Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Cautionary Tale for all Highwayman - the Sad Story of Sixteen String Jack

by Mike Rendell

I am not quite clear why some villains manage to capture the public's imagination as heroes while others are treated as a thieving menace. Take highway robbery -- there is nothing very subtle, clever or brave about brandishing a gun and threatening to blast somebody’s head off if they don’t hand you their watch (or whatever) and yet Georgian society seemed willing to treat some of these robbers as having a heroic quality, simply because they swaggered and boasted and liked to be seen around town with a pretty girl on each arm, while dressed in fine clothes which they had either stolen or bought using the proceeds of crime.

No more so than one John Rann, whose distinguishing “trademark” was that he liked to stand out from the crowd by wearing eight brightly coloured ribbons tied around each knee – hence his moniker of “Sixteen String Jack”.

Why sixteen? One story was that each ribbon represented a time when he had been acquitted of highway robbery…On one occasion he was charged with breaking and entering – but it turned out that he had an assignation with the girl who lived there; she had fallen asleep and rather than give up and go home, he decided to clamber up to her window on the first floor and “help himself”. He was apprehended by the watchman and dragged before Sir John Fielding. On hearing the evidence from the girl that she would have freely admitted the young man had she not been asleep, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case.

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum, showing John Rann  at Bagnigge Wells.

You might think that John Rann would count his blessings and keep a low profile.  But no, far from it. He headed out to the fashionable spa at Bagnigge Wells, disporting himself in what the Newgate Calendar described as "a scarlet coat, tambour waistcoat, white silk stockings, laced hat, &c", and publicly declared himself to be a highwayman.

He became quarrelsome, and somewhat drunk, and started to chat up one of the young ladies in the ballroom. This led to a spate of minor scuffles – someone prised a gold ring from his finger, at which he remarked that he cared not, for it cost but a hundred guineas, and why, he could make that amount in one evening’s work!

Not surprisingly, some of the assembled company at the Wells grew weary of his tiresome behaviour and gave him a right going over, and for good measure chucked him out the first floor window when he declined to make himself scarce. The River Fleet presumably provided him with a soft landing, and the Newgate Calendar remarks that “Rann was not much injured by this severe treatment; but he complained bitterly against those who could so affront a gentleman of his character.”

Ancestor Richard Hall's cut-out of a highway robber at work.

It had all started very differently. He was born in a village outside Bath into a very poor family. He had no formal education and for a while eked a living selling goods from the back of a donkey as he toured the streets. When he was 12 he came to the attention of a “lady of distinction” who no doubt was impressed by his barrow-boy chutzpah and way with words.

She took him on as a servant in her household and all seemed well for a couple of years. He came to London, got a job at a stables at Brooke’s Mews and in due course became a driver of a post chaise. But the ambitious young man wanted to impress -- and to do that he needed more money than he could get from his wages as a driver.

It appears that he extended his repertoire as a pick-pocket by chancing his arm at robbery on the King’s Highway – a capital offence if caught. He was dragged before the magistrates on a number of occasions but each time managed to talk his way out of the charge. He liked to adopt the persona of a modern day Robin Hood – well, he robbed the rich, even though he never seemed to follow it up by helping the poor.

He enjoyed being in the public eye – he turned up at Barnet Races sporting an elegant blue satin waistcoat trimmed with silver, to make sure that he stood out. He was followed by hundreds of people, who were eager to gratify their curiosity by the sight of a man who had been so much the subject of gossip. On at least one occasion he turned up to watch the fun at Tyburn, thoroughly upstaging the poor man who was about to be sent to the gallows. One story has it that he even bragged that one day he would be the main attraction, and not just a bystander.

He appeared at the Old Bailey in April, 1775, charged with others of robbing Mr. William Somers on the highway, and was acquitted for lack of evidence. Shortly afterwards he was again tried, for robbing a Mr. Langford, but again was acquitted for the same reason. The lad appeared to be above the law, and how he loved it!

A month later a Miss Roache (his girlfriend -- one of many), was caught trying to pawn a watch which Rann had stolen during a robbery “near the nine-mile stone on the Hounslow road.” Again he was hauled before the Bench and when Sir John Fielding asked him if he would offer anything in his defence, Rann replied "I know no more of the matter than you do, nor half so much neither."

His appearance in court was suitably flamboyant – the Newgate Calendar comments that he “had a bundle of flowers in the breast of his coat almost as large as a broom; and his irons were tied up with a number of blue ribands.” Once more, he got off...On another occasion he was sent to Marshalsea Debtors' Prison for failure to pay a debt of fifty pounds – he sent word to his mates and in no time a steady stream of ne’er-do-wells, male and female, turned up at the prison gates and paid off the debt.

Various other acquittals followed until one afternoon in September 1784 he stole items from Dr. William Bell, physician to the Princess Amelia. Bell gave evidence that he was riding near Ealing when he observed two men of “rather mean appearance” ride past him. The Newgate Calendar takes up the story: “A short while afterwards one of them, which he believed was Rann, crossed the head of his horse, and, demanding his money, said "Give it to me, and take no notice, or I'll blow your brains out." On this the doctor gave him one shilling and sixpence, which was all the silver he had, and likewise a common watch in a tortoise-shell case.

Later that evening Miss Roache tried to offer the watch to a pawnbroker in Oxford Road. He had his suspicions about the watch, and turned it over to observe that it had been made by a well-known watchmaker called Mr. Gregnion of Russell Street, Covent Garden. The pawnbroker contacted Mr Gregnion, who confirmed that he had made the watch for Dr. Bell.

The net was closing tight: John Rann and his associate, William Collier, were arrested and committed to Newgate, charged with highway robbery; Miss Roche was charged, along with her servant, with being an accessory after the fact. In the event Miss Roche was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years; her servant was acquitted.

When Rann appeared for his trial the Calendar reports that he was “dressed in a new suit of pea-green clothes; his hat was bound round with silver strings; he wore a ruffled shirt; and his behaviour evinced the utmost unconcern.”

He was so confident that he would get off scot-free that he ordered a fine supper to be provided for the entertainment of his special friends and associates. But the atmosphere became more sombre when all present realized that this time there would be no acquittal. A short time afterwards he was found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. Still the merriment continued -- on October 23rd he held another dinner, this time for seven girlfriends. It was by all accounts a mirth-filled evening.

[The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxford Street, Marble Arch.]

The hangman’s noose was finally put round his neck on 30th November 1774. James Boswell was one of the people in the large crowd which turned up to watch. According to the Newgate Calendar “when he came near the gallows he turned round, and looked at it as an object which he had long expected to see, but not as one that he dreaded, as might reasonably have been expected."

According to contemporary reports Sixteen-String Jack went to the gallows wearing his pea-green suit and all his finery complete with a huge nosegay in his buttonhole. He decorated his foot shackles with bright blue ribbons.

Some accounts suggested he enjoyed some lively banter with the crowd, danced a jig, and generally showed no sign of fear or apprehension. According to Boswell he was cheered by ‘the whole vagabond population of London’.

He was twenty four years old when he died.

In the Victorian era there was an insatiable appetite for stories about Rann's exploits, and even today there is a public House named after him at Theydon Bois, near Epping Forest. And in case anyone is interested in the paper cut-outs I have published a book of them (see here) and it is also available on Kindle  - see here.


  1. He sounds like quite a character! And you're right about people being bowled over by fascinating thieves. There was a bushranger called Matthew Brady who was highly flamboyant. When he was finally captured by a bounty hunter called John Batman(who went on to found Melbourne) he got fan mail, flowers, goodies, protests against his death sentence and went to the gallows gallantly, leaving a sobbing crowd.


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