A Gentleman of the Road who drove in a Phaeton and Pair, and after many Adventures was executed for Highway Robbery on 6th of April, 1758
William Page leaving his phaeton, while he robs a gentleman, near Putney
Page duped at a masquerade
WILLIAM PAGE was the son of a respectable farmer at Hampton, and being a lad of promising parts he was sent to London to be educated, under the care of his cousin, a haberdasher. His early life, by the superstitious believers of old sayings, would be adduced as proof positive of the truth of the old adage that "a man who is born to be hanged will never be drowned"; and, although we cannot put much faith generally in such notions, we cannot help in this instance pointing out some peculiarities in the adventures of our hero which might have been considered by him as a sufficient indication of his fate.
The early chronicler of his life says that, during the hard frost in the winter of 1739, Page was sliding with other boys on the canal in St James's Park, when the ice broke under him and he sank; and, the ice immediately closing over him, he would have perished, but just at this juncture the ice again broke with another boy near him, and Page arose precisely at the vacancy made by the latter, and was saved, although his companion was drowned. The second instance of the intervention of his good fortune occurred in the summer following this singular escape. Page was then trying to swim with corks in the Thames, when they slipped from under his arms and he sank; but a waterman got him up, and he soon recovered. On the third occasion he was going up the river on a party of pleasure, about five years after-wards, with several other young fellows, when the boat overset with them in Chelsea Reach, and every one in the boat was drowned except Page. But his fourth and last escape from a watery grave was even more miraculous than any of those which preceded it. About eighteen months after that which is last related he was on a voyage to Scotland. The ship in which he sailed foundered in Yarmouth Roads, and most of the people on board perished; but another vessel, observing their distress, sent out a long-boat, by the help of which Page and a few others saved their lives.
To return, however, to the ordinary events of his life. It appeared that, his cousin having given him employment in his shop, his vanity prevented him from bestowing that attention on his business to which it was entitled; and his extravagance being checked by his relation, who stopped his pocket-money in order to curb his refined notions, he had recourse to plunder to supply his necessities. Money being repeatedly missed from the till, and all attempts to discover the thief among the servants having failed, suspicion at length rested on our hero; and, his guilt having been distinctly proved, he was dismissed from his situation forthwith. An effort which he made to conciliate his relation after this proved ineffectual; and his father, who had learned the nature of his irregularities, having refused to render him any assistance, he at length journeyed to York, and there joined a company of strolling players. His exertions in his new capacity were not unsuccessful; but at length, attempting to play Cato while in a state of intoxication, his character in the play and his condition of person were found to agree so badly that he was compelled to be carried from the stage, and was dismissed from his engagement.
He afterwards went to Scarborough, where his necessities compelled him to accept a situation as livery-servant with a gentleman; but, his master having been robbed on his way to town, he formed a notion that highway robbery was an easy and profitable mode of living, and determined that so soon as he should have the means of starting in the profession he would become a "gentleman of the road." Quitting his master at the end of twelve months he became acquainted with a woman of abandoned character, in conjunction with whom he took lodgings near Charing Cross, and he then commenced as highwayman. His first expedition was on th Kentish Road, and meeting the Canterbury stage, near Shooter's Hill, he robbed the passengers of watches and money to the amount of about thirty pounds; and then, riding through a great part of Kent to take an observation of the cross-roads, he returned to London. He now took lodgings near Grosvenor Square, and, frequenting billiard-tables, won a little money, which, added to his former stock, prevented his having recourse to the highway again for a considerable time. But at length he met with a gambler who was more expert than himself and stripped him of all his money. He then again sought the road as a means of subsistence. His exertions were for some time fruitless, but at length meeting with a handsome booty he was emboldened by his success, and, taking luxurious lodgings, soon gained the friendship of some young men of fashion. His next object was to improve his mind and person; and, having gained some knowledge, by dint of impudence and through a pleasing exterior he got introduced into decent society.
By this time he had drawn, from his own observation and for his private use, a most curious map of the roads twenty miles round London, and, driving in a phaeton and pair, was not suspected for a highwayman.
In his excursions for robbery he used to dress in a laced or embroidered frock, and wear his hair tied behind; but when at a distance from London he would turn into some unfrequented place and, having disguised himself in other clothes, with a grizzled or black wig, and saddled one of his horses, he would ride to the main road and commit a robbery. This done, he would hasten back to the carriage, resume his former dress, and drive to town again.
He had once an escape of a very remarkable kind. Having robbed a gentleman near Putney, some persons came up at the juncture and pursued him so closely that he was obliged to cross the Thames for his security. In the interim some haymakers, crossing the field where Page's carriage was left, found and carried off his gay apparel; and the persons who had pursued him, meeting them, charged them with being accomplices in the robbery. A report of this affair being soon spread, Page heard of it, and, throwing his clothes into a well, he went back almost naked, claimed the carriage as his own, and declared that the men had stripped him and thrown him into a ditch. All the parties now went before a justice of the Peace; and the maker of the carriage appearing, and declaring that it was the property of Mr Page, the poor haymakers were committed for trial; but obtained their liberty after the next assizes, as Page did not appear to prosecute.
