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A life of crime

James Snooks was born in Hemel Hempstead on the 16th August 1761, the second of four children to John and Mary Snooks. That is pretty much all that is known of the early life of James Snooks.

The Highwayman. Image from Victorian Toy Theatre.

The next time the name of James Snooks appears is in connection with a case held at the Old Bailey on the 15 January 1800 where he was indicted for stealing a gelding valued at 91 shillings. The horse the property of Thomas Somerset disappeared from his paddock in Preshute near Marlborough on the 1st November 1799. On the 1st December 1799, the horse was discovered by one of Somerset’s men being driven along the Bath road on the way to the Cinque Port Fencibles. The investigation carried out determined that the horse had come into the possession of a Mr James Langhorne who had sold it in a private auction to a Mr Bishop who in turn had sold it to a Mr Marsden, a horse dealer. Mr Langhorne testified that the name “Blackman” was entered in his books as the person from whom he had acquired the horse. Langhorne also stated that after receiving a good character reference from a Mr Chancellor for James Blackman Snooks, he gave Snooks the money owed to him from the sale. After it was discovered that the horse had been stolen, Mr Langhorne’s foreman had searched for Snooks and after a game of cat and mouse had finally caught the prisoner. Snooks was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence since no-one had ever seen the horse in Snooks’ possession and Mr Somerset couldn’t be 100% sure that the horse had been stolen and not simply got out of its paddock[1].

Painting by George Stubbs via Wikimedia.

Although Snooks escaped from justice this time, he didn’t learn his lesson. At some point either before or after his trial Snooks took to the road and enjoyed for a time at least, a relatively successful career as a highwayman, his preferred area of operation being the road between Bath and Salisbury. That is until he made during one of his heists, a grave error in judgement which led to the hangman’s noose.

One theft too many

Hemel Hempstead in the 19th Century. Image from Herts Genealogy website.

On Sunday 10th May 1801 at around 10.15pm, John Stevens, a post boy was travelling from Tring to Hemel Hempstead when he was ambushed and robbed at gun point by a single highwayman mounted on a dark coloured grey horse. The man stole six mail bags full of promissory notes and letters. One of the letters contained a large sum of money comprising of £50 and £10 notes. In total the amount stolen was estimated at £500. Once the bags had been emptied of anything of value, he threw away the rest and left them strewn over the moor[2].

The man had chosen an isolated part of Boxmoor near Bourne End to make his attack, probably reasoning that the remoteness as well as being under the cover of darkness would conceal his identity. Unfortunately it was as he was making his get-away that he made a fatal mistake and one which he would live to regret. Along with the empty mail bags and the worthless letters, he also discarded a saddle with a broken strap.

After the highwayman had disappeared, Stevens made his way back and reported the robbery to both the Postmaster and the High Constable John Page (of the King’s Arms of nearby Berkhamsted). The next day they began their investigation.

To catch a highwayman

During the course of his enquiries, Page discovered that several people remembered seeing a man at the King’s Arms fixing a broken girth strap[3]. The man in question was identified as James Snooks. Snooks had previously worked for Page as an ostler a year or so earlier. He was known to have lived in Hemel Hempstead in 1800 and so was perfectly positioned to observe the post boy’s route[4].

The next step was to find Snooks. On top of the ususal £100 reward offered for the capture of highwaymen by Parliament, a further £200 remuneration was promised by the Postmaster General. The high price on Snooks head shows just how serious and determined the officials were to bring Snooks to justice.

The London Chronicle in May 1801 published an article on the crime in which they recounted what took place on the night in question as well as giving a detailed description of Snooks. In most myths, novels and folklore highwaymen tend to be cast into the role of debonair, handsome, roguish adventurers. In the case of Snooks this couldn’t be further from the truth. He was described as in his late 30s/early 40s, 5 feet 10/11 inches tall with short light brown hair and a face left pitted due to smallpox. The Chronicle also states that Snooks was last seen leaving his lodgings at 3 Woodstock Street wearing a blue coat, black velvet collar, Marcella waistcoat with blue and white stripes, velveteen breaches and dark coloured stockings[5].

Snooks had after leaving the King’s Arms headed to Southwark before continuing on to Hungerford. Why he decided to return to his home town where he was well-known seems strange; maybe he was panicking, maybe he was arrogant or maybe he simply trusted in his friends and family to protect him.

London Stage Coach. Via Wikimedia.

Despite his precarious situation it was reported that Snooks could not help bragging about his nefarious deeds and finally his luck ran out. On the 8th December 1801 whilst driving a post-chaise through Marlborough Forest, the driver William Salt recognised Snooks and with the help of his passengers managed to apprehend him[6]. Salt had gone to the same school as Snooks and so was in no doubt about whom he was capturing. When searched £200 were found on Snooks’ person as well as a brace of pistols. Snooks’ career as a highwayman was over.

The evidence

Although it was pretty much universally accepted that Snooks had been the man behind the highwayman’s mask, proving it was a little harder. Due to the theft having taken place at night Stevens was unable to conclusively identify Snooks as the thief.

Earliest £5 note (18th century). Image copyright Bank of England.

The nail in the coffin turned out in the end to be the money itself. Whilst in Southwark, Snooks had despatched a servant to purchase some cloth for a coat on his behalf and to bring him back the change. accidentally he had given the girl £50 instead of a £5 note[7]. £50 in 1800 would have been worth about £900 in today’s money. This note aroused the trader’s suspicions and he contacted the authorities. On investigation the note was traced back to the Tring mail robbery. Snooks must have been aware of his blunder and this was probably why he fled Southwark in such haste.

