Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: John Dyer

The Life of JOHN DYER

a most notorious thief, highwayman and housebreaker

My readers cannot but remember the mention often made of this criminal, in the former volumes. He was, at the time of his death, one of the oldest offenders in England, and as he was at some pains to digest his own story that is, the series of his villainies into writing, so what we take from thence, will at once be authentic and entertaining to our readers.

He was born of honest and mean parents at Salisbury, who took care, however, to bestow on him a very tolerable education, and when he grew up, put him out apprentice to a shoemaker, where he soon made a beginning in those pernicious practices to which he so assiduously afterwards addicted himself. The first thing he did, was robbing a chandler's chop at Collinburn, in the county of Wilts, of the money box, in which was thirty shillings, and got clear off. Some time after, his master sending him on a Sunday to a village just by, to get twelve pennyworth of halfpence at a chandler's shop, Dyer finding nobody at home, cut the bar of the window, got in thereat, and rifled the house. The booty he found did not amount to above three half-crowns, but he added to that the taking away what currants and raisins there were in the shop, which piece of covetousness had well-nigh cost him his life, for being suspected and charged with the fact, he had only time to hide the money. Having searched him in vain, they turned some of the plums out of his coat pocket, but he readily averring that he bought them at Andover Market, there being nobody who could falsify it, he escaped for that time.

His matter shortly after sending him with five pounds to buy leather, Dyer picking up a companion, as wicked as himself, he persuaded him to join in a story of his being robbed of the aforesaid sum of money, which, upon his return, he told his master, and the boy vouching it firmly, they were believed. Some small space from this, being sent amongst his master's customers to receive some money, he picked up about three pounds, and then went off immediately for Salisbury, where he became acquainted with an idle young woman; which bringing him once more into necessity, he went one day into the market to see what he might be able to lay hands on. There he observed a young woman to receive money, and watching her out of town, he took an opportunity to knock her down, robbing her, and dragging her into a wood, where he lay with her, and then bound her fast to a tree.

From thence he went to a village in Hampshire, where he wrought journey-work at his trade; and getting acquainted with a young woman, he lodged at her mother's house, where he soon got the daughter with child, and persuaded her to rob the old woman, and go with him to Bristol. There they lived together profusely until all the money was spent, and then she and her child went back to her mother, who received them very gladly. Dyer did not think fit to return, but went to make his mother a visit at Salisbury, where he continued not long before he took an opportunity of robbing her of fifty pounds, and thence marched off to Bristol, where he gamed most of the money away. Then he retired to a town in Wiltshire, where cohabiting with a widow women, they found means to get so good credit as to take the town in (as Mr. Dyer expressed it) for thirty pounds. Then packing up they marched off to a place at a considerable distance, where Dyer entered into partnership with a collier, being to advance fifty pounds, thirty of which he paid down and the rest was to pay monthly; but before the first payment became due the collier broke, and his partner, Dyer, thereupon thought it convenient to remove to some other place.

He pitched, therefore, upon the city of Hereford, where he worked honestly for a space, until being in company one night with a higgler, he heard the man say he should go to a place called Ross to buy fowls. Dyer answered that he did not care if he went with him, and in their journey, taking the advantage of a proper place he stopped his companion and robbed him. The man gave him two shillings out of his pocket, but Dyer suspecting he must have some more money to buy fowls with, searched the hampers and took out twelve pounds. Taking the man's horse also, he rode it forty miles outright, after which he went to Marlborough in Wiltshire, and stayed there a fortnight. But venturing to steal a silver mug, he was for that fact apprehended and committed close prisoner there, in order to be tried for it next assizes, but before that time, he found a weak place in the prison, and breaking it made his escape.

From thence he went to an aunt's house, about seven or eight miles from Salisbury, where he stayed until her husband grew so uneasy that he was obliged to take his leave. He travelled then to a sister of his, and meeting there with an old schoolfellow and relation, he quickly persuaded the lad to become as bad as himself, drawing him in to rob his mother of fifty shillings, with which small stock they two were set up for their old trade of gaming. But the robbery they had committed was quickly detected. However, Dyer so well tutored his associate that the boy could neither by threats nor promises be brought to own it, yet their denials had not the least weight with their relations. They were thoroughly convinced of their being guilty, and therefore were determined that they should be punished, for which purpose they carried them before a neighbouring Justice of Peace, who committed them to Bridewell to hard labour.

