The Life of THOMAS POLSON, alias HITCHIN
a Footpad and Highwayman
Habit is the most dangerous of all evils. The transports of passion are sometimes prevented from having fatal effects, either by the precautions of those with whom we quarrel, or because a sudden reflection of our own minds checks our hand. But where men have abandoned themselves to wickedness, and given themselves up to the commission of every kind of evil without restraint, there is little hope to be entertained of their ever mending; and if the fear of a sudden death work a true repentance, it is all that can be hoped.
As for this unfortunate man of whose actions the course of our memoirs obliges us to treat, he was descended from parents who lived at Marlow, in the county of Salop, who were equally honest in their reputations, and easy in their circumstances. They spared nothing in the education of their son, and it is hard to say whether their care of him was more or his application was less. Even while a child and at school he gave too evident symptoms of that lazy, indolent disposition which attended him so flagrantly and was justly the occasion of all the misfortunes of his succeeding life. Learning was of all things his aversion. It was with difficulty that he was taught to read and write. As to employment, his father brought him up to husbandry and the business of a rural life.
When he was of age his father gave him an estate of twenty pounds "per annum", freehold, and got him into a very good farm. He procured for him also a wife, who had ten pounds a year more of her own, and settled him in such a manner that no young man in the country had a better prospect of doing well than himself. But, alas! to what purpose are the endeavours of others, where a man studies nothing so much as to compass his own ruin? On a sudden he took a love to card-playing, and addicted himself to it with such earnestness that he neglected his business and squandered his money. Want was what of all things he hated, except work, and therefore rather than labour to retrieve, he bethought himself of an easier way of getting money, and that was to steal.
His first attempt was upon his father, whom he robbed of a considerable sum of money. He not being in the least suspected, a poor maid who lived in the house bore the blame for about six months, and nobody in all that time being charged with it but her, there was at last a design in the old man's head to prosecute her. This reaching young Polson's ear, he resolved not to let an innocent person suffer, which was indeed a very just and honourable act, whereupon he wrote an humble letter to his father, acknowledging his fault, begging pardon for his offences, and desiring that he would not prosecute the poor woman, or suffer her to be any longer under the odium of a fact of which she had not the least knowledge. This, to be sure, had its effect on his father, who was a very honest and considerate man. He took care to restore the wench to her good character and his favour, though for a while he with just reason continued to frown upon his son. At last paternal tenderness prevailed, and after giving him several cautions and much good advice, he promised, on his good behaviour, to forgive him what had past. The young man promised fairly, but falling quickly into necessities, want of money had its old effect upon him again, that is, impatient to be at his old practices, tired with work, and yet not knowing how to get money, he at length resolved to go into Wales and steal horses.
This project he executed, and took one from one Mr. Lewis of a considerable value. He sold it to a London butcher for about sixteen pounds, at a village not far from Shrewsbury. That money did him a little good, and therefore the next time he was in a strait he readily bethought himself of Wales. Accordingly he equipped himself with a little pad, and out he set in quest of purchase. At a little inn in Wales be met with a gentleman whom he had reason to suppose had money about him, whereupon our highwayman was very industrious first to make him drink, and then to get him for a bed-fellow, both of which designs he in the end brought to pass, and by that means robbed him of six pounds odd money, taking care to go in the morning a different road from what he had talked of, and by that means easily escaped what pursuit was made after him.
When he had committed this fact he retired towards Canterbury, giving himself over entirely to thieving or cheating, on which design he traversed the whole county of Kent, but found the people so cautious that he did it with very little advantage; until at last coming near Maidstone, he observed a parcel of fine linen hanging upon a hedge. He immediately bethought himself that though the people were wise, yet their hedges might be otherwise, upon which stepping up to it, he fairly stripped it of ten fine shirts, and so left the people who had washed them to account for it. After this exploit, he made the best of his way to London, where he speedily sold the stolen linen for five pounds to a Life Guardsman; and when he had spent a good part of it, down he went into Norfolk. And being afraid that the inhabitants would take notice of a stranger setting up his abode there for any considerable time, he thought fit to pretend to be very lame. Having continued as long as he thought proper in this place, he took his opportunity to carry off a fine mare out of the grounds of Sir John Habbard, Baronet, now the Right Honourable the Lord Blickling. This was one of the most dangerous feats he ever committed in his life, for the scent was so strong upon him, and so quickly followed, that he was forced to take a multitude of byways to get to London, where he set her up in the Haymarket. However he quickly found there was no possibility of disposing of her here, information having been given of her to all the great jockeys; so that for present money he was obliged to borrow four guineas of the man at the inn, and to leave her in his hands by way of security, which was making but a poor hand of what he had hazarded his life for.
By this time his father had received some intelligence of his way of living, and out of tenderness of its consequences, wrote to him assuring him of forgiveness for all that was past, if he would come down into the country and live honestly. Such undeserved tenderness had some weight even with our criminal himself, and he at last began to frame his mind to comply with the request of so good a father. Accordingly, down he came, and for a little space, behaved himself honestly and as he should do; but his old distemper, laziness quickly came in his way, and finding money not to come in so fast as he would have it, he began to think of his old practice again, and prepared himself once more to sally out upon his illegal adventures. For this purpose taking with him a little mare of his brothers, for at that time he had no horse proper for the designs he went on, forth he rode in search of prey.
