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Robbery on the Common

On 23rd June 1652, two cut-throats robbed a gentleman not far from our school: he was riding his horse across the Bromley Common, heading for London.  The robbery was not particularly unusual as the area was notorious for highwaymen in the 17th and 18th centuries.

What the robbers did not know was that the gentleman, John Evelyn,[1] would go to great lengths to get his property back.  Or that he would write about the incident in his diary[2] so we could read about it over 350 years later.

picture of John Evelyn
John Evelyn

The story started on June 11th, 1652, when John went to meet his wife, Mary in the port of Rye. She had just escaped from a besieged Paris[3] and had been three days at sea in a small boat. They had only avoided capture by the enemy Dutch fleet in the English Channel because they had been mistaken for fishermen. John had not seen his wife since the beginning of the year and was keen to get back to London.

“But my wife, was unwell[4] with being so long at sea, so we set not forth towards home till the 14th when, hearing the small pox was very rife in and about London and that my Lady had a great desire to drink Tunbridge waters,[5] I carried them thither where I stayed… and also took the waters myself for a few days until 23rd when business called me homeward leaving my little family  in their cottage by the Wells.

“The morning growing excessively hot, I sent my footman ahead and so rode negligently in the shade till being now come to within three miles of Bromley, at a place called the Procession Oak,[6] out jumped two cut-throats…  Striking with their long staves at the horse and taking hold of the reins, they threw me down and immediately took my sword and hauled me into a deep thicket some quarter of a mile from the highway, where they might securely rob me.

“What they got of money was not considerable but they took two rings and other things which were of value and after all that, barbarously bound my hands behind me, and my feet, having before pulled off my boots.

They then set me up against an oak, with most bloody threatenings to cut my throat, if I offered to cry out, or make any noise, for they would be in my hearing .... I told them, if they had not basely surprised me, they would not have had such an easy prize, and that it should teach me hereafter never to ride near a hedge: since, had I been in the middle of the road, they would not have dared to attack me.  At this they cocked their pistols and told me they had long guns too, and were fourteen companions, which all were lies.

“I begged for my onyx ring and told them that as it was engraved with my arms, it would betray them, but nothing prevailed… They tied my horse to a tree and left me bound…

“Well, being left in this manner, I was grievously tormented with the flies, the ants and the sun, so as I sweated intolerably, great was my anxiety how I should get loose in that solitary place where I could neither hear nor see any creature but my poor horse and a few sheep.

“After nearly two hours attempting, I got my hands to turn palm to palm whereas before they were tied back to back and then I struggled a great while ere I could slip the cord over my wrist to my thumb, which at last I did, and then being quite loose, soon unbound my feet, and so saddling my horse and roaming a while, I at last perceived a dust to rise and soon after heard the rattling of a cart, towards which I made, and by the help of two country fellows that were driving it, got down a steep bank, into the highway again, but could hear nothing of the villains.

“So I rode to Colonel Blounts, a great justice of the times, who sent out hue and cry[7] immediately.

“The next morning, weary and sore as I was at my wrists and arms, I went to London, got 500 tickets printed … describing what I had lost and within two days, had tidings of all I lost except my sword which had a silver hilt and some other trifles.  These rogues had pawned my rings, etc. for a trifle … before the tickets came to the shop…

“July 10, I had news of the taking of one of the knaves who robbed me and was summoned to appear against him.  So on the 12th, I was in Westminster Hall but, not being bound over nor willing to hang the fellow, I did not appear… However the man, being found guilty, was turned over to the old bailey.  In the end, upon some other crime … he was pressed to death: one thing I remember, he was one of the worst looking fellows I ever saw.”

Notes

[1] John Evelyn, 1620 to 1720.  Among other things, he was an adviser to Charles II, a friend of Samuel Pepys, a founder member of the Royal Society and the author of over three hundred books, including a best selling book on trees.

[2] The diary was massive, with over 1300 pages when it was published many years after his death.  Among the events he wrote about were the restoration of Charles II to the throne, the Plague and the Fire of London.
I have made some minor changes to the text (published by Oxford University Press, edited by John Bowle). They are are indicated by italics.

[3] Louis XIV (destined to be the Sun King) was a minor and there was civil war in France.

[4] She was also pregnant with their first child.

[5] Tunbridge Wells was a fashionable spa, the water from ‘the Wells’ being thought good for the health.  ‘Taking the waters’ was the 17th century equivalent to a visit to a health farm.

[6] Probably a parish boundary marker.

[7] There were no police to send after the robbers.  Hue and cry was a call for anyone and everyone to try and catch them.  There might have been a reward.