Hanging a Highwayman (Part 1)

In my last blog, I visited the gibbet of William Winter just outside Elsdon and left you with the promise that I was in Gateshead Central Library on the trail of another gibbet – namely that of the Gateshead Highwayman, Robert Hazlett. True to my word (for once) it is to this I will turn this week. This blog will be over three parts (all self-contained), the first will be about Hazlett’s crime, trial and execution and the second (next week) about finding his gibbet and the final one will detail my search for the long since vanished site of his gibbeting.

Hazlett was the first person to be gibbeted in the North East, following the 1752 Murder Act. Executed in 1770, his gibbeting was a full eighteen years after the introduction of the Act. Interestingly Hazlett was not convicted of murder, the crime for which the additional punishments or “further terror” of the Murder Act were intended, but Highway Robbery and perhaps, more crucially, the robbing of the mail.

Of the few crimes, other than murder, to suffer the full effect of the Murder Act, robbing the mail was one of them. “Pressure was mounted” by the Postmaster General to have those guilty of the crime Hung In Chains.[1] Indeed, as a response to the fear of rising incidences of robbing of the mail, it became a commonplace instruction, when sending “Notes and Draughts”, via post to “cut all such…in Half” and to send them at “two different Times, and to wait for the return of the Post, till the receipt of one Half is acknowledged before the other is sent’.”[2] Testament to the widespread nature of the problem, can be seen in the Reading Mercury 20th August, 1770. In the same issue that reports on Robert Hazlett’s case, the newspaper reported that a “mail cart of a new construction…so contrived as to prevent the mail being robbed…in future” had arrived at the General Post Office for the town.[3]

Whilst it was not unheard of for the robbing of the mail to be punished by the gibbet, it was still rare. What may’ve sealed Hazlett’s fate, it would appear, is that he had previously robbed the Judge who tried him! In their report of the trial, the Newcastle Courant includes the following note,

“What is remarkable, he (Hazlett) appears to be the person who attacked Judge Perrot (the presiding trial Judge) presented a pistol to his breast and robbed him of two half guineas as he was returning home in his carriage on Monday 25th June in the evening, to his country house in Stoke Newington.”[4]

An assertion corroborated by a ‘letter from Newcastle’ printed in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, “The Judge believes him to be the same person who robbed his Lordship near London, in June Last.”[5]If ever a man was to be made a spectacle of, it is surely one who has robbed the mail and the very Judge who tried him. In that sense Hazlett’s gibbeting is interesting, as – like William Winter’s before him and William Jobling’s after (of which more in a few weeks) his crime directly involved an attack, either literal or metaphorical on the Magistracy.

Hazlett’s crime took place on Gateshead Fell, a much-feared open marshland South of Gateshead, that was bisected by the main thoroughfare from Durham to Newcastle. Contemporary reports of criminal gangs roaming the area were rife and although the prevalence of crimes committed has been somewhat disputed, modern historians have shown that it was something of an “uncontrolled territory” and “one of the few wild places left in North Durham.”[6] Furthermore, it was a sparsely populated area as one story that appeared in Sykes’ Local Records attests to. In an entry for 1756 Sykes records the case of a woman robbed by soldiers on the Fell and thrown into an “old coal pit” where “she remained seven days before she was discovered,” surviving solely on rainwater caught in her shoe.[7]

On this desolate and fear stalked moorland, Hazlett struck twice in one evening. His first victim was a Miss Margaret Benson of Newcastle, who was travelling from Durham to Newcastle via post-chaise.[8] Hazlett was said to have put a pistol to her head and demanded, amongst other things, her purse and her watch.[9] A common perception of c18th highwaymen both currently (see Adam and the Ants above) and to contemporaries of the period was that they were thought of as ‘game.’ In her excellent work on this subject, Andrea McKenzie best illustrates the term.

