Recently I wrote a guest post on Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell about highwaymen in general and why they make excellent heroes in a work of fiction. In my latest novel The Highwayman’s Daughter the heroine, Cora, holds up a carriage belonging to the hero and gets more than she bargained for.
I chose to make her a highway robber because I wanted to create a heroine who was both gutsy and bold and wouldn’t shy away from what was generally perceived as a male domain. However, while I was doing my research for the book, I discovered that it wasn’t actually that unusual for women to turn to the road and a life of crime in this way. Throughout history, a number of notorious female highway robbers have made their mark, and here are a few of them.
Moll Cutpurse, whose real name was Mary Frith, was born in 1584. After driving her
parents to distraction for being a “rumpscuttle”, an old word for “tomboy”, they decided to put her on a ship to America, but she absconded as it was setting sail and ran away to the infamous rookeries in St Giles in London where she set herself up as a fence.
An astute businesswoman with a reputation for integrity in the wicked world, she became an institution, not least because she wore men’s clothes and smoked a briar pipe. She was caught after holding up General Fairfax but managed to buy her freedom for £2000, and died of natural causes in 1659 – a relatively long life for that period and despite her exploits.
Ann Meders born 1643 was another female highway robber, and she added fraud and bigamy to her portfolio. Obsessed with the idea of achieving high social and financial status, she regarded marriage to a wealthy man as one way and married three times in rapid succession without dissolving her previous marriages. She worked her way through a number of wealthy lovers but no matter how much money she received, she was always broke. She turned to the road and carried out many robberies, but was eventually arrested for stealing a silver plate.
At the Old Bailey she caused a stir by wearing a low-cut dress, however, when that didn’t provide her with the sympathy she needed from the jury, she claimed to be pregnant. A new jury, consisting of women only, was sworn in, but they found her claim to be false, and she was hanged at Tyburn in 1673, aged 30.
Perhaps the most famous female highway robber was Lady Katherine Ferrers, born in 1662. Her marriage at 16 to a much older man proved to be a bit of a disappointment to her as her husband seemed far more interested in the running of his estate than in his bored, young wife. To add some spice to her life she turned to highway robbery where she enjoyed the sense of power from seeing men lose their bluster with a pistol pointed at them.
Her career on the road could have come to an abrupt end when she held up a celebrated highwayman named Jerry Jackson, but he saw the funny side, and they became lovers. Catherine Ferrers ended up adding murder to her list of crimes, and her partner was later hanged at Tyburn. What happened to end her career is less certain, but she may have sustained a wound during a robbery and died from that.
Her adventures were the inspiration for two films both entitled The Wicked Lady.
Is it a crime to steal a heart?
Hounslow, 1768. Jack Blythe, heir to the Earl of Lampton, is a man with great expectations. So when his carriage is held up by a masked woman, brandishing a pistol and dressed as a gentleman of the road, he wholly expects to have his purse stolen. And when he senses something strangely familiar about the lovely little bandit, Jack also expects to win his cousin’s wager by tracking her down first.
But as Jack and the highwaywoman enter into a swashbuckling game of cat and mouse, uncovering an intricate web of fiercely guarded family secrets, the last thing Jack expects to have stolen is his heart.