WILLIAM SHELTON was born of respectable parents near Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, and received a liberal education in the learned languages. At a proper age he was apprenticed to an apothecary at Enfield; but his master applied to his father to take him back at the end of two years, as his conduct was so irregular that he did not choose any further connection with him.
In consequence hereof he was placed with an apothecary at Stoke Newington; and, though he still kept gay company, he served six years with a fair character.
About this time he became violently enamoured of his mistress's sister, who was by no means insensible to his addresses. She lived in the family; but no person suspected their intimacy, till the mistress accidentally heard her sister freely represent to Shelton the disagreeable consequence that must arise from keeping bad company and late hours.
Shelton's master and his wife both disapproved of the intended match, on account of his keeping too much gay company; and his own parents objected to it from the same reason, wishing him to acquire greater steadiness of mind before he married.
When his seven years were complete, he took leave of the young lady with professions of lasting love; and his father having supplied him with money, he engaged in business, and was for some time greatly successful; but his immoderate attachment to pleasure lost him much of his business and many of his friends.
He had not been long in trade before he became enamoured of a young lady, daughter of a widow in his neighbourhood; and having made an acquaintance with her, unknown to her mother, he conveyed her out of a back window of the house, and married her at the Fleet. So soon had he forgot his vows to the former lady!
The father of the bride having been a citizen of London, her fortune had been deposited in the hands of the chamberlain, who readily paid it to the husband.
Shelton was still in considerable business; but his attachment to company was such that his expenses exceeded his income; so that he grew daily poorer; and his father dying about this time, left all his fortune to his widow, for her life; so that Shelton had nothing to expect till after the death of his mother.
He now made acquaintance with some people of abandoned character, and took to a habit of gaming, by which his circumstances became still more embarrassed, and he was obliged to decline business after he had followed it only two years.
Thus distressed, he entered as surgeon on board a ship bound to Antigua, and was received with such singular tokens of respect by the inhabitants of the island, that he resolved to settle there as a surgeon, and write to England for his wife to come over to him; but an unfortunate circumstance prevented the carrying of this scheme into execution.
In the island of Antigua it is customary to exercise the militia weekly, when the officers on duty treat their brethren in rotation, and invite what company they please. Mr. Shelton being invited by Colonel Ker, the latter gave a generous treat, and urged his friends to drink freely. On the approach of night, some of them would have gone home; but the colonel prevailed on them to stay till the next day, hinting that it might be dangerous to meet some negroes who had quitted the plantation.
Shelton agreed, among, others, to stay: but he had not been long in bed, when the liquor he had drank occasioned the most excruciating pain in his bowels. The next morning he took some medicines to abate the pain, and the end was answered for the present; but he determined to embark for England, as he thought he felt the symptoms of an approaching consumption.
Hereupon he sailed for his native country, and arrived to the surprise of his friends, who had been taught to expect that he would continue in Antigua. They, however, advised him to settle at Buntingford, in Hertfordshire, where there was a vacancy occasioned by the death or an apothecary. Shelton, having inquired into the affair, and finding no prospect worth his notice, his wife's mother persuaded him to take a house at Brassin, a village near Buntingford, intimating that she would live with him, and be at the expense of housekeeping. This proposal was accepted; but when the leases were drawn, the old lady refused to execute them, so that Shelton was obliged to abandon his agreeable prospect, in a way that appeared not very reputable to himself.
Distressed in mind, and not knowing how to support himself, he determined to commence highwayman; and having hired a horse, and furnished himself with pistols, he rode to Finchley Common; but after looking out some hours, and meeting with no booty there, he returned towards London, in his way to which he took about thirty shillings from four ladies, whom he stopped in a coach; and he obtained three shillings and sixpence from a gentleman he met on the road.
He now put on a mask; and, thus disguised, robbed the passengers in three stage-coaches on Epping Forest of their watches and money: Some persons on horseback immediately pursued him, and were very near him at Waltham Abbey, but taking a different road, he went round by Cheshunt, and escaped to London, where he, the next day, heard that his pursuers had galloped after him to Enfield.
