The 1791 Great Mail Robberies

On the 4th April 1792 Spence Broughton, formerly a Lincolnshire farmer, swung at York Tyburn for committing highway robbery.

On the 29th January 1791, together with a man named John Oxley or Oxen and with financial backing from a Thomas Shaw of Prospect Row, St. George’s Fields, Spence Broughton robbed the Rotherham to Sheffield mail coach.  Five or six days before the robbery, Shaw had turned up at Oxley’s house in London, No. 1 Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road, and suggested that Oxley, together with Broughton, should hold up the Rotherham Mail.  This being agreed to, Shaw lent the two men ten guineas and they travelled to Nottingham, catching the coach there from the Swan and Two Necks Inn in Lad Lane.  They slept the night at Nottingham and, the next day, set off on foot towards Chesterfield, stopping the second night at Sheffield.

On the day of the robbery they set out on the Rotherham Road, and were passed by the Mail heading towards Sheffield.  They intended to rob it on the return journey and so lay in wait for it on Attercliffe Common.  Spence Broughton had brought a smock frock as a disguise and he took off his coat, threw on the smock frock and an old little hat.  He then took a gate off an adjacent field and told Oxley he would lead the Mail cart and the Post Boy in charge of it into that field.   Oxley was directed to take Broughton’s coat and wait in another field.

Broughton, dressed as a labouring rustic, flagged down the Mail and then put his plan into action.  The Post Boy was not physically hurt, just frightened, and after he had bound him securely Broughton took the post and went to find Oxley.  The two men set off, on foot, for Mansfield, just over the Yorkshire border into Nottinghamshire.  Disappointingly for the two men, the only thing of value in the Mail was a bill for £123 drawn from Paris on the banking house of Minet and Fector and the rest of the mail was thrown into a brook.  At Mansfield they parted company and Oxley took the bill to London and cashed it.

post boy
St. James’s Chronicle, 1st February 1791.
(Proving the date of the robbery as 29th January 1791 and not the 9th February as it is sometimes given.)

 Shaw then suggested another robbery, to again be carried out by Broughton and Oxley, this time on the Aylesbury Mail.  On the 28th May 1791, this robbery was executed but nothing of value was taken and Shaw was left complaining that, as he had funded the venture, he was £14 out of pocket.

To repay Shaw, it was now proposed to rob the Cambridge Mail at Bourne Bridge.  Again, Shaw backed the enterprise financially.  Oxley recounted that they used the same ruse as with the Rotherham Mail, Broughton donning his smock frock and Oxley hiding a little way distant, but Shaw, who had some female connections with Broughton, deposed that it was actually Oxley who had carried out the heist on this occasion, the smock frock Broughton had brought as a disguise being too small for him, necessitating Oxley to wear it.

The Cambridge Post Boy could not see his attackers, it was too dark for that, but he remembered that the man who had bound him had been tall and well built.  Broughton stood 6 feet and one inch in height; although he was not related to the well-known boxer of the time, Jack Broughton, who had died a couple of years earlier, he was mentioned to be of a similar build.  The boy therefore identified Broughton as his attacker rather than the smaller Oxley.

The Cambridge Mail yielded bank notes, it was later estimated that perhaps even to the value of five or ten thousand pounds, but not all could be passed.  Some were burnt and some needed identifying marks to be erased from them before they could be used.

Within months all three men had been arrested.  They were captured when John Oxley and a woman handed over £10 notes from the Cambridge robbery at a silversmiths in Cheapside.  The note proving to be from the robbery, the silversmiths shop boy saw Oxley a day or two later and tracked him to a public house where he alerted a constable.  Oxley claimed he had been given the notes by Thomas Shaw and, while he was being questioned, the officers duly made their way to Shaw’s house.  There they waited for Shaw to come home but the first man to appear at the door was Spence Broughton himself who made a run for it when he saw that the game was up.  When he was caught his pockets were found to be stuffed with bank notes.

Thomas Shaw turned King’s Evidence and evaded trial (although the Morning Post newspaper thought him the most culpable of the three) and put all the guilt onto Oxley, trying to exonerate Broughton and himself; Oxley pointed the finger squarely at the other two before escaping the gaol he was being held in (Clerkenwell Bridewell) and the subsequent trial.

John Oxley
Newcastle Courant, 17th December 1791.

With the help of some smugglers at Folkestone in Kent he was soon reported to be on his way to America, escaping justice.  Spence Broughton alone then was left to face the music and he was moved from the Cambridgeshire gaol he had been held in to Newgate before being taken to York for trial.  It was reported that on his arrival at the York Castle gaol he gave £50 to the gaoler for liberty to walk with the debtors.  On the 24th March, 1792, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, and was told his body would be gibbeted afterwards.