One of the most familiar, and certainly the most colorful, of all early eighteenth-century figures is that of the ‘‘game’’ criminal—the bold and dashing highwayman or street robber who dressed like a beau, drank like a lord, and went without tears or trembling to the gallows, cheerfully playing the leading role in that most famous of Augustan performances, public execution at Tyburn

Andrea McKenzie, “Martyrs in Low Life? Dying ‘Game’ in Augustan England,” The Journal of British Studies 42, no. 02 (April 2003): 168.

Hazlett was certainly not this. Accounts appear to suggest that during his first robbery he was “trembling from head to foot.” This may well have been owing to the intransigent state he was in, being as he was, “without Boots or Great Coat.”[10] In fact, in certain reports, he appeared to receive short shrift from the elderly Ms Benson. She, having escaped relatively unscathed, proceeded on her way and came across the mailbag carrier, on horseback. Forewarning him of the Highwayman ahead was ultimately fruitless as, despite stopping at a toll-house to obtain a pistol (unsuccessfully), he came across Hazlett but mistook him for a “rustic making homewards after the labours of the fields”. Hazlett failed to disavow the postman of his assumptions, even when he said he wanted the postman’s bags, a request mistaken for an “excellent joke” – until Hazlett presented a pistol.[11] Following this second robbery a third attempt was made on another post-chaise, but as with Ms Benson, it proved largely fruitless and Hazlett escaped with his limited spoils, being later apprehended in nearby South Shields.

During his trial, Hazlett attempted to remove himself from the charge of robbing the mail by framing an apparent accomplice, “Hewit of London.” Following these claims, notice was sent to none other than Sir John Fielding (The Blind Beak of London), who swiftly apprehended the accused. However, Fielding returned word that “upon examination, it was found that he had not been from the Town at the time.”[12]

As with accounts of his robberies, Hazlett’s behavior at his execution did not adhere to the popular notion of a highwayman. Far from the ‘game’ figure, embodied by the “rakish highwayman hero” of Gay’s wildly popular c18th play, The Beggar’s Opera, Hazlett by all accounts was contrite and repentant in his final moments.[13] His final recorded behaviors appeared as far removed as possible from the ‘familiar’ highwayman figure that “drank like a Lord, and went without tears or trembling” to the gallows.[14] One report details how on exiting the gaol, on the morning of his execution, Hazlett “looked earnestly” at the cart that was to transport him to the gallows and opined,

this indeed is terrible! But as my life has been injurious, I hope that my death will be useful to mankind.[15]

If the intention of gibbeting had been a lesson in which to impress a further terror on the condemned, then Hazlett had been a model student.

Hazlett’s execution is the subject of a particularly full record in contemporary local historian, John Sykes’ local records. Although, interestingly, certain additional details appear in the 1833 edition that are not in the earlier 1824 work.[16] In the latter, Sykes details how, rather than the customary one hour, Hazlett’s body following the execution was reportedly left to hang for “about two hours and a half.”[17] It goes on to detail that he was then cut down and conveyed in a cart to a gibbet “25 feet high”, erected about “three miles from Newcastle on the east side of the road, leading over Gateshead Fell to Durham, near the place where the robberies were committed.”[18]

It is in search of this gibbet that the blog will venture next week.


[1] Tarlow and Dyndor, “The Landscape of the Gibbet,” 73.

[2] James Elmes, A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs: Containing Descriptive and Critical Accounts of All the Public and Private Buildings, Offices, Docks, Squares, Streets, Lanes, Wards, Liberties, Charitable, Scholastic and Other Establishments, with Lists of Their Officers, Patrons, Incumbents of Livings, &c. &c. &c. in the British Metropolis (Whittaker, Treacher and Arnot, 1831), 203.

[3] Reading Mercury Monday 20th August 1770. p.1

[4] Newcastle Courant – Saturday 18 August 1770 p.2

[5] Jackson’s Oxford Journal August 25th 1770 p.1

[6] Morgan and Rushton, Rogues, Thieves And the Rule of Law, 2005, 93.

[7] Sykes, Local Records; Or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events, Which Have Occurred Exclusively in the Counties of Durham and Northumberland, Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Berwick upon Tweed, 215.

