Friday 30 September 2022

Women of the Road - Real-Life Highwaywomen

by Deborah Swift

There is something very appealing about the highwayman’s disguise – the tricorne hat, the cloak, the breeches and boots – and even more so when this disguise is worn by a woman. Contrary to popular belief, records show that there were women who risked the noose, to make their living on England’s rutted and treacherous roads, and who showed their own unique brand of ruthlessness and courage.

Double – Crosser Joan Phillips

Joan was the daughter of a rich and well-established farmer. Her beauty (and wealth) brought her to the attention of Edward Bracey, a small-time crook, who planned to seduce her, persuade her to marry him, and then abscond with her dowry, leaving her flat. 

Joan was intelligent enough not to fall for this plan, and though allowing herself to be seduced, foiled the rest of the plan. Edward Bracey, according to the Newgate Calendar ‘was very agreeably deceived; for Joan was as good as he … she consented to rob her father, and go along with him on the pad; all which she accordingly accomplished.’ 

So Joan was determined to gain an upper hand, and they never did marry, but Joan and Edward frequently robbed together on the highway, though it seems Joan was always the one in control.

Joan had a long criminal career including running an inn, but eventually, the Law caught up with her and she was arrested in 1685 after robbing a coach.  She was tried under the name Joan Bracey, found guilty, and executed the same year in Nottingham. Records diverge on how old she was when she died, some saying she was as young as twenty-one. 

Watch a video about her 

BBC Criminal Histories "The Highway Woman"

Tudor Highwaywoman Mary Frith

Mary Frith (nickname - Moll Cutpurse) was the daughter of a shoemaker and lived in Aldersgate Street near St Paul’s Cathedral. From an early age she was often in trouble with the law for stealing. To try to reform her, a minister tried to ship her off to New England in America, but Mary dived off the ship and swam back to shore.

From then on, she was arrested frequently for robbery and was held in various prisons - The Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate. She was branded on the hand on several occasions – this was a common punishment for thieves. Her stamping ground was St Paul’s Church (now the re-built Cathedral) where she would cut the strings of purses, (hence her nickname) and she also traded as a ‘fence’ for stolen goods and a pimp for younger women. Victims of pickpockets who had lost jewellery or valuables would come to Mary, and she would trade with the criminal underworld to return the items for a cost.

Mary was nearly always dressed as a man, drank in taverns and carried a sword. She is also credited with being the first woman to smoke a long clay pipe. She had a long association with the theatre and by the turn of the century she was performing on stage in men's clothing at the Fortune Theatre. On stage she bantered with the audience, fenced in mock fights, and sang, accompanying herself on the lute.

She was a keen horsewoman and was once bet twenty pounds that she wouldn’t ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. Of course she won the bet, and made it all the more entertaining by doing it on Morocco, the most famous performing horse of the day. Her riding skills enabled her to turn highwaywoman during the English Civil War. A staunch Royalist, she robbed the Roundhead general, Sir Thomas Fairfax by holding up his coach on Hounslow Heath.

We know a lot about her because The Life of Mrs Mary Frith of 1662 was one of the first biographies of a female criminal to be published in England and was highly influential in bringing women’s lives to the public interest. It is thought that Defoe’s book, Moll Flanders, was based on her life.

Heiress and Highwaywoman Katherine Ferrers

Lady Katherine Ferrers was the inspiration for the 1945 film The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, which tells the story of a 17th century aristocrat and heiress who turns to highway robbery. Katherine was supposedly persuaded to a life of crime by her highwayman lover Ralph Chaplin, but he was caught and hanged on Finchley Common. After his death she worked alone, but was caught when she held up a coach and shot the driver; unfortunately it was a trap, and two of the occupants of the coach were armed and shot back. Fatally wounded, she galloped home to Markyate Manor, where she was found lying on the front steps - dead, but still dressed as a highwayman.

This of course is not the real story. The real story is one of plunder and possession in The English Civil War, and a time when rural farmers were trying to keep their lands out of the pockets of the aristocrats and were experimenting with new ways of communal living. In my young adult books about the life of Katherine Ferrers I explore these themes, and I enjoyed deconstructing and reconstructing the legend.


Outlaws and Highwaymen - Gillian Spraggs 

The Elizabethan Underworld – Gamini Salvado

Dunstable History Society

Pictures: Wikipedia, East End Women's Museum, Project Gutenberg

Find me and my books on my website

Friday 16 September 2022

‘Veni, Vidi, Vocab’: the story behind my Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie

When in Rome… Photo © Caroline K. Mackenzie

I have a confession to make: although I loved Latin at school, I didn’t enjoy learning vocab. In fact, I usually left it to the last minute and would end up revising while on the school bus on the morning of a test. [Note to any Latin pupils who may be reading this - this is not a good idea!] Fortunately, I had a lovely teacher who encouraged me and eventually I looked forward to discovering new Latin words and the access they gave me to some amazing Latin literature, such as Virgil and Ovid.