On the scaffold Spence Broughton proclaimed his innocence and said that although he had intended to rob the Rotherham mail he was in fact six miles distant when the robbery took place, and that he was only guilty of receiving his share of the booty.  It made not a jot of difference though, he was duly hung on the York Tyburn gallows (the same on which Dick Turpin swung many decades earlier) and then his body carted back up to Attercliffe Common on the outskirts of Sheffield, the site of the robbery, where his decomposing remains hung in the gibbet for many years.

Attercliffe_Common_1792
Attercliffe Common, showing the gibbet on the right.

Spence Broughton was 45 years of age when he robbed the mail coach, but his earlier life had been one of respectability and good bearing.  He had been born in 1744 in the Lincolnshire village of Horbling, a few miles from Sleaford to a farmer named John Broughton and his wife Anne.  John Broughton had been married before but his first wife and daughter, both named Mary, had died. It is known that Spence had one sister, who was living at the time of his arrest and running an inn on the South road, and this is probably Frances, daughter of John Broughton, who was baptised at Sleaford on the 16th October 1741.

Three years later, on the 19th December 1744, Spence was baptised at Horbling.

GBPRS-LINCS-HORBLING_PAR_1_1-0044

On the 9th October 1770, at Folkingham in Lincolnshire, he had married Frances Graves or Greaves, by licence.

GBPRS-LINCS-FOLKINGHAM_PAR_1_4-0645

 She is sometimes mentioned as bringing a fortune to the marriage and was quite possibly the daughter of a prosperous local farmer.  Three children were born to the couple, a son named Spence for his father in 1771, another son, Greaves, in 1773, both baptised in Horbling, and a daughter, named Frances for her mother and Spence’s sister, in 1777.   By the time little Frances was born Spence Broughton was tenant of a farm in Martin, Lincolnshire, leased from Mr. King, Esquire, and Frances was baptised at the nearby church of Timberland.

It was after this that Broughton started to keep bad company, gambling and attending the races and cockings.  He was asked by his long-suffering wife to leave their home as he had run up debts she was struggling to pay, and he accordingly did.  He made his way to Lambeth where he took some lodgings and lived with a woman named Eliza as his wife.  He penned a letter to Eliza just before his death, reconciled to his fate but hating the thought of his body being gibbeted rather than decently buried, and in this letter he refers to his children and asks Eliza to see to their education.  He can’t be referring to his children by Frances as they were no longer young, and it appears that he had a second family by Eliza.

After his execution, Spence Broughton’s widow possibly married again, to a James Carter.  Her eldest son, Spence Broughton junior, became a successful surgeon in Leicester.

A postscript to this article belongs to John Oxley, reputed to have made his way to America. Reports surfaced that he finally met his end in the January of 1793, found frozen to death in a barn on Loxley Moor near Sheffield, although the body was never properly identified.  The clothes the man was found dressed in matched those Oxley had last been seen in though and he had marks around his ankles as though he had been manacled; he had been wandering in the area for some weeks and, it was said, had made the journey across the moor to visit the mouldering bones of his old friend, suspended in the gibbet. But then, in May, 1798, reports surfaced in the newspapers naming, ‘Oxley, the supposed accomplice of Spence Broughton, who was executed at York some time back for robbing the mail passed through Stamford, as a deserter from the 34th regiment.’  This was then countered a few days later with the following information.

A man, calling himself John Oxley, now in the Savoy, as a deserter from one of His Majesty’s regiments, and who asserted himself to be the famous mail robber of that name, turns out to be the same man who imposed the like story on the Magistrates at Northton, about a year and an half since.

So, was it John Oxley, hiding in full view of the authorities, or an imposter with the same name?  This man had in fact been questioned by Richard Ford, Esquire, at Bow Street in December 1796 after being taken into custody in Northamptonshire, but had obviously not been believed and released if he was at large in the May of 1798, even though on that occasion it was reported that he had confessed to being the same man who had been concerned in robbing the Rotherham Mail and who had broken out of Clerkenwell Bridewell.  Not for want of trying, it appears that if this was the same John Oxley, then he couldn’t talk himself into standing trial.

 

Sources used not already referenced:

St. James’s Chronicle, 1st February 1791, London Chronicle, 13th October 1791, Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 18th October 1791, Derby Mercury, 27th October 1791, Stamford Mercury, 4th November 1791, Norfolk Chronicle, 11th February 1792, Caledonian Mercury, 31st March 1792, Stamford Mercury, 13th April 1792, Derby Mercury, 26th April 1792, Oracle and Public Advertiser, 16th December 1796, London Packet, 11th May 1798 and Criminal Chronlogy of York Castle by William Knipe, 1867.

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