[8] Lubin Level, Stanzas on the Intended New Line of Road, from Potticar Lane to Leyburn Hole: With an Account of the Memorable Events Which Have Occurred on Gateshead Fell ; and Additional Notes by the Publisher (J. Sykes, 1825), 5–6.

[9] “Hazlitt the Highwayman.,” Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend 2, no. 13 (March 1888): 114.

[10] Oxford Journal 18th August 1770 p.1.

[11] “Hazlitt the Highwayman.,” 115.

[12] Oxford Journal 25th August 1770 p.1

[13] McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs, 94.

[14] “Martyrs in Low Life Dying ‘Game’ in Augustan England.pdf,” n.d., 167.

[15] John Sykes, Local Records; Or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events: Which Have Occurred in Northumberland and Durham, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Berwick upon Tweed, from the Earliest Period of Authentic Record, to the Present Time; with Biographical Notices of Deceased Persons of Talent, Eccentricity, and Longevity (J. Sykes, 1833), 276.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

Distraction 1: The Only Living Boy in New York

I recently caught a documentary on Paul Simon (v.run of the mill, so won’t recommend it) but it reminded me of how much I loved him. I was lucky enough to catch him on his 25th-anniversary tour of Graceland – phenomenal. Anyway, there are too many greats to choose from, but I’ve plumped for this. Being in full researcher mode, I’ve just been reading up on the lyrics and it was a song written about Art Garfunkel, as he was leaving to take part in the film Catch 22 in Mexico. The “Tom” of the opening line is a reference to the pairs original incarnation as Tom and Jerry. It’s a beautiful song about isolation – a topic I’m sure Hazlett himself could relate to!

Distraction 2: BBC Documentaries

On the subject of documentaries, the BBC have put out a glut of great ones recently (albeit some are second showings). In particular, I enjoyed, these two.

The London Markets: 

This three-part series on the fruit and veg, meat and fish markets at Spitalfields were so engaging. Like all the best documentaries, they’d found fascinating characters and told a remarkable tale of a national institution under threat from the ever changing world. One of the biggest ironies, were that the older barrow boys and market holders felt threatened by the increasingly diverse ethnic mix, but at the same time knew that they relied on immigration as white westerners were seldom shopping outside of supermarkets anymore. The series gained remarkable access to a world that felt largely unchanged in its centuries-long history.

The Docklands Bomb: Executing Peace

The other documentary I caught was about the run up to the Docklands Bomb planted by the IRA in 1996. I have a vague memory of the event at the time, but being only 11, I think it wasn’t really until September 11th that I first truly registered the social and political magnitude of such an act. Again, the documentarians had gained great access to key negotiators and it gave a great insight into often diametrically opposed press conferences and the true reality of what was going on behind the scenes. In one great moment, it showed a pivotal visit by Bill Clinton to meet Gerry Adams, lauded as a defining moment in the peace process and at the same time explained how after the meeting Adams had told the American delegation that the peace was about to break and he could not guarantee that he could stop it.

In a classically serendipitous moment, I finally met up with a really interesting Artist, Narbi Price, who had approached me after my talk on Social Memory to see if we might work together. He is very interested in the “perceived histories of locations and how painting can question the understanding of architectural and pictorial space” and has done lots of work around, amongst other things, the sites of famous murders – sound familiar! During our talk, I mentioned this documentary and he took me to his studio and showed me his upcoming project; a collection of works on the 1996 Docklands Bomb!



6 thoughts on “Hanging a Highwayman (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Hanging a Highwayman (Part 2). | lastdyingwords

  2. Pingback: Hanging a Highwayman (Part 3). | lastdyingwords

  3. Pingback: Jihadis, Jarrow and Justice Being Done | lastdyingwords

  4. Pingback: France, Foucault, Florists & Forgotten Punishments | lastdyingwords

  5. Pingback: Cornwall and Capital Punishment: Hanging around on holiday. – lastdyingwords

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