Years later (after a Classics degree and a decade as a lawyer in which I regularly used Latin), I found my true vocation (or ‘calling’, as ‘voco’ means ‘I call’). I became a Latin and Greek teacher. Vocab was something I taught (and still teach) each day. Some of my pupils found the long lists of words at the back of textbooks rather daunting. Together we created some fun ways to approach these lists. One idea was to think of an English derivative from the Latin, e.g. ‘dormio’ (I sleep) gives us ‘dormitory’ and ‘dormouse’. Likewise, ‘nox, noctis’ (night) gives us ‘nocturnal’ and when combined with ‘ambulo’ (I walk) produces ‘noctambulation’. That’s a great word for ‘sleepwalking’!

‘insula’ illustration © Amanda Short

‘insula’ in Latin means an island or a block of flats. It gives us words such as ‘insular’, ‘insulate’ and ‘peninsular’ 

Some pupils drew pictures in their vocab books to help them memorise tricky words. So when I decided to write a Latin vocab book I asked the artist Amanda Short to create 20 special illustrations to help bring the book to life. Amanda (whose name appropriately derives from ‘amo’ (I love) !) carefully researched Roman life and mythology before producing her beautiful designs. Of these, if asked to choose a favourite I am tempted to say the ‘tandem’ one as it is so ingenious and witty [see my earlier blog on my first Latin Lexicon: ]; another contender is the ‘insula’ illustration which cleverly depicts two different meanings in one image. However, the gorgeous dormouse (for ‘dormio’, mentioned above) steals the show for cuteness!

‘dormio’ illustration © Amanda Short

Bloomsbury and I wanted to create a book that would help students and teachers whichever GCSE syllabus they are following, so we have included every word on each of the vocab lists for the two exam boards. The book includes notes to help explain some grammar and a glossary of Latin words and phrases in common use. Some of these appear in this blog, such as ‘e.g.’. Also, I couldn’t resist this more unusual one: ‘quidnunc’. It refers to an inquisitive, gossiping person - the Latin literally means ‘what now?’.

The word entries are spread out with lined spaces next to each one for readers to add their own notes or more derivatives. I hope students will really enjoy the Lexicon and that it makes learning vocab a fun and fascinating part of their Latin studies. Of course, the book is not just for GCSE pupils - it may also be useful for anyone interested in languages and etymology generally. It could be your secret weapon when tackling the daily crossword or even playing Scrabble. Did you know you can even buy a Latin version of Scrabble?

Latin Scrabble, anyone? Photo © Caroline K. Mackenzie

As its name suggests, the Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon is small enough to fit into a schoolbag - so it can even be read on the school bus. However, for any GCSE pupils still reading this, a caveat: unlike I did, don’t leave it until the last minute! When it comes to learning your Latin vocab, don’t delay: seize the day. As the Romans would say, ‘carpe diem!’

Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie is now available to order from the Bloomsbury website:

With thanks to: everyone at Bloomsbury Academic, Amanda Short, Professor Paul Cartledge, Dr John Taylor, Caroline Lawrence and Dr Daisy Dunn.

Twitter: @carolinetutor

Post Scriptum

Given the historic events of this week following the sad death of Queen Elizabeth II, it seems only fitting to conclude this post with the following addendum. 
The Lexicon happened to be published on the day that Queen Elizabeth II died. When someone contacted me to say their copy had strangely fallen open on page 107, I looked at the entries on that page to check the significance. I shall let the page speak for itself (‘res ipsa loquitur’).

Extract from Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon

Friday 9 September 2022

Ghosts on a Wire by Linda Wilkinson

We welcome Linda Wilkinson as a guest to our blog today. Her play, Ghosts on a Wire, opens at the Union Theatre on 21st September.


Linda Wilkinson by Tony Hutchings

Drama and Industry in Blackfriars

The Bankside in Southwark has been home to many innovations of note, not least of these being the first steam powered grain mill in the world and then the largest gas fired electricity generator, the Pioneer, which in a later incarnation stands as Tate Modern.

From the 18th century onwards, this area was a place of “dirty” Industries. It was a cash cow for City of London businessmen, who were happy to keep the filth over the river on the south side and rake in the profit.