Trial and Judgement

The Old Bailey. Image via BBC website.

Hanging in chains. Image via Wikimedia.

Snooks was initially imprisoned in Newgate prison before being transferred to Hertford gaol on the 4th March 1802. The trial was held at the Hertford Assizes five days later. The verdict was guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged. Transportation was not an option as the crime was considered “of a nature so destructive to society and the commercial interests to the country”[8].

The actual sentence was for Snooks to be hanged in chains, a rather gruesome means of execution. Page, now promoted to the position of High Constable of the Hundred of Dacorum was given the task of deciding where the execution was to take place. Page decreed it would be held at the place where the crime had been committed. This ruling was not unusual and was often used when officials wanted to make an example out of a particular case.

By the start of the 1800s people were starting to lose their taste for grisly public executions and that was probably the reason why the residents of Boxmoor decided to petition the court to commute the sentence to that of a simple hanging.

Execution day

Two days later on the 11th March 1802, James Snooks was taken from the gaol and transported to his final destination on Boxmoor. As custom dictated the condemned man was allowed to stop for one final drink. It was reported that Snooks when faced with his escorts’ impatience exclaimed “it’s no good hurrying – they can’t start the fun until I get there[9].

Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice. Via Wikimedia.

A large crowd had been gathering since early that morning to witness justice being served. The day had been declared a local holiday and people were excited and eager to hear the highwayman’s last words. Unfortunately from their point of view Snooks failed to live up to their expectations. His audience made their feelings clear as they stamped and hissed as he spoke about the necessity to observe the Sabbath and the need for children to listen to their parents and follow their advice in order to avoid being drawn into a life of crime[10]. At the end of his monologue he offered his gold watch to anyone who was prepared to assure him of a decent burial. No-one accepted his offer and he was strung up from one group of five horse-chestnut trees[11]

Robert Snooks grave, Boxmoor. Image by Rob Farrow Creative Commons license.

His body was eventually cut down and unceremoniously tossed into a makeshift grave which had been layered with straw. A rather unpleasant scene then ensued with the executioner trying to strip the corpse of its clothes insisting that it was his right. Page had to step in and stop the chaos and prevent any further desecration of the body. He ordered the remaining straw to be thrown in on top of the corpse and the grave to be filled in. The officials then retired to the Swan Public House for a drink.

The next day the villagers obviously had a change of heart as they returned to the execution site, exhumed the body, placed it in a wooden coffin and then reburied it at the same spot.

In 1904 the Box Moor Trust placed a small white headstone on a site which is believed to have been the area where Snooks was hanged. The exact location of the grave is unknown. The inscription on the gravestone is simply “Robert Snooks 11th March 1802”. James Snooks has gone down in history as Robert Snooks probably due to a corruption of his nickname ‘Robber Snooks’[12]. The headstone and a small footstone placed in 1994 now stand some 20m off the A41 on Boxmoor Common between Bourne End and Boxmoor.

The last highwayman to be hanged in England

Satire 4120. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Snooks himself was a common all garden thief. There was nothing distinctive about him in life but in death he achieved a rather unexpected notoriety, that of the last highwayman to be hanged in England.

The occupation of highwayman was becoming less attractive as a criminal activity and by 1815 it was rare for mounted robberies to take place. There were a number of reasons for this decline. One of which was the expansion of gated and manned toll roads and turnpikes which hampered the highwaymen’s escape. Another reason was the increase in 1800 of horse patrols. This together with the newly formed police service[13] which had started in London in 1805 had resulted in pushing the highwayman’s area of operation away from the city and further into more remote locations[14]. A final obstacle and the one that had been Snooks’ downfall was the introduction and greater use of notes as currency. Notes as Snooks found out were traceable and so harder to get rid of than gold[15]. The golden era of the highwayman was over.

M0012499 Tottenham Court Road Turnpike, about 1800.  Wellcome Collection.

Into folklore

As tradition dictates Snooks has become somewhat of a mythical figure and a number of supernatural stories have become associated with him.

Robert Snooks gravestone. Image by Rob Farrow, creative commons license.

It is said that if you run around the four trees where Snooks was hanged you will see his ghost. A slight issue with this particular story but one which seems not to bother this particular restless spirit, is that the trees which now stand near the grave are not the same ones as in 1802 (the original trees were cut down years ago when they became diseased)[16].

One legend states that if you walk around the gravestone three times and call out Snooks name he will materialise[17]. A slight variation on this theme recounts that if you summon Snooks whilst circling the stone twelve times he will appear and join you in a danse macabre!

On a number of occasions it has been reported that the grave site has been disturbed at night by people trying to find Snooks skull and bones to use them in magical rituals[18].

Lastly fresh flowers are often seen at the stone along with children’s drawings. [19]. For me for some reason the idea of children’s sketches being given almost as an offering sends a chill up my spine.


Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
Last highwayman hung in Hemel Hempstead, http://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/hemel-hempstead/last-highwayman-hung-in-hemel-hempstead
James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
Snook’s Grave, http://www.thegranthams.co.uk/paul/graves/snooks.html
Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
Whores and Highwaymen, Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth Century Metropolis by Gregory J. Dunston, 2012
Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
Beware, the ghost of highwayman Snooks, http://www.hemeltoday.co.uk/news/beware-the-ghost-of-highwayman-snooks-1-6380931
10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight


[1] The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight
[2] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[3] ibid
[4] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[5] Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
[6] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[7] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[8] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[9] ibid
[10] Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
[11] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[12] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[13] Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
[14] James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
[15] Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
[16] Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
[17] 10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
[18] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[19] Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002