The Gentleman Highwayman

: The Strange Story Book

Few people can have crowded more occupations into a life of twenty-six

years than James Maclean.

His father, a Scot by birth, had settled in the Irish county of

Monaghan, where the position of minister to a body of dissenters had

been offered him. From the first moment of his coming amongst them Mr.

Maclean was much liked by his congregation, who carried all their

troubles to him, sure that if he could no
help them, he would at least

give them advice and sympathy, and there was not one of them who did not

drink his health with his whole heart when the minister married the

daughter of a gentleman in the neighbourhood.

More than twenty years passed away quietly and happily. The Macleans had

two sons, and the elder one early showed a wish to follow his father's

profession, and, at an age when most young men are still at the

University, received a 'call' to a Protestant congregation at the Hague.

James, the younger, was educated for a merchant, and as soon as he was

eighteen was to go into a counting-house and learn his business.

Unfortunately, just before he reached the date fixed, his father died,

leaving the youth his own master--for as no mention is made of his

mother, it is probable she was dead also. Without consulting anyone,

James threw up the post which old Maclean had taken so much pains to get

for him, and withdrawing the money left him by the will, from the bank,

spent it all in a few months on racing and betting.

Of course he was not allowed to make himself a beggar in this silly way

without an effort to save him on the part of his mother's friends. But

from a child he had always thought he knew better than anyone else, and

quarrelled with those who took a different view. Naturally, when the

money had all disappeared without anything to show for it, he chose to

forget how rude he had been, and expected his relations to support him

in idleness, which they absolutely refused to do. At length, not knowing

which way to turn, he was glad enough to become the valet of a certain

Mr. Howard, who was on his way to England. When he liked, the young

Irishman could make himself as pleasant as most of his countrymen, and

Mr. Howard took a great fancy to him, and treated him with much

kindness. But from first to last James never knew when he was well off,

and after a while he returned to his old ways, and frequently stayed out

all night, drinking and gambling. In vain did Mr. Howard warn him that

unless he gave up these habits he would certainly be dismissed. The

young man paid no heed to his words, and in the end his master's

patience was exhausted, and one day James found himself on board the

Irish boat, without a character and nothing but his quarter's wages in

his pockets.

* * * * *

Now James Maclean was one of those people who are totally without a

sense of shame, and if once a person cannot be made ashamed of what he

has done, and always imagines himself to be the victim of bad luck or of

somebody else, his case is hopeless. On this occasion he was quite

convinced that it was the duty of his relations to supply him with an

income, or at least with a home, and when as before refusals met him on

all sides, he applied not for the first or even the second time, to his

brother at the Hague for help. We do not know what excuse he made for

his request, but we may be quite certain it was not the true one; still

whether his brother believed him or not, he sent him a small sum,

probably at the cost of great self-denial, for the salaries of ministers

were not high. This money, as was to be expected, went the way of the

rest, and again James found himself penniless and reduced to look for a

place as a servant.

Hearing that a Colonel in the British army who had served abroad with

some of his Scotch uncles was in need of a butler, young Maclean went

to see him, and was lucky enough to obtain the situation, though he knew

as little of a butler's work as he did of a printer's. He was, however,

quick at picking up anything that he chose and contrived to keep this

place for a year or two, till the Colonel discovered that his butler had

been carrying out a system of robbery ever since he had been in his

house. After a few words from his master, James was once more cast on

the world, and had some idea of enlisting in the Irish brigade then

serving under the French flag, and this would have been the best thing

that could have happened to him. But as, on inquiry, he learned that

unless he became a Roman Catholic he would be refused a commission, he

changed his mind and resolved to remain where he was.

* * * * *

'Well, I suppose there is nothing for it but a humble letter to the

Colonel,' thought James one day, when he heard from a man whom he met at

a tavern that his late master was on his way to England. So calling for

paper and a pen, he composed a letter to such good purpose and so full

of lies, that the kindhearted Colonel really believed he had repented,

and offered to take him back, desiring at the same time that James

should take his baggage by sea to London, and allowing him a shilling a

day for his food.

It was with mingled feelings of contempt and relief that the young

reprobate read his master's reply. 'What a fool he is!' he said to

himself, adding after a moment 'Well, after all, it is lucky for me!'