The Pioneer, built to serve the square mile, resulted in the decimation of swathes of streets and communities. The pollution it unleashed was monumental. It physically destroyed the sole remaining pub, the Waterman’s Arms, which was next to this smoke, heat and vibration spewing leviathan.

It also saw some of the earliest attempts by Victorian philanthropists to address the resulting air-pollution. One of these being Octavia Hill, who has a long history in the area, which is present up to this day.

In 2019 Southwark Council under its Blackfriars Stories stream commissioned a play about the Albion Mill, the aforementioned steam powered grain mill, which was performed at the Union Theatre, a stones’ throw from the site of the Mill itself.

In 2020 a second play, this time about the Pioneer and its historical impact on the environment and peoples of Southwark was planned. Little did anybody know then then that Covid would see this endeavour, and the production of the play that became Ghosts on a Wire, halted for two years.

London is awash with history and this particular part of the south bank of the Thames is particularly rich in Industrial heritage and also the presence of some intriguing characters.

30 August 2022 was the 225th anniversary of the birth of Mary Shelley, who features as one of the ghosts in the new work. She, like Michael Faraday, the putative inventor of electricity, and William Blake the visionary were habitu├ęs of Blackfriars where the historical events enacted in the drama take place.

Germane to the plot is the Leverian Museum. This natural history and ethnographic collection stood for some years at 3 Blackfriars Road, not far from Michael Faraday’s later workshops.

Leverian Museum © Adrian Chappell

It was a place of curiosities and strange skeletons and fed into the growing interests into the natural world and inexplicable phenomena, such as lightning, which in turn led to early experiments into electricity. Here at the Leverian, luminaries of the period would gather to watch demonstrations and hear readings from works. Blake would most certainly have been an attender of this collection, which was famous in its day.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the industrial pollution of Blackfriars was at its height, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, was working on building some of her model cottages in Southwark. This inventor of social-casework, was also an early proponent of the clean-air-movement who fought to keep London’s open spaces clear and free for the working population to use freely as they wished. With a group of like-minded women, she also founded the Blackfriars Settlement, which functions to this day, its ethos unchanged during the 130 years of its existence, to create and provide community services and support.

Octavia Hill's Blackfriars Settlement © Adrian Chappell

Given this multifarious series of events, endeavours and notable people, all of whom circulated around a small area of Blackfriars, it shouldn’t be surprising that modern echoes come through. In 2020, when the play was mooted, the cost-of-living crisis was not a consideration. The Housing crisis was already upon us, but not the choice between heating, eating, cooking or indeed washing. That energy prices would rise by thousand-folds and that the poor might die as a consequence was not on any agenda.

A play about the poor versus the wealthy, about electricity profiting one sector of society whilst the lack of it causing others to go hungry and become homeless, one had hoped to be something for the historical records, but sadly no.

However, it’s always amazing to find the resilience, joy and hope that people find in their lives, even when facing adversity. The Publicans of the destroyed Watermans’ Arms being of note. The court case which they took “Shelfer versus the City of London Electric Lighting”, stood for over a century. Life went on, even for the Watermen who did the final “Bovril” runs on the Thames who found work in newly Unionised industries. Octavia Hill, whose fight for the disadvantaged seemed endless, in the end gave the Nation one of its greatest gifts.

Interior The Waterman's Arms © Adrian Chappell

London’s rich and varied history is cyclical, always winners, always losers. Places of dearth, become places of wealth until the pendulum reverses. Today St Paul’s cathedral looks over the river at the Tate Modern where, if you can but imagine it, a pike-pond once provided fish for Mediaeval Royal Tables. Ghosts of the past exist everywhere in our great City, you need not look far to find them.

Linda Wilkinson

Friday 2 September 2022

'Defiant to the End' by Karen Maitland

Remains of the Novices Dormitory in Battle Abbey
Photo: Giogo, Wikimedia Commons
There are many infamous people in history I am thankful I never had to encounter, but some historical characters I would love to have met. One of those is the redoubtable dowager Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague, (1538-1608), mistress of Battle Abbey. Alhough I think, in life, she might have been just as intimidating as the fictional dowager Countess of Grantham, immortalised by Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey’.

For even in her 70th year, Lady Magdalen was still bravely defying King James I and his ministers by hiding Catholic priests disguised as servants in her house and hosting forbidden Masses for as many as 120 people in her secret chapel, right under the noses of the men sent to trap her. She also allowed an underground Catholic printing press to operate from one of her houses. The authorities believed she was using Battle Abbey to smuggle priests into England from Europe and helping fugitives to escape from England. But though the notorious spy-master, Robert Cecil, tried repeatedly, he never managed to bring her to trial.

