‘There is no country in the world where there are so many thieves and robbers as in England; insomuch, that few venture to go alone in the country, excepting in the middle of the day, and fewer still in the towns at night.’
These words were written by an unknown diplomat from Venice who travelled in England in 1497. The vast ‘waste’ around Sutton Coldfield was one such country area where travellers feared to go.
In the following century, Sutton Coldfield’s great benefactor, Bishop Vesey made attempts to offer some protection for travellers. As well as his own mansion, Moor Hall, Vesey also owned an estate at Canwell, close to the London road. This was a desolate area well known for highway robberies.
The bishop built a small stone house on Weeford Road and here he installed some of his servants as a deterrent to highway robber and thieves. Much altered, the house is now called Vesey Grange and still stands. Another of Vesey’s stone houses, High Heath cottage, built for the same purpose, also still stands about a mile to the south-east on Withy Hill Road. And there may have been others.
Not far from Vesey Grange, on Slade Road, is a small house known as Muffins Den, believed to date from the late 15th century. Adjacent is the Plough & Harrow public house, whose predecessor stood on the same spot in the 18th century. The inn and Muffin’s Den were reputedly hide-outs of highwaymen who preyed on travellers in this area.
The well travelled London road was less than a mile away from Muffin’s Den and lay in the county of Staffordshire. Having committed a robbery, the highwayman would head back across the county boundary into Warwickshire where the Sherriff of Staffordshire had no authority.
The Murder of Thomas Eastham
The parish register of Holy Trinity church of 1728 records a fatal attack on one Thomas Eastham who was travelling south along the London road. He broke his journey at the Canwell Gate Inn where he met Edward Powers, who kindly offered to show him a short cut. Powers took the unsuspecting traveller off the London road, along Weeford Road and down Holly Lane (now Lindridge Road) where he robbed and murdered him.
Powers was well known locally as a character of ill repute and was soon arrested and taken to Warwick. He was tried at the Assizes, found guilty and hanged. His body was returned to be hung on a gibbet at Fox Hill on Little Sutton Common close to the scene of the murder.
Dick Turpin hereabouts – probably not!
A number of West Midlands’ pubs claim associations with England’s most infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin. However, none are likely to be true. There is nonetheless a link to Turpin in the person of Tom King. Born in Stonnall just 6 miles north of Sutton Coldfield, he became a partner-in-crime of Turpin’s, but in the Epping Forest area. It was said that Tom King actually was the owner of the cottage known as Muffin’s Den and that he and Turpin used to enjoy a pint together at the Plough & Harrow next door.
The story goes that Turpin, seeing King riding a fine horse and dressed like a gentleman, attempted to rob him. King, a highwayman of national repute, laughed in his face and the encounter concluded by the pair becoming partners. King it was who persuaded Dick Turpin to adopt the same pursuit and not the life of random thieving and robbery he had followed hitherto. Turpin’s new accomplice, also known as ‘Captain’ Tom King was renowned for his cavalier and carefree character, attributes later associated with Turpin himself.
Tom King was to come to a bad end at the hands of his co-conspirator. In 1737 Dick Turpin had stolen a fine horse, which he christened Black Bess, and stabled it at a London inn. The next day, when King came to collect the horse, he was arrested by a constable. Turpin, who had been hiding nearby, shot at the officer but his bullets hit King instead.
Mortally wounded, King revealed the location of Turpin’s hide-out and the latter headed north. There is an unlikely story that Turpin called at the New Oscott Tavern (now The Garden Room of Hall’s Garden Centre), before heading to York where he was arrested, convicted of horse theft and hanged in 1739.
So, no Dick Turpin hereabouts, but plenty of other rogues to make life uncomfortable for the 18th century traveller.