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
* * * * *
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
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
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.