Mary of England (1516-58)
 & Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598)
Painting - 16th Century
Royal Museums Greenwich

Magdalen Dacre was born at Naworth Castle, Cumbria. At 13 she was sent as gentlewoman to the Countess of Bedford. At 16, she joined Queen Mary’s household, and became the Queen’s great friend and confidante. In 1554, when Mary married Felipe II of Spain, Magdalen was one of the bridesmaids. Magdalen was unusually tall and pretty, but was very religious, spending much time in prayer and wearing a coarse linen smock under her court clothes.

In 1558, Magdalen married widower, Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague. Montague owned three estates, including Cowdray House in East Sussex and Battle Abbey. Magdalen, raised Montague’s twin children from his first marriage, his first wife having died in childbirth, and bore ten children of her own.

In February 1555, her husband went to Rome on Queen Mary’s behalf to try to persuade Pope Julius III to actively back the restoration of Catholicism in England. In 1557, he joined the Privy Council. He was an executor of Queen Mary’s will and chief mourner at her funeral. After Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, Montague publicly denounced proposals to elevate the status of the Protestant religion and was replaced on the Privy Council.

In 1569, Viscount Montague, together with his son-in-law, the Earl of Southampton, and Magdalen’s brother, was implicated in the ‘Rising of the North’, a plot by Catholics to depose Elizabeth, but escaped punishment.

Part of the ruins of Cowdray House
Photo: Simon Burchill, Wikipedia Commons

In 1586, Montague proved his loyalty to Elizabeth as one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots, King James' mother. In 1588, Montague prepared to defend England against the approaching Spanish Armada, raising a troop of cavalry. 

In August 1591, Elizabeth visited Montague at Cowdray House, where he entertained her lavishly for a week whilst hiding his Catholic priests and servants within the house throughout her visit. But though he was favoured by Elizabeth, he was also kept under close watch, not least because his estates were so close to the coast, where foreign spies could easily come and go.

The 1st Viscount Montague died suddenly in October 1592 and his widow, Magdalen, afterwards lived mainly in Battle Abbey until her death. Battle Abbey was said to contain a subterranean passage through which priests were smuggled into England and it would have been easy for her to move fugitives between her three properties.

Anthony-Maria Browne
2nd Viscount Montague
Circa 1592
Artist: Unknown.
Source: Christie's

Under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s house was searched only twice, and only one of the priests she was hiding was discovered and arrested. But she always refused to aid treasonous plots. However, Guy Fawkes was for short periods in both her husband’s and grandson’s employ, and after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, her grandson, Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount of Montague, was arrested because of this association, but released for lack of evidence.

Whereas under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s ‘crimes’ had been largely ignored, King James and spy-master, Robert Cecil, were determined to close down what had come to be known as ‘Little Rome’ and have Lady Magdalen arrested. She drew the particular attention of the notorious pursuivant, Richard Topcliff, who claimed to have discovered a holy well in Battle Abbey grounds to which she led women ‘as if on pilgrimage’. Three men were sent to try to get proof that Lady Magdalen’s servants were priests in disguise, but all three failed. Two she managed to get imprisoned themselves on various charges and the third, Master N. Benet, mysteriously fell into a shallow pit at the end of the town and was killed. This was bizarrely deemed to be ‘suicide’ by the local coroner and Magdalen’s chaplain, Father Richard Smith, records gleefully that as a result Benet ‘was buried like a dog at the roadside’.

In 1607, the Privy Council announced Lady Magdalen should not be sentenced for her refusal to attend Protestant services, because of her age, status and former loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. It was decision which infuriated both Robert Cecil and King James, because ‘age and status’ certainly hadn’t prevented many others being fined, imprisoned or their property confiscated. The influence of a family friend, Lord Buckhurst in the Privy Council probably helped to prevent her from being prosecuted for recusancy in 1607, but after his death, she was left without a protector.

Effigy of Lady Magdalen, 
now in Easebourne Church, Sussex
Source: Tudor Effigies

Lady Magdalen died at Battle Abbey, Sussex on 8th April 1608 at the aged 70. Five priests came to her house the day before to say Masses for her. It wasn’t until after the death of this remarkable woman, that the Privy Council actively pursued and punished her tenants and servants.

Writing as KJ Maitland, her new novel, 'Traitor in the Ice', the 2nd in her Jacobean crime thriller series, is set at Battle Abbey in 1607 when Daniel Pursglove tries to infiltrate Lady Magdalen’s household. 'Traitor in the Ice' is published by Headline, 2022.