As Dyer could not endure imprisonment, especially when hard labour was added to it, so he very speedily contrived a method to free himself and his companion from their fetters, which was by leaping down the house of office,[1] which a few days afterwards they did and got clear off.

These various difficulties and narrow escapes seemed to make no other impression upon Dyer than to give him a greater liking than ever to such sort of villainous enterprises. He stole as many horses out of New Forest as came to three-score pounds, and afterwards setting up for a highwayman, committed a multitude of facts in that neighbourhood, which he has with great care related in the account he published of his life. Amongst the rest he stripped a poor maid-servant, who was just come out of a place, of all the money she had, viz., a gold ring, and a box of clothes, and so left her without either necessaries or money. At Winchester he disposed of the clothes and linen which he took from the poor woman. At an alehouse in High Street he fell into company with a lace-man, from whom he learned, by some little conversation, that he was going to Amesbury Fair in Wiltshire. Dyer told him he was going thither too, and so along they journeyed together. When they arrived there, they put up their horses at the sign of the Chopping Knife, and while the lace-man went out to take a stand to sell his goods in, Dyer demanded the box of lace of the landlord, as if he had been the man's partner; then calling for his horse, while the landlord's back was turned, he rode clear off from them all.

On the Plain, going towards Devizes, he overtook a Scotch pedlar. Dyer it seems knew him, and called him by his name, asking him if he had any good handkerchiefs, upon which the poor man let down the pack off his back and showed him several. Dyer told him, after looking over the goods, that he did not want to buy anything, but must have what he pleased for nothing. The Scotchman, upon that, put himself in a posture of defence, but Dyer drawing his pistols on him soon obliged him to yield, and tied him with some of his own cloth fast to the post of a wall. He then went and rifled the pack, taking thence nine pounds odd in money, a great parcel of hair, which he sold afterwards for eight pounds, six dozen handkerchiefs, and a quantity of muslin. Then he released the pedlar again, and bid him go and take care of the rest of his pack, Mr. Dyer being then in some hurry to look out for another booty.

A very small time after our plunderer met with an old shepherd, who had sold a good parcel of sheep. Dyer attacked him with his hanger and the old man, though he had nothing but his stick, made a very good defence. However, at last he was overcome and lost seventy-two pounds which he had taken at the market. Dyer being by this time full of money, he thought fit to go to Dorchester in Wilts, where by the usual course of his extravagances, he lessened it in a very short time; and then persuading a poor butcher of the town, who had broke, to become his companion, he soon taught him from being unfortunate to become wicked. They agreed very well together (as Mr. Dyer says) until he caught his new partner endeavouring to cheat him as well as he had taught him to rob other people. But after some hard words the butcher confessed the fact, and and promised to be honest to him for the future; which being all that Dyer wanted, a new agreement was made, and they went to work again in their old occupation.

The first exploit they went upon afterwards was at Woodbury Hill Fair, in Dorsetshire, where as soon as the fair was over, Mr. Dyer, in his merry style, tells us their fair began, for observing a cheeseman who received about fourscore pounds, they watched him so narrowly that about a mile from the fair they attacked him and bid him deliver. With a heavy heart the old man suffered himself to be rifled, though he had paid away a far greater part of the money, and had not above twelve pounds about him, yet he sighed as if he would have broken his heart at the loss, while Dyer and his companion were as much out of humour at the disappointment and gave him several smart lashes with their whips, telling him that he should never pay money when gentlemen waited to receive it.

A small time after this robbery they committed another upon a hop-merchant, who was riding with his wife. They searched him very carefully for money, but could find none, until Dyer beginning to curse and swear and threatening to kill him, his wife cried out, "For Heaven's sake, do not murder my husband and I'll tell you where his money is." Accordingly, she declared it was in his boots, upon which Dyer cut them off his legs and found fifty guineas therein, then taking their leave of the merchant and his wife, Dyer very gratefully thanked her for her good office. From thence they went down to Sherbourne, and each of them having got a mistress, they lived there very merrily for a considerable space, living in full enjoyment of those gross sensualities in which they alone reaped satisfaction at the expense of such honest people as they had before plundered.

