Nathaniel Hawes, c. 1701-1721

Young Thief with Gentlemanly Pretensions

A juvenile delinquent who perhaps initially benefited from mercy shown by the court, Hawes was seduced by the myth of the polite and courageous gentleman highwayman and paid the ultimate price.

Childhood and Early Life

Nathaniel Hawes was born around 1701 in Norfolk. His father was a rich grazier, but he died before Nathaniel was a year old. Nathaniel was placed in the care of relations in Hertfordshire, and later sent to London to be apprenticed to an upholsterer.

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After about four years in London Hawes fell into "expensive company". This led him to steal from his master, which he did several times before he was discovered. He was apparently dismissed from service and went to another master, Gladwell Peyton. After only three months in service "upon liking", Peyton noticed several goods missing. Hawes then left his service, saying he was going to another master, and was seen "flush with money" and wearing "laced ruffles". Peyton instigated a search of the house of John Phillips, one of Hawes's acquaintances, and discovered several stolen goods, including seven and a half yards of satin, five yards of mohair, and 47 yards of camblet. Hawes confessed the thefts and said he had sold the stolen goods to Phillips. But when Hawes was tried at the Old Bailey in October 1720 the jury treated him leniently. Although the stolen goods were valued at almost eight pounds, the jury committed pious perjury and found him guilty of stealing goods to the value of 39 shillings only (less than two pounds), thereby sparing him the death penalty. He was sentenced to transportation instead.

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He was not, however, transported. Instead, he was pardoned and burned in the hand after he managed to shift the blame for his crimes onto Phillips, who had allegedly encouraged him to steal from his master. Phillips was then indicted in April 1721 as an accessory to the crime (receiving stolen goods) for which Hawes was convicted. Hawes testified that "he keeping idle company and wanting money one time, took a few remnants and carried them" to Phillips, who bought them from him, and that Phillips subsequently "encouraged him by bidding him bring what goods he would and he would buy them". Despite the fact that Phillips called several witnesses who testified that he had examined Hawes as to whether he had come by the goods honestly, and described his character as "an honest, industrious man", Phillips was convicted and sentenced to transportation.

Although Hawes equivocated in the trial, also testifying that he had told Phillips that the goods he was selling were his own, Hawes had clearly learned that betrayal was an important survival strategy for thieves. Later that same year he turned on another accomplice, John James, with whom he had "hired their Horses in Bedfordbury, and had committed 11 Robberies in a Fortnight". Hawes told the thief-taker Jonathan Wild of one of the crimes he and James had committed. James was tried in October 1721 for a highway robbery on Hanwell Heath. The two robbers had fallen out over whether they should return a ring to the victim who begged for it, claiming it had sentimental value. This was something gentlemen highwaymen were expected to do, and Hawes had accordingly returned the ring, but James grabbed it back. James was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed on October 30, having asked his friends "to purchase him the privilege of going in a coach".1

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"Thefts Every Night"

Hawes did not learn from the misfortunes of his accomplices. He appears to have been committed to New Prison, but he broke out, encouraged, he claimed, by a woman, "who instructed him and another in the means, and furnished them with requisites; to whom he said they were so grateful, that they first helped her over the walls, and afterwards escaped themselves." His male accomplice, William Burridge, later reported that "they did it by cunning, having open'd the door, and so made the best of their ways over two or three walls". He told the Ordinary that following his escape:

In another crime, committed with John James and Richard Jones (who was known as Dick the Countryman) on the 31st of August, he showed more evidence of his gentlemanly pretensions. The victim was a man going to market to sell hats, and when it was discovered he had only eighteen pence in farthings, they returned the money to him.

His final crime took place on November 24th, when he uncharacteristically committed a crime on his own. He approached Richard Hall on Finchley Common and held to a pistol to his breast, telling him to get off his horse. After Hall handed him four shillings, he managed to wrest the pistol from Hawes and apprehend him. According to the London Journal, it was his desire to steal not only the money but also Hall's horse which proved his undoing.2

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Refusing to Plead

At his trial for highway robbery Hawes at first refused to plead, another sign of his gentlemanly pretensions. He told the court that

Hawes was one of a number of highway robbers who adopted this strategy at this time as a means of expressing their courage and their contempt for the court, but like all the others he was eventually forced to relent.3 Hawes later justified his behaviour by saying he was "a man of courage and bold spirit, and if the court was so uncivil as to deny him his own cloths, he had no business to oblige the court, in pleading". He complained that the Old Bailey "used to be a Court of Justice, but was now a Place of Injustice".

Following normal practice at the time for those who refused to plead, his thumbs were tied together and "the cord pull'd till it broke several times". When he still did not relent, he was subjected to the ordeal of peine forte et dure. He was forced to lie down on the prison floor and 250 pounds in weights were placed on him. After seven minutes, he relented and pleaded not guilty. At the trial he mounted no defence, only saying that he wanted his clothes back. Needless to say, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

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The Ordinary reported that initially following his death sentence Hawes "show'd a great levity of behaviour, insensible of the wretched state he was in", but while in Newgate he began to show signs of repentance. He admitted some crimes and was keen to exonerate those who were accused of crimes he himself had committed. He pleaded that his story should serve as a warning to all youths who were so daring as to follow his path. After receiving the sacrament Hawes was hanged at Tyburn on the 21st of December 1721, when "he was not 20 years old".

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External Sources

  • Applebee's Original Weekly Journal. 28 October 1721.
  • London Journal. 2 December 1721.
  • McKenzie, Andrea. Tyburn's Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775. 2007, pp. 241-49.


1 Applebee's Original Weekly Journal, 28 October 1721.

2 London Journal, 2 December 1721.

3 Andrea McKenzie,Tyburn's Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (2007), pp. 241-49.

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About this Biography

Created by

Emily Spencer

Further contributions by

Bob Shoemaker