Glamorous highwaymen and a brutal law code
The 18th century is notorious for its glamorous highwaymen and its brutal law code, which imposed the death penalty for around 200 separate and often trivial offences. Thousands of other criminals, often guilty of little more than opportunistic petty theft, were shipped in grim conditions to the American colonies and later to Australia.
During this period, Surrey’s population was growing rapidly, probably doubling in the second half of the 18th century. Parishes on the county’s river border with London, then the biggest city in Europe, were increasingly urbanised and overcrowded, notorious for ‘rookeries’ of thieves and dissolute pleasure gardens such as those at Vauxhall. Beyond the towns, the rural southern and western parts of the county offered a very different landscape. Here travellers dreaded an encounter with highwaymen on the unreliable roads and extensive heathlands, and country people considered poaching to be a right rather than an offence.
Although a small number of criminals such as Dick Turpin might enter folklore, the majority of cases concerned petty and opportunistic theft in areas of poverty. Sensational crime was, then as now, a rarity, but inspired broadsheets, ballads, and extensive reporting of murder trials and executions.
Probably the most famous cases in Surrey were the murder of the unknown sailor at Hindhead, and the Chennell and Chalcraft murder at Godalming. Both crimes became national news, and exceptionally, the criminals were executed at the places where the crimes had been committed.
‘Barbarous murder’ at Hindhead, 1786
The crime was shocking the sailor was stripped, robbed, mutilated and nearly decapitated beside the Devil’s Punchbowl and his body rolled down the hill but the story seems to have caught the public imagination because the young man was never identified.
Witnesses at the Red Lion at Thursley recalled that the ‘generous but unfortunate’ victim bought his murderers ale, and offered them ‘his further assistance’ on their route back to their ships at Portsmouth.
The murderers were seen in the act, and pleaded guilty at the Lent Assizes in Kingston. Their bodies, preserved in tar, hung in chains on the site at Hindhead for many years as an ‘encouragement’ to others.
The Chennell and Chalcraft murder, Godalming, 1817
On 10th November 1817, assailants murdered George Chennell of Godalming and his housekeeper Bet Wilson by crushing their skulls with hammer blows and cutting their throats. On discovery of the crime, Chennell’s servant William Chalcraft and his son George, reputedly a ne’er-do-well, were soon arrested. The prosecution was unusually detailed: the Assizes trial at Guildford lasted 13 hours and included a model of the house as an exhibit, as the case against Chalcraft turned upon the visibility of Bet’s body from the doorway, which he had apparently pretended not to see. Both were found guilty but always denied the charge.