Here they had intelligence of a certain grazier who was going down into the country to buy lean beasts, upon which they followed him and robbed him of all the money he had, which was about fourscore-and-ten pounds. So large a sum proved only a fund for extravagance, a use to which these men put all the money they laid their hands on. Hampshire being so lucky a place, Dyer and his comrade went next to Ringwood, where the butcher fell sick, and lay for some time, until their money was almost consumed. But then growing well again, Dyer took him down to Bath, where they robbed the stage-coaches from Bath to London, and as they returned from London to Bath again, until the road became so dangerous that they hired persons to guard them for the future; and notwithstanding they so often practised this villainy, they never were in danger but once, when a gentleman fired a blunderbuss at them but missed them both, whereupon they robbed the coach, and afterwards whipped him severely with their horse whips.

Their next expedition was to Hungerford, where they stayed about two months, in which time Dyer made a match for the butcher with a widow woman of his own trade; but just as they were going to be married, somebody discovered both his and the butcher's occupation, and thereupon obliged them to quit Hungerford, and to take their road to Newbury, with more precipitation than they were wont to do. In the road to Reading they robbed a tallow-chandler, and then galloped to Reading, where they had like to have been taken by the information of the Bath coachman; but they being pretty well mounted and riding hard night and day got safe down to Exeter in Devonshire, where, as the securest method, they agreed to part by consent. The butcher went back to Devonshire again, and Dyer must needs go to visit his friends at Salisbury, and then after a short stay with them set out for London.

The fear he was under of being discovered if he came into the direct road made him take a roundabout way in his journey, and thereby put it in his power to rob four Oxford scholars; from two of them he took their watches and their money, but though he searched the other two very diligently could find nothing, upon which he rode away with the booty he had taken. But the two whom he had robbed quickly called him back again, and told him their companions had money, if he had but wit enough to find it. Whereupon Dyer began to examine the first very strictly, and found his money put under his buttons, and his watch thrust into his breeches. On search of the second, he discovered his money put up in the cape of his coat, but his watch he had hustled to one of his companions, who held it out, which as soon as Dyer saw he took it away. It is surprising that men should be possessed with so odd a spirit that because they have lost all themselves, they must needs have others plundered into the bargain. However, Dyer thought it a good job, and with the help of this money he came up to London.

When he arrived here, he worked honestly for some time at his trade, with a very noted shoemaker upon Ludgate Hill. Soon after, he removed to a lodging in Leather Lane, and worked there for twelve months. At last he got into the company of a common woman of the town, and she very quickly brought him into his old condition, for being much in debt and often arrested, Dyer, who was at present very fond of her, was obliged to bail her or get her bailed. Hearing that he had a legacy of ten pounds a year in an Exchequer Annuity, she would never let him alone until he had disposed of it, which at last he did, for about fourscore pounds. The first thing that was done after the receipt of the sum of money was to clothe madam in Monmouth Street, in an handsome suit of blue flowered satin, with everything agreeable thereto. On their return home the man of the house where they lodged flew into a great passion, said he'd never suffer her to wear such fine clothes unless he was paid what was due to him. Mr. Dyer in his memoirs gives us this story, dressed out with abundance of oaths and such like decoration, which we will venture to leave out, and relate the adventure, as it gives a very good idea of such sort of houses, otherwise in his own language.

The bawd, while her husband was swearing, took Mr. Dyer upstairs, and there with a wheedling tone asked him if Moll should not bring them a quartern of brandy to drink his and his spouse's health, but before Dyer could give her an answer, she issued a positive command herself, whereupon up comes Moll and the quartern. The mistress poured out half of it into one glass which she drank off to the health of Mr. and Mrs. Dyer, adding with great complaisance. "Well, indeed your Alice is a fine woman when she's dressed. I love to see a handsome woman with all my heart. Come, Moll, fill t'other quartern, and bid Mrs. Dyer come to her spouse; and d'ye hear, tell my husband that Mrs. Dyer desires to drink a glass of brandy with him."

