A Stick-Up At Six Mile Stone
It is my pleasure to introduce the third of four features this week written by Julian Woodford, celebrating the publication of his biography of East End gangster & corrupt magistrate, Joseph Merceron, The Boss of Bethnal Green.
Click here to reserve one of the last tickets left for The Boss of Bethnal Green launch tonight, Thursday 3rd November, at the Hanbury Hall or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free ticket for Julian Woodford’s lecture at Waterstones Piccadilly next Tuesday 8th November.
Drawing by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1794
The Great North Road out of London to York, Edinburgh and all points in between, began at Smithfield Market. Distances to the north were measured from Hicks’ Hall, the former courthouse of the Middlesex magistrates at the southern end of St John St, and marked by milestones along the road. Travellers passed the first stone at Islington Green, milestones two and three were found at Highbury Corner and Holloway, before they met Four Mile Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill and then, after a steep climb, Five Mile Stone was to be discovered on North Hill – one of the few stones surviving today.
It so happens that I live off the Great North Road, in East Finchley, just yards from the site of Six Mile Stone. In the eighteenth century, this area was known Finchley Common, the most dangerous place in London for highwaymen. This was where Jack Sheppard, Spitalfields’ notorious son and model for MacHeath in The Beggar’s Opera, was recaptured while disguised as a butcher after his amazing escape from Newgate in 1724. Just up the road, Oak Lane commemorates Turpin’s Oak, an ancient tree where Dick Turpin was said to linger. At Six Mile Stone itself was a gibbet where the bodies of executed highwaymen were hung in chains and left to rot for the birds to feed upon, as a discouragement to other miscreants from attracted to this malevolent trade:
Thy common, Finchley, next we measure,
Whose woodland views would give us pleasure,
But that they many a wretch exhibit,
Too near the high road, on a gibbet.
The records of the Old Bailey, Newgate Calendar and other journals of the period abound with tales of these bloodthirsty rascals and the fates they suffered when apprehended. In one example, shortly after 5pm on Thursday 11th March 1773, Henry Cothery was driving his wife and four-year-old daughter Ann in a small one-horse chaise across the common towards their home in the City of London. Cothery was master of The Green Man livery stables on Coleman St, near the Guildhall and the family had spent the day visiting his elderly father in Barnet. As they neared Six Mile Stone, they were clumsily overtaken by a man on horseback. Cothery was remarking that the man must be drunk when he turned, whipped out a pistol and yelled ‘Stop, your money!’
Cothery’s attempts to fob off the highwayman with a couple of coins backfired when the fellow grew more aggressive. Little Ann Cothery became tearful and the man softened, saying ‘Don’t be frightened, Ma’am,’ but persisted in his demand. The Cotherys had only a few pounds. Fearing for their lives, they handed over the money and the robber galloped away towards London, as Cothery yelled ‘A Highwayman, A Highwayman!’
Some passersby on horseback gave chase. As the pursuit careered down Highgate Hill and into Holloway, the posse grew larger and a mad chase ensued, with the highwayman flying through turnpike gates and occasionally turning to fire his pistol. Eventually, his horse tiring, he was cornered in a brickfield to the north of Shoreditch and forced to surrender. Identifying himself as Thomas Broadhead, he was dragged to the magistrates’ office in Worship St and confronted by Justice Davy Wilmot, the much-feared and satirised magistrate of Bethnal Green.
Wilmot was an illiterate builder and slum landlord who had risen to the dizzy heights of the magistracy through a corrupt trade in verdicts, pardons and bribes. Broadhead was charged with committing multiple highway robberies that afternoon and, when he was tried a few weeks later at the Old Bailey, Henry Cothery and his wife were witnesses. The evidence was conclusive and, despite six character witnesses in his favour, Thomas Broadhead was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed in Newgate and we may presume his body was carted back to East Finchley and exhibited upon the gibbet at Six Mile Stone.
In July 1787, Justice Davy Wilmot was usurped as the leader of Bethnal Green’s local government by the twenty-three-year-old Joseph Merceron, the son of a Brick Lane pawnbroker. Then, on 21st May 1791, at St Stephen’s church, Coleman St, Joseph Merceron was married to Henry Cothery’s daughter Ann.
Hicks’ Hall, St John Street, Clerkenwell, 1730
The surviving Five Mile Stone at North Hill, Highgate
Map of Finchley Common
The gibbet on Finchley Common c.1800, by Graham Pope
Jack Sheppard, born in Whites Row, Spitalfields
Dick Turpin, reputedly served an apprenticeship in Whitechapel
Joseph Merceron’s marriage certificate
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