After this he made no further use of the phaeton as a disguise for his robberies; but it served him occasionally on parties of pleasure, which he sometimes took with a girl whom he had then in keeping.
Page was passionately fond of play, and his practice this way was attended with various turns of fortune, as must be the case with all gamblers. One night he went to the masquerade with only ten guineas, and won above five hundred pounds; and this money was no sooner in his possession, than a lady, most magnificently dressed, made some advances to him, on which he put the most favourible construction.
After some conversation she told him that her mother was a widow, who would not admit of his visits; but that possibly he might prevail on her attendant, whose husband was a reputable tradesman, to give them admission to his house.
Page, who had repeatedly heard the other address her by the title of 'My lady,' became very importunate with the good woman to grant this favour. At length all parties agreed; the servants were called; Page handed the lady and her attendant into a coach, on which was the coronet of a viscountess: two footmen with flambeaux got behind the carriage, and the
coachman was ordered to drive home; but, when the carriage came into Pall Mall, fresh orders were given to proceed towards Temple Bar.
The fine lady engaged Page's attention to such a degree, that be paid no regard whither they went. At length the carriage stopped in an obscure street, at a house which looked like a shop, and the parties went upstairs, but not before the lady had whispered one of the footmen (loud enough for Page to hear her) to acquaint her grace, in the morning, that she did not return lest she should disturb her, and therefore slept at Mrs. Price's.
The good woman of the house apologized for the meanness of her accommodations; but Page said that all apologies were needless; and the attendant retiring, he paid the most earnest addresses to the presumed lady, who at length, after a degree of affectation, that, if he had not been blinded by his own vanity, he might have readily perceived, she consented to sleep with him.
As it was late (or rather early) before they came from the masquerade, and much time had been lost in the courtship, it was four o'clock in the afternoon before they arose, and even night before a coach was called for their departure; though the lady pretended that her mother, the duchess, would be extremely uneasy on account of her absence.
With great difficulty Page prevailed on the lady to admit of his attendance on her part of the way home; during which he promised every thing that a lover could promise; and she answered him as he could have wished.
The coach stopping in Covent Garden, the lady went into a chair: and our hero offering to pay the chairman, he said that he was already paid, a circumstance that convinced Page of the disinterested disposition of this new acquaintance.
Repairing now to his lodgings, he reflected with pleasure on the happy prospects before him; but, feeling for his pocket-book, he discovered that it was lost, and with it the greatest part of his treasure.
He now began to suspect that the lady of fashion was an impostor; and when she failed to meet him on the following day, agreeably to an appointment that she had made, he saw that he had been robbed of five hundred pounds, without a probability of recovering it.
He now advertised a reward to the hackney-coach man who took them up, and made several other endeavours to find her out; but they all proved equally fruitless.
Thus stripped of his ill-acquired property, he came to a resolution to make the women pay for what a woman had stolen; and, taking the road to Bath, he robbed every carriage in which was a woman. If men were in the coach, he said he had no demands on them; but had a draft for five hundred pounds on the ladies.
Finding that the women were possessed of little cash, he began to make his demands on the gentlemen, of whom be soon collected about one hundred and fifty pounds, which he carried to the masquerade, and lost it all at the gaming-table; and was no sooner stripped of his money than he determined to engage in an intrigue.
Leaving the gaming-room, he danced with a lady, and then attended her to supper, during which he said some tender things, which he presumed might tend to promote an immediate assignation; but he soon found that the lady had no other view than that of marriage, which was far from being disagreeable to him as he was then situated.
An appointment being agreed on for the following day, he waited on the lady at her house, and found that she was a widow of considerable fortune, and well descended. As he had the art of procuring himself to be well spoken of to her, she entertained no doubt of his honour. He escorted her to public places; and the expense of these attendances was defrayed by his usual resource, the highway.
After one of his expeditions on the road he was followed to the inn where he put up his horse, and, being taken into custody, was tried at Maidstone, but acquitted because the party could not swear to his identity. This circumstance, however, put an end to his acquaintance with the lady above mentioned.
The road and the gaming-table were his only means of support, and he found a fitting companion in his proceedings in the person of an old schoolfellow named Darwell, in conjunction with whom, in the course of three years, he committed upwards of three hundred robberies. At length, however, their iniquitous proceedings caused an active search to be made for them; and Darwell, being apprehended, "peached" upon his companion, and disclosed the places where it was most likely that he would be found.
The consequence was that Page was apprehended at the Golden Lion, near Hyde Park, when three loaded pistols were found on him, with powder, balls, a wig to disguise himself, and the correct map of the roads round London which we have already mentioned.
He was sent to Newgate, and an advertisement was inserted in the papers requesting such persons as had been robbed to attend his re-examination; but he denied all that was alleged against him, and as he was always disguised when he committed any robbery no person present could identify his person.
He was tried at length on suspicion of robbing Mr Webb in Belfourd Lane, but acquitted for want of evidence; and after this he was tried at Hertford, but again acquitted for a like reason.
From Hertford he was removed to Maidstone jail, and being tried at Rochester, for robbing Captain Farrington on Blackheath, he was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death. He suffered at Maidstone on the 6th of April, 1758.