Wales was the place he first visited, and after riding up and down for a good while without meeting with any purchase worth taking, he at last unluckily stumbled upon a poor old man in Flintshire, who had one foot already in the grave. From him he took a silver watch, worth about five pounds, and five shillings in money, which was all the poor man had, and making thereupon the greatest haste he could out of the country, he got clear away before it was discovered. After this he came again to London, where what little money he had he lavished away upon women of the town.
It was not long before want overtook him again, upon which he determined to visit Yorkshire, in hopes of raising some considerable booty there. All the way down, according to his common practice, he bilked the public-houses, and at last arriving at Doncaster, began to set heartily about the work for which he came down. On a market day, he robbed an old farmer of forty shillings and a pair of silver buckles, taking his horse also from him, which, when he had ridden about fifteen miles across country, he turned loose. He rambled from thence on foot, as well as he could, in order to get into his native country of Shropshire, where after the commission of a multitude of such actions, none of which afforded him any great booty, he arrived.
His father took him home again, and he lived for eleven months tolerably honest. However, to keep his hand in use, he now and then stole a shoulder of mutton, a joint which he particularly loved; but sometimes to please his father he would work a little, though it always went much against the grain. At last he quarrelled with his wife, and thereupon threatened to go away again, which very quickly after he did, turning his course, notwithstanding his former ill-success into Yorkshire once more. He was at several of the races in that county, and having no particular business at any place, did nothing but course the country round, pilfering and stealing whatever came in his way; insomuch that at one inn, finding nothing else to lay his hands on, he stole the people's sheets off the bed he lay in, and marched off in the morning so early, that he was out of danger before they perceived the theft.
But finding that he could not do any considerable matter amongst the people, who are cunning to a proverb, he bethought himself of returning to London, and the society of those strumpets in which he took a delight. However, all the way on the road he made a shift to pick up as much as kept him pretty well all the way. On his arrival in town he set up his place of residence in an inn near Leather Lane, Holborn, where he remained one whole day to rest himself after the fatigue of his northern journey. There he reflected on the sad state in which his affairs were, being without money and without friends, justly disregarded by his friends in the country, and hated and despised by all his neighbours. His debts, too, amounted there to near a hundred and forty pounds, so that there was no hopes in going back. The result of these cogitations was that the next day he would go out on the road towards Hampstead, and see what might be made there. He accordingly did so, but with very ill success. However, he returned a second time and had no better; the third day, towards evening, he observed an old gentleman in a chaise by himself, whom he robbed of six guineas, a watch, a mourning-ring, and nine and sixpence in silver, and then making over the fields got home very safe.
For three days he thought fit to remain within doors, under pretence of sickness, fearing lest he should be advertised and described in the public prints; but finding nothing of that happened, he grew bold, and for about fourteen nights continued the same trade constantly, getting, sometimes, two or three pieces, and sometimes losing his labour and getting nothing at all. At length, waiting pretty late for an old man, who, as he was informed, was to come that night with eight hundred pounds about him, although he was so feeble that a child might be able to take it from him, he at length grew impatient, and resolved to rob the first man he met. This proved to be one Mr. Andrews, who raised so quick a pursuit upon him that he never lost sight of him until the time of his being apprehended, when he was carried to Newgate and prosecuted the next sessions for the aforesaid robbery.
He was then indicted for taking from the said Thomas Andrews, after putting him in fear, six or seven shillings in money, a bay mare, bridle and saddle, and a cane, on the 23rd of July, 1730. The evidence was exceedingly clear, he having, as I have said, never gone out of sight, from the time of the robbery to the time he was taken. Under sentence of death the prisoner behaved with great piety and resignation. He showed great concern for the offences of his former life, and testified the utmost sorrow for having blemished an honest family by the shame of his vices and their just punishment. The night before his execution he wrote a letter to his parents in the country, which though it be written in a very uncouth style, yet I have thought fit to insert it "verbatim", because there is a strain in it of unusual confusion and concern, expressing the agony of a dying man with more truth and tenderness than the best penned epistle could have done.
My duty to both, my love to my brother-in-law. I wish to God I had been ruled by you, for now I see the evil of my sin, but I freely die, only the disgrace I have brought on you, my wife and children. I wrote to my wife last Saturday was seven night but had no answer, for I should have been glad to have heard from you before I die, which will be on Wednesday the seventh of this instant October, hoping I have made my peace with God Almighty. I freely forgive all the world, and die in charity with all people. Had it not been for Joyce Hite's sister and Mr. Howel, I might have starved, he told me it has cost him fifteen shillings on my account, and he gave me four more. I desire Thomas Mason will give my wife that locket for my son.
I have nothing more to say, but my prayers to God for you all day and night, and for God's sake, be as kind to my poor wife and children as in your power lies. I desire there might be some care taken of that Estate at Minton for my son. Mr. Botfield hath the old writings, and I beg you will get them and give them to my wife, and pray show her this letter and my love to her, and my blessing to my children, begging of her as I am a dying man to be good to them, and not make any difference in them, but be as kind to one as the other, and if she is able to put the boy to some trade. Mr. Waring and Thomas Tomlings have each of them a book of mine, pray ask for them, which is all I have to say, but my prayers to God for you all, which is all from your
Dying Son, Richard Polson. In my Cell. October the 6th.
P.S. My love to all my friends. Pray show this letter to my wife as soon as you can, and desire of her to bring up my children in the fear of the Lord, and to make my son a scholar if she is able. There is five of us to die.
In this disposition of mind, and without adding anything to his former confessions he suffered on the seventh of October, 1730, being then in the thirty-third year of his age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals