“The Trial of William Lewins”

Warrington Public Library. 1759-1791.

From Keith Hackney, New Zealand.

This article also appears to use as a source, Ourages—Fatal & Other: A Chronicle of Cheshire Crime 1612-1912 (published in 1991 by Didsbury Press of Manchester), by Derek Yarwood. See chapter 4 part 1.

William Lowndes the Highwayman was born on 17 April 1759, and began his early life as a weaver, probably working with his family in Smallwood.

He was also a part-time dancing master. Against his better judgement he was forced to marry a local girl named Elizabeth (Betty) Hayes, with whom he had been “carrying on shamefully”. He married Elizabeth in 1776 at Astbury. In 1779 the couple had a little girl, christened Alice on 11 April 1779 at Astbury Church.

However, William was bored with his young wife and lowly status. He had been educated “above his station” and sought greater things. He ran away from his family in 1780, never again to return.  

While his young wife in Congleton was probably wondering what had become of her husband, William travelled to Sunderland, where he had a brief but passionate affair with a woman named Eliza. By 1785 this relationship had ended and William began a liaison with one Amy Clarke of Alfreton, Derbyshire. They were married bigamously. The couple had two children and went to live in Chesterfield between 1786 and 1788 where William took up weaving to support his family.

Perhaps out of boredom, William now embarked on a life of crime with Amy in full support of his actions. During this period he robbed the Congleton to deliveries with the connivance of the post boy. He then committed more robberies in the northern counties. In 1778 he robbed the Warrington to Northwich mail, attacked the post boy and made off with “considerable property”. With some of this money he purchased cloth for weaving, which was delivered to an address in Matlock, Derbyshire. Part of his consignment was discovered at Chesterfield and by the autumn of 1788 he and Amy and one of their children, Polly Lowndes, were on the run. They boarded a boat for Ireland and laid low for a while.

In the spring of 1789, the time of the French Revolution, William and Amy were staying as the “Hutchinsons” with a Mrs Ann Crow, a landlady of Beaumaris, Anglesey. At midnight on 29 June 1789 William made his way to Dunham Hill, six miles east of Chester where he robbed and attacked the Frodsham post boy. By 1 July 1789 William was back at Beaumaris but a neighbour of Mrs Crow suggested to the latter that Mrs Crow’s lodger might be a fugitive. Mrs Crow then challenged

William and he packed his bags and left at 10 o’clock in the evening in the pouring rain. William managed to secure a passage on the Menai Straits and landed in Caernarfon. Here, he was spotted at an Inn, where he leaped out of a window and was last seen heading toward the Welsh mountains in his stockinged feet. 

Meanwhile, Amy set about following her husband. She hired a boat to take her to the mainland. After reaching Bangor she rewarded the crew generously. The crew bought alcohol with the proceeds and were drunk when they made the return to Anglesey. They all drowned. In 1790 William & Amy were somehow reunited. In this year they lived at Hexham, Northumberland. On 25 February William rode fifty miles across country to hold up the mail between Penrith and Keswick. On 3 June, at a bank at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he negotiated a bill for 541 pounds 8 shillings under the name of William Hope. Soon afterwards  he and his family settled in Darlington but on 7 June William had travelled to London where he negotiated a bill of exchange.

In the meantime, the G.P.O. offered a reward for the capture of “William Lewins” one many of William’s false names. He was described as being

“age about 35 or 36 (he was 35), 5’8/9″ tall, stout made, has remarkable good black hair which he lately wore tied behind, florid complexion, large lips, rather heavy limbed and thick about the ankles.”

William was so successful at the robbing of the mail that he became known as the Post Master.  

From London, William made his way to Exeter but was captured there by William Sorrell, Keeper of Exeter Castle Goal, just outside the grand style, entering in all the amusements and gaiety of Exeter.

