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A footpad is an archaic term for a robber or thief specialising in pedestrian victims. The term was used widely from the 16th century until the 19th century,[1] but gradually fell out of common use. A footpad was considered a low criminal, as opposed to the mounted highwayman who in certain cases might gain fame as well as notoriety.[2] Footpads operated during the Elizabethan era and until the beginning of the 19th century.[3]


According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the origin of the term is not entirely clear, but it may be a concatenation of foot and the word pad, related to path.[4] This would indicate a robber who is on foot, as opposed to his equestrian counterpart.


Footpads always operated on foot and robbed people by first putting them in fear. Social and economic conditions, the impossibility of buying a horse, and their precarious state led them to commit robberies in the streets. Their actions were accompanied by brutality, through which it was possible to gain time and take the lead in case of reaction from the victim. Criminals found more safe and advantageous moving in darkness so as to put the victim in fear, escape and diminish the possibilities to be recognised by witnesses. Violence was perpetrated as a means to ensure a rapid escape from the crime scene. This was the reason why a footpad assault was accompanied by threats, violence, and in the worst case by murder.[5]

Life on the road - or, Claude, Turpin, and Jack, being a complete account of the most daring adventures of the notorious highwaymen, Claude Duval, Dick Turpin, and Sixteen-string Jack (1800) (14763476751)

Criminal System[edit]

Not all such criminals were indespensable usual practitioners, but they could have an occupation as assistant or apprentice of some master who testified in favour of their good character. Generally those offenders were organised in groups lend on the support of others. Much of them operated by necessity and joined already formed gangs. New affiliates were often accepted within the members. In the 1720s London was dominated by several large gangs, some of which counted even a dozen footpads reorganised then in smaller groups of few members.[6] A gang consisted of an association of different sub-groups of members who committed robberies together, since acting alone was less fruitful than operate with the support of companions. This organized criminal system was at the bases of a sense of cohesion at the lowest step of society.

The proceed of an assault was equally divided by the whole gang and every member had an active part in the criminal operation. It was supposed that who was part of a group of footpads had to protect cover up for companions if necessary.

Doctor Syntax and Highwaymen, 1813 - Engraving by Thomas Rowlandson.
Doctor Syntax – a popular literary character of the early nineteenth century – on horseback, stopped by three robbers armed with pistols.

Most noted Criminals and Gangs[edit]

While robbery in the streets was common, most of the men who committed theft were not necessarily violent, and in some cases their crimes were an expedient perpetrated because of need.[7] At the same time, some criminals became notable for their brutality. This was the case with Matthew Clark, who became notorious because of his numerous crimes, including the murder of a young woman, a maid working in a house he was burgling, for which he was condemned to hanging in chains.[8] A brief historical account of the lives of the six notorious street-robbers, executed at Kingston is an anonymous text (1726) first attributed to Daniel Defoe by James Crossley.[9] The scripture constitutes a testimony of how street robbery and its actors became the subject of cultural texture. According to the pamphlet this group was a small detachment from a large gang which in a first time was made up of about 32 members among which the noted Joseph Blake, alias "Blueskin", and Jack Sheppard.[10] Acting in different parts of the town they did not had a precise way of behaving and were often surprised, this was the reason why the numbers of the components diminished rapidly. According to the writer the outlaws committed the most efferate crimes after an escalation of minor ones. Through steps it was usual to begin first with pickpocketing then street robbery, burglary up to turn into a highwayman and murderer.

The problem of the Night[edit]

Since the majority of crimes happened during the night, when criminals could act undisturbed, protected by the darkness, in the late 17th century guarding the streets began to be considered a priority to prevent crime. Night watchmen guarded the streets from 9:00 or 10:00 pm until sunrise.[11] Notwithstanding this new strategy, footpads continued to operate.

The political world paid serious attention to the crime question and, during the 18th century, the institutions reinforced the legislative system. Violent offences were punished without mercy and eminent political figures did not hesitate to express their severe opinion about the difficulty. The magistrate John Fielding was among those who were interested in changing the social condition of the time. In a letter of June 1764, addressed to the Secretary to the Treasury Charles Jenkinson, he wrote about a footpad assault near Tyburn and Tottenham Court Road to the detriment of four officers.[12]

The problem concerning the introduction of an efficient system of surveillance in the streets was also subject to the reflection of scholars and intellectuals as even writers as Daniel Defoe who, in his pamphlet Augusta Triumphans , deals with the question of street robbery prevention. In the pamphlet the necessity of law enforcement is underlined and the presence of men active in catching criminals not only during the daylight, an activity reserved to thief-takers, but also by night. Several changes were made to the urban environment and street lighting begun to develop.


Criminals convicted were taken to trial at the Old Bailey, the Central criminal Court of Engand and Wales, and if sentenced guilty they were punished. From the late 17th century to the early 20th felonies could be subjected to different types of punishments depending on the case. Hanging was the most common penalty for the majority of crimes but during the 18th century it was restricted and new punishments were practised. Theft operated by footpads was often put under the category of violent felony and, for this reason, perpetrators were generally tried with inflexibility. The penalty for robbery with violence was hanging on the gallows, but judges occasionally condemned egregious crimes to hanging in chain near the scene of the offence. Executions were public as a discouragement to crime till the 1783 when the procession to Tyburn (the place in which hangings took place) was abolished. Different factors determined if the prisoner would have been condemned to the Death Penalty or minor punishments. Evidences, the nature of the offence and the offender conduct contributed to his or her punishment. Penal transportation and imprisonment were instituted as alternative punishments which were often perceived as a condition of pardon and mercy granted by the king.[13]

Tyburn tree

Literature and Culture[edit]

Crime and justice constituted the main ingredients of the substratum of 18th and 19th century English culture. In literature one of the most remarkable example of the presence of illicit in culture is Defoe's Colonel Jack (1722), a novel which has the shades of crime fiction. Following the theme of Moll Flanders , it shares many crucial elements necessary to understand how crime and justice were perceived at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century. Through his protagonist Defoe underlines how criminals (in particular street robbers) acted, living in a condition of permanent uncertainty. They, as Colonel Jack, were led to a murky path because of necessity and only few of them perpetrated violence.

Thanks to the journals and the proceeding that were of public domain, is known that the number of cases of violent theft was very small compared to the majority of prosecutions. Newspapers and proceeding publicised coercive actions and gave prominence to violence in order to attract the audience attention. Facilited by the rise of printed literature, proceedings could easely present a distorted view of events with uncertainties in the reported facts. Even if the principal aim of the printer was to promote an image of public justice, the clear intention was to procure entertainment. Great attention was given to thefts, murders and robberies in order to make the proceedings appear charming to a wide audience.[14]

Daniel Defoe. Line engraving by M. van der Gucht, 1706, afte Wellcome V0001507


  1. ^ The Argus, Melbourne, Australia; BRUTAL ASSAULT, 09 Jun 1904
  2. ^ Close (2002-05-03). "Stand and deliver: The history of the highwayman". London: Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  3. ^ Rid, Samuel. "Martin Markall, Beadle of Bridewell," in The Elizabethan Underworld, A. V. Judges, ed. pp. 415–416. George Routledge, 1930. Online quotation. See also Spraggs, Gillian:Outlaws and Highwaymen: the Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, pp. 107, 169, 190–191. Pimlico, 2001.
  4. ^ "footpad – definition of footpad". Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  5. ^ Rictor Norton, The Georgian Underworld, A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England,
  6. ^ J. M. Beattie, Crime and Courts in England- 1660- 1880.
  7. ^ Rictor Norton, The Georgian Underworld, A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England
  8. ^ Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, edited by Arthur L. Hayward
  9. ^ A brief historical account of the lives of the six notorious street-robbers, executed at Kingston : viz. William Blewet, Edward Bunworth, Emanuel Dickenson, Thomas Berry, John Higges, and John Legee : with a particular relation of their early introduction into the desperate trade of street-robbing and especially of murther : and of several robberies which they, and others of their gang, have been concern'd in by Defoe, Daniel, 1661?-1731-
  10. ^ Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, edited by Arthur L. Hayward, pp.
  11. ^ The Proceedings of th Old Bailey, Constables and the Night Watch,
  12. ^ D. B. Horn and Mary Ransome.1957, Letter from Sir John Fielding on highway robberies in London, 28 June 1764 from Volume VII, 1714 - 1783, Routledge. Accessed
  13. ^ The Proceedings at the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913, Punishments at the Old Bailey,
  14. ^ Robert B. Shoemaker, The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London