But the Colonel, good-natured though he was, knew too much about master

James to give credit to his stories, and declined a request, made soon

after their arrival in London, to purchase a commission for his late

butler, with a view to enabling him to marry an heiress. Yet when he

discovered that Maclean had really enlisted in Lord Albemarle's regiment

of horse-guards, he consented to give him the ten pounds necessary for

the purpose, which, to keep it the more safely, was placed in the hands

of one of the officers. Whether Maclean ever succeeded in handling the

money seems doubtful, for as soon as his papers were made out and he was

ordered to join the army in Flanders, he suddenly disappeared, and the

troopship sailed without him.

* * * * *

There must have been something very attractive about this rogue, for

whatever desperate plight he was in he always contrived to fall on his

feet; and when he thought it safe to emerge from the place where he was

in hiding while there was a hue and cry raised after the deserter, it

was in the character of a man anxious to start for the West Indies--if

someone would only lend him fifty pounds!

Someone did lend it to him, and it was instantly spent on fine clothes

which captured the heart of Miss Macglegno, the daughter of a

horse-dealer, with five hundred pounds to her dowry.

This time, Maclean did not dare to throw about the money as he had

previously done, but with his father-in-law's eye upon him, he opened a

grocer's shop in Welbeck Street, hoping that the fashionable people who

had come to live in the big new houses in Cavendish Square might give

him their custom. But his wife speedily saw that if the business was to

prosper she must look after it herself, as her husband could be depended

on for nothing. Therefore she set to work, and for three years all went

well, and the neighbours said to each other that it was fortunate she

was such a stirring woman, as though Master Maclean was a harmless sort

of man he was apt to be lazy.

At the end of this period Mrs. Maclean died, after a short illness, and

her two little girls went to live with their grandmother. Left alone,

James neglected the shop more and more, and at length it grew plain to

himself, as well as to everybody else, that if any money was to be saved

at all, the goods must be sold for what they would fetch. And once sold,

it is easy to guess how quickly the gold melted in James's pocket.

* * * * *

It was not till he had come to his last shilling--or at any rate his

last pound--that Maclean began to ask himself 'What next?' After these

years of comfort and plenty--and idleness--it would be hard to become a

servant again, yet he could not see any other means of keeping himself

from starving.

He was slowly getting accustomed to the idea of seeking for a servant's

place, when one day he met in the streets an apothecary named Plunket,

whom he had known in Monaghan.

'How now?' asked Plunket. 'Is anything the matter? You look as if you

were on the road to be hung at Tyburn.'

'The matter is that to-morrow I shall not have a penny in the world,'

answered Maclean, gloomily.

'Oh, things are never so bad as they seem,' said Plunket. 'Cheer up.

Perhaps I can find a way to supply you with more pennies. It only

wants a little pluck and spirit! If we haven't got any money, there

are plenty of other people who have.'

Maclean was silent. He understood at once what Plunket meant, and that

he was being offered a partnership in a scheme of highway robbery. He

had, as we know, stolen small sums before, but that felt to him a very

different thing from stopping travellers along the road, and demanding

'their money or their life.' However, he soon shook off his scruples,

and was ready to take his part in any scheme that Plunket should


'You are in luck just now,' said his tempter, who all this time had been

watching his face and read the thoughts that were passing through his

mind. 'I heard only this morning of a farmer who has sold a dozen fat

oxen at the Smithfield Market, and will be riding home this evening with

the money in his saddle-bags. If he had any sense he would have started

early and ridden in company, but I know my gentleman well, and dare

swear he will not leave the tavern outside the market till dusk is

falling. So if we lie in wait for him on Hounslow Heath, he cannot

escape us.'

It was autumn, and dark at seven o'clock, when the farmer, not as sober

as he might have been, came jogging along. He was more than half-way

across, and was already thinking how best to spend the sixty pounds his

beasts had brought him, when out of a hollow by the roadside sprang two

men with masks and pistols, which were pointed straight at his horse's


'Your money or your life,' said one of them, while the other stood

silent; and with trembling fingers the farmer unloaded his saddle-bags,

and delivered up his watch. As soon as Plunket saw there was no more to

be got out of him, he gave the horse a smart cut on his flanks, and the

animal bounded away.

