Stand & Deliver!

Coleorton Highwaymen of the 18th Century

It was a Saturday 19th April 1783 and Mr. William Biddle of Queneborough had had a good day at Leicester market and was riding home on the Thurmaston Road at about 10 p.m. with the proceeds of the day in his pocket. However his good fortune was not to last, at a lonely spot he was set upon by two footpads, Thomas Fretwell and George Leedham. He was pulled from his horse, threatened with a pistol and after a short struggle relieved of five guineas and twelve shillings. However our villains were not to enjoy their ill-gotten gains for long. The next day the pair were drinking in a public house in Coleorton* where the two strangers aroused the suspicion of the landlord, Thomas Price, who suspected they had a pistol in the bag they were carrying. The landlord sent for the constable, John Williamson, and on his arrival the bag was searched to reveal a gun shortened behind the lock and loaded with powder and ball. A struggle ensued in which Leedham attempted to withdraw another pistol from his pocket, but was prevented and the two were secured. A total of £5 9s and 6d was found on them (after the ale was paid for).

The men were bought for trial at Leicester Assizes on 24th February 1784. The principal witness was Mr. Biddle who identified the men as his attackers and described his ordeal. Other witnesses were the Landlord and the Constable. For the defence a man called Francis Smith attempted to give them an alibi saying they were in the Crown and Thistle in Leicester at the time of the robbery, but withdrew his identification on cross examination. Similarly, Bridget Tweet?, a maid servant, claimed the men were with her at the time of the offence, but again on cross examination her testimony was discredited. Prior to their life of crime Fretwell had been a linen weaver and Leedham a blacksmith. Both of them were natives of Hartshorne in Derbyshire. Three character witnesses testified to the previous good character of Leedham. Overall the trial seemed pretty fair.

At the conclusion of the trial both men were found guilty and sentenced to death. However, this was commuted to transportation for seven years ton the grounds that they had alerted (grassed!) the authorities to a planned escape by other prisoners from the Leicester Gaol. In 1787 Leedham and Fretwell were transferred from Leicester goal to a prison hulk on the river Thames, a preliminary step prior to transportation to Australia. These prison hulks were decommissioned naval ships, no longer seaworthy and devoid of their masts which were converted to prison accommodation. However, I have not been able to find any confirmation of their transportation, as I would have expected to find. Conditions on the prison hulks were dire, the men would be led out in chain gangs to clear silt from the Thames to maintain its navigability. Given that the Thames was also London’s main means of sewage disposal this was unhealthy work. It is possible they may have died before transportation could be carried out or even been among those who took part in the mass escapes that occurred on some occasions.

*The name of the public house is not recorded, suggesting it may have been a beer house, these were not required to have a name until 1825.

Terry Ward July 2022