On this message up comes the husband, and clapping down by him took him by the hand, with an abundance of seeming courtesy, said, "Pray, Mr. Dyer, don't let you and I fall out. I may, in my passion, have let fall some provoking words to your wife, but I can't help it, 'tis my way, and I really want money so that it almost makes me mad. I'll tell you what; your spouse, Mr. Dyer, owes me almost nine pounds, now if you'll give me five guineas, I'll give you a receipt in full." Upon which our cully of a robber, thinking to save so much money, paid it him down, and madam seemed to be highly pleased.

As soon as this was over and the receipt given, his lady said to Dyer, "Come my dear, we'll go and take a walk and see Mrs. Sheldon." Thither they went. No sooner were they in the house, but after the first compliments were passed, Mrs. Sheldon said, "We were just talking of you when you came in, Mr. Dyer, and of that small matter your spouse owes us." Says Dyer, "How much is it?" But two-and-forty shillings, says Mrs. Sheldon. Upon which the fool took the money out of his pocket and paid it. A little while after this, Dyer's mistress thought fit to quarrel with one of her female acquaintances whom she had made her confidante, by which means the story came out that she was not a penny in debt either to her landlord or Mrs. Sheldon, but that she wanted money and was resolved to make hay while the sun shone.

One would have thought that a fellow so versed in villainy, and so given up to all sorts of debauchery, would have immediately discarded a woman who showed him such tricks, but on the contrary he grew fonder of her, removed her to another lodging, and lavished all he had on her. But as a new misfortune, one morning early a man knocked at the door, which he taking to be one of her gallants, went in his shirt to the window. The man enquired whether one Mrs. Davis was there, upon which Dyer's mistress in a great agony, said. "O, la, John, it's my husband come from sea, what shall I do?" Upon this, Dyer hustled on his clothes and went downstairs to another harlot, and by there until his first lady and her husband came downstairs.

However, it was not long before the seaman had an account of Dyer's familiarity with his wife, and thereupon thinking to get money out of him brought his action against him; but Dyer got himself bailed, and soon after arrested him for meat, drink and lodging for his wife for several months, for which he lay in the Compter for a considerable time, and at last was obliged to give Dyer ten pounds to make it up.

At last, when money ran low, Dyer's love on a sudden went all out. He dismissed his mistress and not finding another quickly to his mind, took up a sudden resolution to marry and live honest. It was not long before he prevailed on an honest woman, and accordingly they were joined together in wedlock. Dyer thereupon provided himself with a cobbler's stall in Leather Lane, worked hard and lived well. But as his inclinations were always dishonest, he could not long confine himself to honesty and labour, but in a short space meeting with a young man in the neighbourhood, who was very uneasy in his circumstances, and on ill terms with ms friends, and very much disordered in his mind on account of the misfortunes under which he laboured, Dyer began immediately to cast eyes upon him as one who would make him a fit companion.

It seems the other had exactly the same thoughts, and one day as they were walking together in the fields, says the stranger to him, "I'll tell you what; if you knew how affairs stand with me, you would advise me. I must either go upon the highway, or into gaol. That's a hard choice", replied Dyer; "but did you ever do anything of that kind? No", said the other, "indeed, not hitherto. Well, then", says his tutor again, "have you any pistols? No", replied he, "but I intend to pawn my watch and buy some." The bargain was soon made between them. One night they robbed a man by the Old Spa,[2] the same night they robbed another by Sadler's Wells. Two or three days after, they robbed a chariot, and took from persons in it thirty pounds. The young practitioner in thieving thought this a rare quick way of getting money and therefore followed it very industriously in the company of his assistant. In Lincoln's Inn Fields they were hard put to it, for after they had committed a robbery, abundance of watchmen gathered about them, whom they suffered to advance very near them, but then firing two or three pistols over their heads they all ran, and suffered the robbers to go which way they would. A multitude of other facts they committed, until Dyer got into that gang who robbed on Blackheath, of whom we have given some account.

