small slice of the London Road, now the A30. This used to be the Great West Road, one of the major routes from London.  The inns at Bagshot had up to 30 coaches a day passing through.

But travelling on the road was full of risks. It crossed desolate heath land. Daniel Defoe described it in the 1720s as “a vast tract of land… given up to barrenness, horrid and frightful to look on.”

Travellers were vulnerable in this isolated country. In 1795 a writer complained bitterly “The high-roads thirty or forty miles round London are filled with armed highwaymen and footpads.”

There were many tales of the highwaymen in Surrey – such as this one:

Highwayman

The Highwayman. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

It appears that close to the milestone marked 22 miles* to Hyde Park corner, which is still embedded outside Sunningdale on the road to Virginia Water, a two-wheeled curricle appeared going towards Bagshot. The occupants were two military Officers. Out from the trees moved a mounted figure with levelled pistols, and demanded the Officer’s valuables. Astoundingly, the Officers handed over three gold guineas and a gold watch. Here the Officers pass out of our story – in my opinion with ignominy, as no one in their right mind traversed Bagshot Heath unarmed in those times.

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“22 miles to Hyde Park Corner.” The milestone, just past West Drive on the A 30.

However, here comes an unnamed Hero.

Breasting the rise, (there’s a cliché for you, but very aptly put in fact,) came the afternoon coach from the “Three Mariners” at Bagshot on its way to Staines, its leaders pulling hard at their collars and thus breasting the rise. The Coachman took in the situation at a glance and with the aid of his companion on the box, braked the coach, jumped down, blocked the coach wheels and striped the tack off the near leader. The unnamed companion with the coach blunderbuss in one hand and the looped ribbons in the other swung onto the animal and belted up the hill after the Highwayman who had turned towards Virginia Water and was off as fast as his mare would go.

The-Old-High-St-Bagshot.jpg

The Three Mariners, Bagshot, an old coaching inn. (Image courtesy of the Three Mariners, Bagshot.)

Now Virginia Water must have been very different two hundred years ago, and I think it must have been a ford. But the little inn on the far side was The Wheatsheaf as it is today.

The pursuit must have been gaining because the Highwayman put his mare at the iron railings (could they be the same railings as are there today?) Anyway the mare refused and the thief either got off or fell off. He didn’t try again but set off on foot to the water’s edge where he decided to swim for it. Our hero in pursuit must have been getting very close because the thief without taking any of his clothes off plunged straight in. He was half way across when his luck ran out, for by chance, the Water Bailiff carrying a gun appeared on the far side.

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Virginia Water Lake, 1950. (Image from Britain From Above.)

The Highwayman seeing him there gave a despairing cry and sank below the water.

They pulled him out quite drowned, recovered the three guineas and the gold watch, remarked on his grey wool stockings being heavily darned, and – would you believe it – the only other matter reported was the finding in his pocket of a bill from the Wheatsheaf for one shilling and nine pence for his lunch.

There is another account of this here in the Sporting Magazine for 1797.

The Coroner’s account book at Berkshire Record Office includes the cost of “An inquisition taken at the parish of Old Windsor on view of the body of a Man unknown” on Dec. 4th 1797, and explains, “(Highwayman, endeavouring to escape attempted to swim across Virginia Water and was drowned.)”

These were violent times; another inquest that year, held on May 17th 1797 at Binfield, recorded the death of Edward Bunce, “Turnpike Keeper shot through the head by Night.”

Stories of the highwaymen lingered in the area. When James Ogilvy wrote “A pilgrimage in Surrey” in 1914 he mentioned tales of highwaymen hiding in the trees on the common, and of a tavern they used between Longcross and Chobham Common.

He may have been thinking of the Traveller’s Friend – an ironic name if ever there was. This stood next to Longcross car park on Staple Hill. The pub has long gone, but there is still an iron bar sticking out from a tree, which used to hold the pub sign – a reminder of the days of the highwaymen.

Colour photo of the rear of a house on edge of Chobham Common, Longcross, previously a public house called `Travellers Friend', taken MayJune 1982 (back view) Chertsey Museum

The Traveller’s Friend, Longcross. (Image courtesy of Chertsey Museum).

*”Brock” gave the milestone as marked xviii, but according to the Sporting Magazine it was the stone marked 22 miles. This stone is just past West Drive on the London Road. It is opposite Crown land, and nearly facing it is a private track running across open countryside and woodland. It passes close to Coworth Park, and comes out on the A329. You are then on the edge of the Park, and close to Virginia Water Lake. This must be the route which the highwayman took.

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Sources.

The story of the highwayman was told by “Brock” under the title “Captain Snow, I presume,”  in the Windlesham Magazine, Feb. 86. and is reproduced by kind permission of the magazine. I have been unable to trace “Brock”, but if anyone knows anything about him I would be very glad to hear from them.

Berkshire Record Office. Coroner’s account book. D/EX 1412/1

Daniel Defoe. “A tour through the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies. 1724 and 1727.

Gentleman’s magazine. 1795. Vol. 78. p.831.

Sporting Magazine, 1797, Vol. 11, p. 112.

James Ogilvy. “A pilgrimage in Surrey.” 1914.

Ron Davis. “Three places for refreshment at Longcross.” Typescript, Chertsey Museum. Note – “To be published in April 1996 edition of “Connections,” Virginia Water Parish Magazine.

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One thought on “A Man Unknown”

  1. Interesting read – Just written a bit about the A30, but further West around Basingtoke… Incidently I use to go to School at Virginia Water so knew the area then!

    Like

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