The watches he sold to a Jew, and having spent the money, he rode out to Hounslow Heath, where he demanded a gentleman's money, and, after some hesitation on the part of the latter, robbed him of thirty-two guineas and some silver. This done, he crossed the Thames to Richmond, where he dined, and afterwards stopped two ladies, in a coach, on Putney Common, but got no booty from them, as they had just before been robbed by another highwayman.
On the same evening he robbed a Quaker of nine pounds; and, early on the following morning, he stopped the Northampton stage, and robbed the passengers of twenty-seven pounds. The reason for these rapid robberies was, that he had a debt to discharge which he had contracted at the gaming table, which being done, he appeared among his former companions as before.
Soon after this he rode towards Chiswick, in the hope of meeting a colonel in the army but as the gentleman knew him, he was apprehensive, of being recollected by his voice, though he wore a mask. The colonel seeing a man masked coming forward, produced a pistol, and on the other coming up, fired at him, and grazed the skin of his horse's shoulder. Shelton now fired, and wounded the colonel's horse, on which the colonel discharged his other pistol, but without effect. Hereupon the highwayman demanded his money, which having received, to the amount of about 50l., he took a circuit round the country, and came into London at night.
On the week following this robbery, he obtained a booty of ten guineas, some silver, and two gold watches, on Finchley Common; but, being pursued by some gentlemen on horseback, he concealed himself on Enfield Chace, and having eluded his pursuers, he rode to London, but in his way robbed a gentleman and lady of between thirty and forty shillings, on Muswell Hill.
On the following evening he took a ride, but did not rob any person; but; on his return through Islington, he heard somebody cry out, "Stop the highwayman!" On which he rode hastily up a lane, where his horse had nearly stuck fast in a slough; but, getting through it, he stopped in a field, and saw his pursuers waiting in expectation of him. He, therefore, made a circle, and got down Goswell-street, to the end of Old-street, where he again heard the cry of, "A highwayman!" on which he rode to Dog-House-Bar, and escaped by the way of Moorfields.
Soon after this he rode to Enfield Chace, and putting on a mask, robbed one of the northern stages, while the driver was watering his horses at a pond. Some men who were playing at skittles seeing this robbery, surrounded his horse; but, on his firing a pistol, they ran away, and he pursued his journey to London.
Having one day committed a robbery on the Hertford road, he was returning to town, when he overtook two farmers, who had been drinking at an alehouse till they were valiant, and were wishing to meet Mr. Shelton, whom they would certainly take: and they wondered how people could permit him to proceed unmolested. On which Shelton presented his pistol, and they delivered their money, with every sign of fear; the money was but trifling, which he returned, laughing at them for their assumed courage
His next robbery was on Finchley common, where he took several watches, and sixteen pounds, from the company in the Northampton stage; and the name of Shelton was now become so eminent, that many other robbers courted his acquaintance; among whom were two men who had formed a design of robbing the turnpike-man on Stamford Hill, but had not resolution to carry their plan into execution.
This design was no sooner mentioned to Shelton, than he agreed to be concerned: whereupon they went on foot from London at ten o'clock at night; but before they reached the spot, Shelton's companions relented, and would go no farther; on which they came to town, in their way to which they robbed a gentleman of a few shillings; but Shelton determined to have no farther connection with these people.
His next robbery was on two gentlemen in a chaise, both of them armed with pistols, in the road from Hounslow, from whom he took 16l. and soon after this, being destitute of cash, and determined to make a bold attempt, he robbed several coaches one evening, and acquired booty of 90l. exclusive of rings and watches.
In consequence of these repeated robberies, a proclamation was issued for taking Shelton into custody, wherein was given a minute description of his person; on which he concealed himself some time in Herefordshire; but he had not long been there, before a person who recollected him informed a neighbouring magistrate, on which he was taken into custody, and conveyed to London.
He was tried at the next sessions at the Old Bailey, for several robberies in Middlesex, and being convicted, he was sentenced to die.
While in prison he affected great gaiety of disposition, and was fond of entertaining his visitors with the history of his exploits. At times indeed, he would be more serious; but he soon recurred to his former volatility.
On the arrival of the warrant for his execution, he seemed greatly agitated, and it was remarked that he shed some tears; but having recourse to the bottle, he dissipated those ideas that had given him uneasiness. At the place of execution he refused to perform the customary devotions.