It is observable that Dyer, in his own narrative, gives not the least account of his turning evidence and hanging a great number of his associates, many of whom, as has been said in the former volume, charged him with having first drawn them into the commission of crimes and then betrayed them. It seems this was among the circumstances of his life which did not afford him any mirth, a thing to which throughout the course of his memoirs he is egregiously addicted. However it was, I must inform my reader that he remained for near seven years a prisoner in Newgate after his being an evidence, until at last he found means to get discharged at the same time with one Abraham Dumbleton, who was his companion in his future exploits, and suffered with him at the same time. When they were at the bar, in order to their being discharged out of Newgate, the Recorder, with his usual humanity, represented to them the danger there was of their coming to a bad end, in case they should be set at liberty and get again into the company of their old comrades who might seduce them to their former practices, and thereby become the means of their suffering a violent and ignominious death; advising them at the same time rather to submit to a voluntary transportation, whereby they would gain a passage into a new country, inhabited by Englishmen, where they might live honestly without dread of those reproaches to which they would be ever liable here. But they insisting upon their discharge and promising to live very honestly for the future, their request was complied with, and they were set at liberty.

One of the first crimes committed by Dyer afterwards was robbing a victualler coming over Bloomsbury Market,[3] between one and two o'clock in the morning, and from whom, having thrown him down and stopped his mouth, they took his silver watch, seventeen shillings in money, two plain rings, and the buckles out of his shoes. They robbed another man in the Tottenham Court Road coming to town, tied him and then took from him two-and-forty shillings. Dyer also happening to be one day a little cleaner and better dressed than ordinary, was taken notice of in Lincoln's Inn Fields by one of those abominable, unnatural wretches who addict themselves to sodomy. He pretended to know him at first, and desired him to step to the tavern with him and drink a glass of wine, which the other readily complied with. In the tavern, Dyer took notice that the gentleman had a good diamond ring upon his finger, and then suddenly taking notice of a hackney-coach which drove by with a single gentleman in it, he pretended it was a friend of his and that he needs must go down and speak a word with him. Under pretence of doing which, he went clear off with the diamond ring. Two or three days after, he met the same person with a man in years, and of some consideration. Upon his asking Dyer how he came to go off in that manner from the tavern, he, who was accustomed to such salutations, gave him a rough answer, and the spark fearing a worse accusation might be alleged against himself, thought fit to go off without making any more words about it.

I am not able to say how long after, but certainly it could be no very considerable space before he and Dumbleton robbed Mr. Bradley, in Kirby Street, by Hatton Garden, of his hat and wig, at the same time trampling on him, beating him, and using him in the most cruel manner imaginable, as was sworn by Mr. Bradley upon their trial. However, by affrighting the watch with their pistols, they got off safe and a night or two after broke open a linen-draper's shop, and took out a large parcel of linen. For these two facts they were shortly after apprehended, and on very full evidence convicted at the Old Bailey.

Under sentence of death, Dyer said he was sorry for his offences, but spoke of them in a manner that showed he had but a slight sense of those heinous crimes in which he had continued so long. His narrative that he left behind him, and which was published the day before his execution, is a manifest proof of the ludicrous terms which those unhappy creatures affect in the relation of their own adventures. However, it becomes us not to judge concerning the sentiments of a person who in his last moments professed himself a penitent. Instead of doing which, we shall produce the speech he made at the place of execution.

Good People,

I desire all young men to take warning by my ignominious death, and to forsake evil company, especially lewd women, who have been the chief cause of my unhappy fate. I hope, and make it my earnest request that nobody will be so ill a Christian as to reflect on my aged parents, who took an early care to instruct me, and brought me up a member, though a very unworthy one, of the Church of England. I hope my misfortunes will be a warning to all youth, especially some whom I wish well; I will not name them, but hope, if they see this, they will take it to themselves. I die in charity with all men, forgiving and hoping to be forgiven myself, through the merits of my blessed Saviour Jesus Christ.

He died on the 21st of November, 1729, being thirty-one years of age.


[1] This may mean that they dropped themselves into the cess-pit and made their way out through another opening.

[2] Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, was a notorious spot for footpads.

[3] This was at the south-west corner of Bloomsbury Square.