Travel on the highways of 18th century England could be a dangerous experience, the risk of attack by footpads and highway men was real. It was said at one time that highway men were ‘as common as crows’. In 1772 the death penalty was imposed for being armed and disguised on high roads and open heaths. The following dramatic report of the arrest of two footpads in Coleorton was reported in the Leicester & Nottingham Journal of the 26th April 1783 and in various other local papers.
On Monday last was committed to the Gaol of this county by the Rev. Mr. Clayton, of Ravenstone, Thomas Fretwell and George Leedham, on suspicion of having committed a robbery on the Highway, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch; two loaded pistols a crepe handerkerchief (as a mask perhaps) and a wig for disguise were found upon them.
The manner of their being apprehended was thus: They were drinking at a public house at Coleorton, and the Landlord 1having felt something in a bag which one of ‘em had, that he took to be a pistol, he sent for a constable and searched it, when they found a gun cut short to the length of about six inches in the barrel, and shortened behind the lock; it was loaded with powder and ball; upon this they seized both the men; Leedham hastily put his hand in his pocket, and endeavoured to pull out a very neat pocket-pistol loaded, but was prevented and immediately secured. There was in the bag, besides the short gun a light coloured cloth coat with some spots of blood upon the back of it, three shirts, two pairs of blue and white thread stockings and some other things.
Fretwell is 5 feet 6 inches high, by trade a linen weaver, 31 years of age, fresh complexion and light hair, nearly red, which is lank and hangs down his shoulders.
Leedham is 5 feet 8 inches high, by trade a blacksmith, 22 years of age, his own dark brown hair curled, thick eyebrows and roundish face.
Since apprehending the above prisoners, it appears that they are the two persons who stopped Mr. Biddle of Queneborough, on Saturday night last in Thurmaston Lane as he was returning from Leicester Market. One of whom, Fretwell, as he believes, put the short gun to his breast, whilst Leedham held the horses bridle and pointed at him a pistol, threatening to shoot him: Mr. Biddle took hold of the gun to turn the point from his breast, and for four or five minutes expostulated with them, till they pulled him from his horse and threw him down, in which situation they rifled his pockets and took five guineas in gold and twelve shillings in silver. This was about 10 o'clock at night and dark. Nearly the above sum of money was found upon 'em when taken.
Any person or persons having been robbed, or who can give any account of the above men, would do service to the public by communicating any information respecting then to Mr. Jordon, Gaoler for the County of Leicester.
Thomas Fretwell and George Needham were both found guilty of highway robbery at the next Leicester Assizes and sentenced to death. However, both men appear to have escaped the hangman’s noose. In a subsequent appeal in February 1784 the Mayor and principal magistrates of Leicester recommended clemency for Needham on the grounds that he had alerted the authorities to a planned escape by the other prisoners in Leicester Gaol. In consideration of this, his sentence was commuted to transportation out of the country for seven years. Fretwell was also granted clemency and sentenced to 4 years transportation. However, the sentences were not carried out until 1787 when Needham and Fretwell were transferred from Leicester Gaol to a prison hulk on the river Thames prior to transportation. I have not been able to confirm the destination to which they were transported.