The Life of HUGH HOUGHTON, alias AWTON, alias NORTON
who robbed the Bristol Mail
This unfortunate person was the son of honest and reputable people of Lancaster, who took care to give him a very good education, sufficient to have fitted him for any trade whatever. Afterwards they bound him out apprentice to a wine-cooper, to whom he served out his time very carefully and honestly, and appeared in his temper and disposition to be a civil, good-natured young man. For some time after his coming out of his time, he followed his trade of a wine-cooper, but being pressed on board a man-of-war, during the French War in the late Queen's time, he behaved himself so well on board that he acquired the goodwill of all his officers, attained to the degree of a midshipman, and was afterwards gunner's mate, receiving also a title to five pound "per annum", out of the Pension Chest at Chatham.
After this he came to London, married a wife and was a housekeeper in town; and for his better support got himself into the Horse Guards, where he served with reputation, until some small time before his death, when some clothes of value being taken away, and he being strongly suspected on that score was dismissed the service, whereby he fell into great difficulties for want of money.
It seems that for many months before his death he had frequented the house of one Mr. Marlow, and was indebted to him for a considerable sum of money, but one day he came and discharged it, having for that purpose changed a twenty pound bank-note at a brewer's not far distant. But the Bristol mail happening about that time to be robbed, and the bank-note, after various circulations, being discovered to be one of those taken out of it, Houghton was thereupon seized and committed, being at the next sessions brought to his trial at the Old Bailey for the fact, when the course of the evidence appeared against him as follows. He was arraigned on an indictment for dealing from Stephen Crouches, on the King's highway, after putting him in fear, a sorrel gelding value five pounds, the property of Thomas Ostwich, a mail value four pounds, and fifty leather bags, value five pounds, the property of our Sovereign Lord the King, on the first of March, 1730.
Stephen Crouches deposed that on the day laid in the indictment, he was going with the Bristol and Gloucester mail, being near Knightsbridge, a man of the prisoner's size, who spoke like him, came out of the gateway and bid him stand; that he laid the horse to the farther side of a field, commanded him to show him the Bristol bag, which he took and went off with the horse, leaving this evidence bound with his hands behind him, threatening to murder him in case he made the least noise.
Daniel Burton deposed that the prisoner Houghton had more than once proposed to him the robbing of the Bristol mail, and upon his refusing to be concerned in it, would then have had him rob their landlady, Mrs. Marlow, which when her husband came to know, he turned him out of doors.
The next witness that was called was Mr. Marlow, who deposed that on the 2nd of March, the prisoner Houghton paid him five pounds which was owing to him, having changed for that purpose a bank-note of twenty pounds at Mr. Broadhead's the brewer. Then the note itself was produced, which had been paid by Mr. Broadhead to Mr. King, a factor, and by him to Mr. Dictorine's man, in Thames Street, and by him again to the servant of Messrs. Knight and Jackson, by whom it was brought into Court, an endorsement being upon it not to be paid till the fifth of May. But Mr. Marlow being asked as to his being acquainted by Burton with the prisoner's attempts to persuade him to robbing the Bristol mail, and afterwards robbing his house, Mr. Marlow answered that he did not remember he had ever been told such a thing, but that he did indeed know the prisoner together with one Masa, was for scandalous practices turned out of the Guards.
William Burligh deposed that he took out of the prisoner's pocket a pocket-book in which was several notes, which pocket-book the prisoner said he took up in Covent Garden. Mr. Langley, the Turnkey of Newgate, deposed that after he was committed to his custody, he searched his pocket and found therein three bank-notes of Mr. Hoare, which he gave to Mr. Archer. Mr. Archer deposed that he did receive such notes, which were so taken as had been before sworn by Mr. Langley.
There were some other persons produced who swore to some slips of leather which were found in Houghton's lodgings, and which were believed to be cut out of the bag which were taken from the Bristol Mail. The prisoner in his defence said he believed there was a trap laid for him and exclaimed against Burton. Two women positively deposed that Houghton all that night was not out of his lodgings. But the jury notwithstanding that, gave so much credit to the evidence offered for the King, that they found him guilty.
Under sentence of death, he said that he had hitherto lived free from most of those enormous vices into which criminals are usually plunged, who came to his unhappy fate. He said that through the course of his life he had always been a good husband, a loving parent, and had provided carefully for his family; that he had served the Government twelve years by land, and twelve years by sea, and in all that time never had any reflection upon him until the unhappy accident in the Guards, which he said he was not guilty of, and had been since confessed by another man.
As to the fact for which he was to die, he said that the same day the mail was robbed (which was on a Sunday morning) at six or seven o'clock he found a bundle of papers which he took up, and perceived them to be a parcel taken out of the Bristol mail, and therefore having perused them carefully, and taken out of them such as he judged proper, he being at that time out of business and in great want, put up the rest of them in a sheet of paper, directed to the Post Master General, and laid them down in the box-house at Lincoln's Inn Fields, being afraid to go with them to the office, because a great reward was offered for the robber. And that he, having changed a twenty-pound bank-note, paid five pounds of it away to his landlord, Mr. Marlow. He reflected also very severely on the evidence given against him by Mr. Burton, which he said was the very reverse of the truth. Burton having often solicited him to go upon the highway as the shortest method of easing his misfortunes and bringing them both money.
As he persisted in averring the confession he made to be the truth, it was objected to him that it was a story, the most improbable in the world, that when a man had hazarded his life to rob the Bristol mail, he should then throw away all the booty, and leave it in such a place as Covent Garden, for any stranger to take up as he came by; yet neither this nor anything else that could be said to him had so much weight as to move him to a free confession of his guilt, but on the contrary, he gave greater and more evident signs of a sullen, morose and reserved disposition, spoke little, desired not to be interrupted, made general confessions of his sins, pleased himself with high conceits of the Divine Mercy, and endeavoured as much as possible to avoid conferences with anybody, and especially declined speaking of that offence for which he was to die.
When he first came to Newgate, the keepers had, it seems, a strong apprehension that he would attempt something against his own life, and upon this suspicion they were very careful of him, and enjoined a barber who shaved him in prison to be so, lest he should take that occasion to cut his throat. Yet nothing of this happened until the day of his execution, when the keepers coming to him in the morning, found him praying very devoutly in his cell; but about twenty minutes after, going thither again, they perceived he had fastened his sword belt which he wore always about him to the grate of the window which looked out of his cell, to the end of which he tied his handkerchief, and having then adjusted that about his neck, he strangled himself with it, and was dead when the keepers opened the doors to look in.
The Ordinary makes this remark upon his exit, that it is to be feared he was a hypocrite and that little of what he said can be believed. For my part, I am far from taking upon me either to enter into the breasts of men or pretend to set bounds to the mercy of God, and therefore without any further remarks, shall conclude his life with informing my readers that at the time he put an end to his own being, he was about forty-eight years of age, and a man in his person and behaviour very unlikely to have been such a one as it is to be feared (notwithstanding all his denials) he really was.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals