Drummond, the Sunderland Highwayman

highwaymenIt is not generally known that the first of the name and the family of Drummond who settled under peculiar circumstances on the banks of the Wear, was not the unfortunate James, Duke of Perth, who was said to have taken refuge, after his escape from Culloden, in the then very sequestered and almost quite lawless hamlet of South Biddick, near Pensher, where, marrying the daughter of a poor working man, he became the progenitor of a race of pitmen, one of whom, his grandson, Thomas, laid claim unsuccessfully to the earldom of Perth.

Long before the Forty-Five or even the Fifteen, a man said to be a cadet of the noble house of Perth, Robert Drummond, wandered away from his home and country, and came to the North of England to live, moved, it would appear, by some mad freak or spurt of temper, or perhaps urged by some family quarrel. He associated himself with one or more of the hard-headed, ready-witted Scotch chapmen, packmen, or travelling merchants, who began to flood England, more than they had ever done before, after the passing of the Act of Union. Drummond went into the hardware line, dealing in razors, knives, scissors, thimbles, combs, ear-rings, &c. After perambulating the six Northern Counties for some time, he settled down in the town of Sunderland, then a very small place, but increasing fast in population, and already doing a considerable trade.

Here he lived with a fair reputation for several years. But by-and-by he fell into bad habits. After a while his shop began to exhibit unmistakable signs of neglect and disorder, and it was whispered among the neighbours that, instead of going to bed betimes and getting up at a decent hour in the morning, as all honest people then did, it was his wont to steal off clandestinely soon after dark, twice or thrice a week, along the Shields, Newcastle, Durham, or Stockton road, on no good errand anyone could guess, but not at all unlikely, as some even dared to say, to ease belated travellers of their loose cash. Others, who were either somewhat more cautious or more charitably disposed, chose to put a less ugly face on the matter. Drummond, they said, was not the only man in Sunderland, England, or the world, who had a natural taste for lonely walks at night. He was a queer sort of fellow, they must allow; but, after all, it was no crime to be queer, or what would they make, say, of Anthony Ettrick? He had come from nobody knew where; but so had a good many other folks in the town, and where had all the grandfathers of even the oldest standards come from? Some said Drummond was a Scotch nobleman’s son; well, what the worse or the better was he for that? If he had been the son of a gipsy, mosstrooper, or buccaneer, and yet sold good razors, who had any business to find fault with him?

At length, however, Drummond’s conduct became so outrageous that the darkest suspicions seemed justified. It turned out that he kept a mistress at Ryhope, and that he was one of a set of wild fellows, whose habit it was to convene in a low public-house on the Moor-edge, a little to the north-east of the Spa Well, kept by a person generally known as Lady Lowther, who bore a very light character (this “howff,” we ought to say, has long since disappeared, the sea having washed away the site and everything on it about a century and a half ago). Several robberies had taken place in the neighbourhood of the town, and the perpetrators remained undiscovered. But various circumstances tended to connect some of the frequenters of Lady Lowther’s house with one or two recent cases. Very strong suspicion being directed towards Drummond, he was narrowly watched; and although he was not caught in the very act of robbing a gentleman’s house in the neighbourhood, which was broken into one night, yet everything concurred to fix the guilt upon him as an accomplice, if not the principal. He was accordingly apprehended on suspicion, and committed by the county magistrates for trial at the next Durham Assizes. There the case was clearly made out; Drummond was convicted of burglary, and sentence of death was passed upon him by the judge. But some of his friends used their influence to get the sentence commuted, on what specific ground we do not know, and the result was that, instead of being hanged by the neck until he was dead, as was the usual course with such offenders, he was transported for life to the plantations in North America.

But Drummond soon found a way to return to England, and took up his quarters in the city of London. Here he devoted himself to robbery as a trade, and grew before long one of the most daring and mischievous highwaymen that ever infested the road. The multitude of his robberies made his person well known, and yet he managed to escape capture a good while. This was the more wonderful, considering the roughness and cruelty of his temper, for one quaint old authority tells us, “He never used anybody well, firing upon any who attempted to ride away from him, and beating and abusing those who submitted to him.” He travelled for some time in company with another fellow of the same distinguished surname as himself, one James Drummond, and they together perpetrated a number of desperate outrages on the Great North Road. At length being persued and in danger, Robert gave their armed pursuers the slip, deserted his companion, and left him to his fate, which was to be tried, found guilty, and hanged in due course.

Drummond afterwards fell in with a desperate character, named Ferdinando Shrimpton, said to have been a person genteely brought up and well educated, but of a wild and savage nature congenial to his own. This man’s history, as told in the record we transcribe, was a very singular one. His father, we are told, lived at Bristol, and “behaved, in outward appearance, so well that he was never suspected to have anything wrong about him”; yet he was one of the greatest highwaymen in England. One evening some constables came hastily into an inn where he was, to apprehend another man, when “his guilty heart making him afraid that they were come in search of nobody but himself, he thereupon drew a pistol and shot one of them dead; for which murder, being convicted, he readily confessed his former offences, and, after his execution for the aforesaid crime, was hung in chains.”

This unhappy man’s son had been bred to no trade. Subsequent to his father’s death, he enlisted into the Foot Guards, and served for some time as a private soldier. The pay being insufficient to supply his wants, however, he eked it out by taking the same steps as his father before him had taken. “Never was any fellow of a bolder and of a more audacious spirit than he; and after he had once associated himself with Drummond, the precious pair inveigled Shrimpton’s cousin William, who had come up to London to seek a place, and was then hanging about town, into bearing them company in one or two nocturnal adventures, in the course of which they managed so to shuffle the cards that he should appear to be as guilty as themselves.”

One night the trio sallied out over Hounslow Heath in quest of prey, when, seeing a solitary horseman approaching, William Shrimpton, though but indifferently mounted, and the clumsiest villain of the three, was deputed to rifle him of his valuables, while the other two kept in the background close by. The man was forced to give up his watch, his purse, and his horse. He was then allowed to proceed, and at the first house he reached he naturally gave the alarm. A hue and cry was raised, and William Shrimpton was captured. his two comrades, however, had meanwhile ridden off with the traveller’s horse, the watch, and the money. The man who had been robbed was willing to compound the felony, and agreed not to prosecute if he got his property back. Shrimpton promised he would find a way “to help him to his horse again,” and was as good as his word, “though the gelding was worth fifteen pounds”; but as for the watch, that was not immediately forthcoming, as it had been pawned in the interim with a gentleman of Jonathan Wilde’s vocation, viz., that of receiving stolen goods and restoring them to the owners at half-price a trade which was carried to a great length in the beginning of the reign of George I. The owner of the watch, however, sent 3s. by his wife to Shrimpton’s lodgings, or to some other convenient place appointed for the purpose, and thereupon got back his property. The pawnbroker took 25s. of this sum, and the rest was divided among the robbers. Ferdinando was “very much disobliged that he received but half-a- crown for his trouble,” and a rupture took place between him and his cousin which led to their real characters being detected.

A gentleman of the name of Tyson had been stopped in his carriage on Hounslow Heath some time before, and his coachman, one Simon Prebent, having endeavoured to drive away, was shot through the head. The gentleman was then rifled of all the money and valuables he had upon him, and left helpless in the road. The actual hand in this affair had been Ferdinando’s, but William and Drummond lay in ambush close by. Suspicion fell upon the right parties, and the three ruffians were apprehended. William Shrimpton turned king’s evidence against the other two, and at the ensuing sessions at the Old Bailey Ferdinando was indicted for the murder of Simon Prebent, and Robert Drummond for aiding, abetting, and assisting him. Both the robbers were convicted not, only upon this charge, but also upon several others of a like nature. Moreover, Robert Drummond had been guilty of a capital offence against public justice in returning from transportation an act which was made felony, without benefit of clergy, by sundry statutes passed in the reign of George II.

Under sentence of death, the two bravos behaved themselves with great obstinacy and resolution, and refused to give any detailed account of their crimes. Questions having been pressingly put to them as to their connection or complicity with other highway robberies besides those on account of which they were condemned to die, Drummond would say in a passion, “What, would you have us take upon ourselves all the robberies that have been committed in the country for ever so many years back?”

The barbarous murder committed upon Mr. Tyson’s coachman did not seem to make the least impression upon their spirits. Shrimpton, by whose hands the man was killed, never appeared the least uneasy, not even when the sermon on the murder was peculiarly preached on his account; but, on the contrary, talked and jested with his companions as he was wont to do. “In a word,” says his contemporary biographer, “more hardened, obstinate, and impenitent wretches were never seen; for, as they were wanting in all principles of religion, so they were void even of humanity and good nature; they valued blood no more than they did water, but were ready to shed the first with as little concern as they spilt the latter.” Inured in wickedness and rapine, they yielded their lives at Tyburn, with very little sign of contrition or repentance, on the 17th of February, 1730, Drummond being about fifty, and Shrimpton about thirty years of age.

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