Toby. The highway (c—1811), also, fig, robbery on the highway 1812. Ex Shelta tobar, a road.
- Tobyman, vt. A highway robber. c: ca 1810-1880
- High Toby, Highway robbery by a mounted person.
- Low Toby, Highway robbery by a person on foot.
Dictionary of Historical Slang
Hounslow Heath was once part of the extensive Forest of Middlesex. Frequented by highwaymen and footpads, between the 17th and early 19th centuries it was thought to be the most dangerous place in Britain. When Gordon S Maxwell wrote “Highwayman’s Heath” in 1935 about the Heath he sometimes used the term “Tobymen” to describe the unsavoury characters that lurked there – a ‘High Toby’ being a mounted robber and a ‘Low Toby’ being someone who operated on foot. Here are some examples of what the two Tobys were up to, taken from newspapers of the time.
THE LOW TOBY
1751:- “Last Sunday a gentleman riding through a wood in Hounslow Heath did overtake a buxom young woman, who asked charity of him. He told her he would make her a present on condition she would give him a kiss, which she, after seeming reluctance, proposed going into the middle of the wood to be free from prying eyes. The gentleman followed her, dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. He then tried to claim her promise but before he could execute his gallant intention a lusty ragged fellow appeared who said the woman was his wife and demanded money, which the gentleman gave him, not thinking it was prudent to dispute with him.”
1760:- “Last evening , as a gentleman was alighting from a coach at a Hounslow inn, a respectable young woman (now supposed to be one of a gang) fell down as though in a fit at his feet, by which the gentleman fell over her. Others (of the same gang?) very kindly came to their assistance, some to the young woman and some to the gentleman, and got them to their feet, whereupon the young woman declared she had but tripped and all ended in laughter at the mishap; till on going into the inn, the gentleman’s laughter turned to anger when he missed his watch and his purse!”
1766:- “A few nights ago, among the passengers that were going in the stage from Bath to London were two heavily veiled females that had taken outside places. As they were climbing into their seats it was observed that one of them had men’s shoes and stockings on, and upon further search breeches were also discovered; this consequently alarming the company. The person thus disguised was taken into custody. It later appeared that he was a respectable tradesman who, having cash and bills to a large amount on him, thus disguised himself to escape the too urgent notice of the ‘Travelling Collectors’ who worked on the Heath.”
1778:- “On Wednesday night the carriage of Mr Riley, an apothecary of London was stopped on Hounslow Heath by five footpads who, seeing a box in the carriage, stole it and got away. The box contained mercurial pills, lozenges and medicated sugar plumbs, etc, of which the thieves fed so plentifully, thinking them to be sweetmeats, that they found themselves strangely affected, and were eventually caught by the Bow Street Runners in a wood, where they were found, from the large doses they had swallowed, in as wretched a condition as ever were a nest of poisoned rats.”
1801:- “A gentleman and his dog – a big mastiff – were stopped by a footpad near Hounslow turnpike. The fellow demanded his purse, not seeing the dog who was among the bushes. Whereupon the gentleman gave a whistle to the animal who had been trained as a guard-dog. Whereupon it attacked the footpad ferociously, biting him in several places. The dog, at his master’s words, guarded the fellow till he was handed over to the Watch.”
THE HIGH TOBY
1751:- “On Saturday night a gentleman was robbed of his wallet on Hounslow Heath by a single highwayman with a crepe on his face. A journeyman-carpenter, with a bag of tools on his shoulder, seeing the action, told the gentleman if he would lend him his horse he would pursue the highwayman and take him, to which the gentleman consented. The carpenter came up with the highwayman near the Tollgate and with the butt end of a whip knocked the highwayman off his horse and secured the wallet.”
1773:- “Among those who missed the gallows was the noted ‘Sixteen String Jack’, for robbing a gentleman on Hounslow Heath of his watch and seven guineas, who now for the twelfth time escaped the justice which has so long awaited him.” (Jack Rann failed to escape on the thirteenth occasion and was finally hanged at Tyburn on November 30th 1774.)
1775:- “A poor fellow was shot dead by the guard of the Exeter coach near Bedfont on suspicion of his being a highwayman, but on examination they could find no firearms, nor powder or ball, nor any money in his pocket. He had only a pair of gloves, an apple and a watch. His horse had saddlebags, in which they found two clean shirts. At the coroner’s inquest it appeared that he was a hairdresser in King Street, Westminster, and it is said being in liquor had got entangled among the horses of the coach and calling out to the driver to stop, upon which the guard too hastily fired.”
1776:- “The Bath stage was attempted to be robbed near Colnbrook by a single highwayman, but the guards fired a blunderbuss and lodged two slugs in his forehead. After he was dead it was found that the tobyman had no firearms about him, but made use of a candlestick instead of a pistol.”
1811:- “An extraordinary robbery was committed on Hounslow Heath by a highwayman who stopped the coach of Dr. Morris, in which were himself and the two Miss Somervilles. The fellow swore he would stab Dr Morris if he made the least resistance at which the doctor handed over two five-pound notes. The Ladies were much agitated lest the fellow should commit some barbarity but he replied, ”Nay, ladies, do not be frightened. I never did the least injury to a woman and never will. D—n me, keep your money, all I ask is a kiss from you apiece.“ The ladies had no chance but to comply with this bold fellow, whereupon the highwayman raised his hat very civilly and took his leave. He was mounted on a fine horse and well dressed and spoke with an Irish accent.”
Hounslow Heath only survives now in small fragments, one being Twickenham Green. In the early 19th century much of this common land was fenced and passed into private ownership. The Tobymen, high and low, that made their nefarious living on the Heath have all gone too. All we have left are the stories of their dashing and dastardly exploits.
“One night I had a dream – a vision, if you will. I was on a vast heath stretching desolate and wild for miles. I was alone yet in the midst of a great company – of ghosts that moved as shadows around me. Not malevolent spectres, you may understand, but vastly interesting, for in their dim outlines I recognise many famous in history, song and story.”
GORDON S. MAXWELL – “Highwayman’s Heath”
— from Martyn Day
CREDIT: The painting of Twickenham Green is by David Hankin