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Stand and Deliver!

"The road from London to Reigate through Sutton is about as villainous a tract as England contains" - William Cobbett 1823

An alehouse with an unsavoury reputation known as Little Hell is clearly marked on Roque’s 1762 map of Surrey. Historians believe it was located beside the Brighton Road between Sutton and Belmont. Some believe that Sutton Lodge, between the junctions with Downs Road and Egmont Road, is on the site of Little Hell, but it is thought to have been built 20 years after the map was published. When it was put up for sale in 1965 the estate agent said: ‘The window shutters still retain the original spy-holes through which watch was kept for highwaymen.’

There was good reason for anyone to keep watch for highwaymen. The 17th and 18th centuries were the heyday of the mounted robbers and the Surrey heaths and commons were their hunting grounds. The demand ‘Stand and deliver!’ rang out particularly loudly in deserted places like Bagshot Heath (on the London-Exeter road), the Thames Ditton area (the Portsmouth road) and the Banstead and Reigate areas (the roads to Brighton and the south coast). Some glamour was attached to highwaymen by the less wealthy because, in the main they preyed upon the more well-to-do who could afford to travel. Euphemisms for highwaymen included ‘knights of the road’ and ‘gentlemen of the road.’

Banstead was a black spot for attacks by highwaymen. Johnnie Abershaw was one who roamed the Surrey commons holding up travellers and it is thought that Little Hell was both a meeting place for the robbers and for those who sought intelligence of their whereabouts.

At the Skimmington Castle, a pub on Reigate Heath, highwaymen climbed to the top of the chimney to spot lone travellers on the Dorking- Reigate road. On the coach route between London and Portsmouth, Hindhead Heath was notorious for highwaymen. But many of them ended up swinging from the end of a rope on Gibbet Hill, by the famous Devil’s Punchbowl.

William Davis was a farmer near Bagshot. To support his family of 18 children he took to supplementing his income by holding up travellers crossing Bagshot Heath. A habit of paying for his farm and household goods in gold coins earned him the nickname The Golden Farmer. At the age of 64 he was shot trying to rob a coach near London and hanged. His body was then hung in chains on Bagshot Heath. Another highwayman in the same locality is reported to have stopped a coach and politely said: ‘Pray, ladies, don’t be frightened. I am in distress and money I must have.’ Other highwaymen frequenting the heath were the handsome Claude du Vall, famed for his gallantry and daring, Thomas Simpson (alias Old Mobb) and Parson Darby, the highwayman curate of Yately.

After Dr Richard Russell proclaimed the benefits of sea bathing at Brighthelmstone (Brighton) in 1750 Sutton began to see more and more London to Brighton stagecoach traffic. At one time 17 coaches a day were leaving London and heading for the coast. A big beneficiary of the increase in traffic was the Cock Hotel, at the crossroads at the top of Sutton High Street.

Travellers had stratagems to try to outwit the highway robbers. ‘We English,’ Sir Augustus Hervey told a visitor to our shores, ‘always carry two purses on our journeys, a small one for the robbers and a large one for ourselves.’

Highway ManThe Cock at Sutton about 1790 after a drawing by Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of Sutton Museum Service