On the day he was arrested he had been preparing for another departure and had invited twenty members of the local gentry to a farewell party. William behaved toward Sorrell with the “greatest coolness and intrepidity” and even threatened him with wrongful arrest. William was so confident that he would be released from Exeter Castle Goal that he wrote a note from his prison cell to his guests to sit down to supper and he would join them later on. Unfortunately for William,this was not to be. 

In September 1790 he left Exeter in irons and was taken to Chester to stand trial. On the way, Sorrell made William stand in various identity parades at Oxford and Derby and was generally made a public show of. Once in the Goal at Chester, William devised several escape plans.  

The first involved Amy smuggling into the Goal two saws and one dozen files which she strapped to her legs. When this plan failed William persuaded a fellow prisoner, Charles Williamson, who was a member of a  chain gang, to take an impression of the key held by a negligent and corrupt under turn-key. The chain gang member was to deliver the impression to a locksmith in Wolverhampton when he escaped. Charles Williamson did manage to escape but was recaptured in January 1791. Not giving up the plan, William asked Amy to bring clay to the Gaol and with the help of the under turn-key impressions of the key were made and later smuggled out of the Gaol. However this plan also seems to have failed. 

The next plan involved Amy bringing a bottle of Laudnum to drug the turn-key, Thompson. Forty-two drops were put in Thompson’s wine to  test his head. Three weeks later he died. William was suspected of poisoning him but there was no evidence to confirm this and Thompson  had died from natural causes. In another escape plan Amy sent two parcels marked “tea” and “sugar” to the Goal. This plan also failed when the weight from the parcels caused Amy’s servant-girl (who carried meat & luxuries to the Goal  for William) to be suspicious. The parcels were opened and found to contain files. 

In yet another plan William’s friend Charles Williamson managed to  knock the turn-key to the ground but not before the latter had thrown the keys through the window, raising the alarm. Another plan involving gunpowder also failed when someone tipped off the goaler.  There was to be no escape for William and he was finally brought to  trial on 18 April 1791. Here he was charged with attacking the post  boy James Archer at Great Budworth on 11 March 1788 armed with a  pistol and a stake with a nail through the end. 

When the prosecution’s case closed and the Judge, Chief Justice Bearcroft, asked how the defence was to be conducted, William took a piece of paper from his pocket and read a prepared speech beginning:- 

“I, an unhappy prisoner, most humbly beg your Lordship and this jury, to take my most desperate case into consideration; indeed for me, for I have been entirely deprived of making any defence for my safety; likewise very unjust advantages have been taken against me, contrary I think to law and justice”

He denied that he had ever been in many of the places in which he was accused of committing crimes and claimed that the witnesses had perjured themselves for the reward money. He declared that:- 

“the depravity of man is such, they will swear to anything for money”   

But this eloquent speech did nothing to save him. After a very short consultation the jury found him guilty. Mr Justice Barcroft told him  

“You have been convicted upon as clear a chain of evidence as ever appeared in a court of justice, and of a crime so dreadful in its consequences that the legislature has very  wisely thought fit to punish it with loss of life. For  if  

it were otherwise, there would be an end to all commerce. The property of individuals, as well as of the public, must be protected”  

The judge ruled that, after the execution, William’s body should be gibbeted.  

Two days before this, Amy came to visit William in the Gaol. On the next evening William wrote to Amy asking her to come to the place of execution. She did as he requested, bringing with her William’s brother. This may have been our direct ancestor, John, but it could have been one of the younger brothers, Edward or Samuel.

The execution was at Boughton on 21 April 1791. William’s brother and Amy met with the cart carrying William under the gallows. An officiating clergyman gave a prayer and it was apparently with great difficulty that Amy and the brother left William. Eventually, William dropped his handkerchief, the traditional sign that he was ready. The cart lurched forward and William was hanged, no doubt with the ever faithful Amy looking on in horror.

The next day William’s body was hung in chains on Helsby Hill where it would be a grim warning to other highway robbers.

It is significant that the name William was not used as a name for any of the children of the siblings of Post Master William.