All this while Maclean had not uttered a word, nor had he laid a finger

on the victim. He had in reality trembled with fear quite as much as the

farmer, and it was not till they were safe in Plunket's garret off Soho

Square that he breathed freely.

'Sixty pounds, do you say? Not bad for one night's work,' cried Plunket.

'Well, friend James, I will give you ten pounds for your share, which I

call handsome, seeing you did not even cock your pistol! But perhaps it

is all one could expect for the first time, only on the next occasion

you must do better. And you might just as well, you know, as if the

officers of the peace catch you they will hang you to a certainty, never

stopping to ask questions as to your share in the matter.'

Maclean nodded. He saw the truth of this, and besides, the excitement of

the adventure began to stir his blood, and he was soon counting the days

till he heard from Plunket again. On this occasion a travelling carriage

was to be stopped on the St. Albans road, and it was settled that

Maclean should present his pistol to the coachman's head, while Plunket

secured the booty. But when it came to the point, James's face was so

white, and the fingers which held the pistol so shaky, that Plunket saw

they had better change parts, and indeed, as the gentleman inside

offered no resistance whatever, and meekly yielded up everything of

value he had about him, Maclean succeeded in doing all that was required

of him by his partner.

'Much good you are!' said Plunket, when they had plunged into the

neighbouring wood. 'If I had not been there that coachman would have

stunned you with the butt end of his whip. You are the lion who was born

without claws or teeth! A cat would have been as useful.'

'Yes, I know,' answered Maclean hurriedly, feeling very much ashamed of

himself. 'I can't think what was the matter with me--I suppose I'm not

quite accustomed to it yet.' And that very evening, to prove to

Plunket--and himself--that he was not such a coward as he seemed, he

attacked a gentleman in Hyde Park and robbed him of a gold watch and

chain and a small sum of money.

* * * * *

After this Maclean shook off his timidity, and became known to his

brother highwaymen as one of the most daring and successful 'gentlemen

of the road,'--for so the people called them. Only on one occasion did

he run any risk of being caught, and then he took refuge on board a

vessel that was sailing for Holland, and sought out his brother at the


'It is so long since we have seen each other, I could not but come,' he

said to the minister, who, suspecting nothing, was delighted to welcome

him, and insisted on hearing the story of James's life since they had

last parted. For a whole evening the good man listened to a moving tale,

not one word of which was true, except that which related to James's

marriage and the starting of the grocer's shop. The minister praised and

pitied, and told it all to his friends, rich and prosperous citizens who

were proud to invite the fine gentleman from London to their parties.

And if at the end of the evening some purses and watches were missing,

well! they might have been robbed on their way hither, or have forgotten

them at home. At any rate, nobody dreamed for one moment of suspecting

their minister's guest.

* * * * *

But in spite of all the precautions which, notwithstanding his

recklessness, Maclean thought well to take--in spite of his silence

respecting his own affairs, and his frequent changes of lodgings so that

no one might connect him with one particular neighbourhood, he at last

put the rope round his own neck by an act of gross carelessness.

On the morning of June 26, 1750, James robbed Lord Eglinton in his

travelling carriage, and a little later in the same day attacked the

Salisbury coach, in company with Plunket. They escaped as usual,

Maclean carrying with him a bag containing several suits of fine

clothes, trimmed with beautiful lace, belonging to one of the passengers

named Higden. Maclean's first care was to strip off the lace, and to

send a message to a dealer that he had some clothes to sell, if the man

would call to see them at his address. At the time, the dealer chanced

to be busy and could not come, and by the following morning, when he

made his way to Maclean's rooms, an advertisement was out describing the

garments so exactly that the man instantly recognised them, and gave

information to the magistrate.

That night the 'gentleman highwayman' was arrested on a warrant, and

carried to the prison of Newgate, and Plunket, who had been uneasy since

the dealer's visit, and was on the watch, hurried to the coast in

disguise and hid on board a smuggler's boat, bound for France. Maclean

remained to take his trial, and after first confessing and then denying

his confession, was convicted of robbery on the King's highway, and was

hanged at the gallows erected at Tyburn, where the corner of Connaught

Square and the Edgware Road now stand. He was at the period of his

execution only twenty-six, yet he had contrived to do more mean and base

deeds than most rogues of sixty.