Researching Highwaymen for GLIMPSE

Posted by on Aug 9, 2014 | Leave a comment

I’m a little in awe of authors who write historical novels. Crafting a good story and researching all the details is some feat.

I had a taster of that research with Glimpse, which is inspired by Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’ (published in 1906 but set much earlier; probably the 1700s, which was the heyday of highwaymen). While I didn’t need a lot of historical information for my plot (which is mostly set in the present day), a chapter or two relied quite heavily on it, and I wanted to be able to throw in an occasional detail here and there.

Here’s what my research looked like.

Voice and Language



I stumbled across the Huzzar website quite late in the process of writing Glimpse, but what a find! Huzzar is an ’18th Century Inspired Fashion and Lifestyle Webzine’. Their dictionary and ongoing feature ‘Diary of a Rakish Highwayman’ helped me *so much* when researching 1700s-speak and highwayman terminology. Though the Diary is rather more risqué than I wanted my highwaymen to be, I read every single post while editing Glimpse, paying attention to the style and pinching useful words. (Huge thanks to Rakish Highwayman author, Rob Lucas!)



Glimpse‘s main setting is an old inn once frequented by highwaymen, so I sought out a real-life example in London and had a gander. I blogged about it here and here.

Clothing & Image

Pimpernel ClothingWhen I came across useful images of highwaymen, I popped them onto a Pinterest board here. This came in very handy when it came to descriptions — I could just look at my Pinterest board for a refresher.

I also ran across an online shop called Pimpernel Clothing, which sells eighteenth-century style goods for the historically-inspired gentleman. When writing Glimpse, I mentally dressed a minor character from this shop.

Everything Else

stand and deliverBy far my biggest portion of research, however, came from one book: Stand and Deliver! A History of Highway Robbery by David Brandon.

I *loved* this book. Considering Glimpse isn’t that heavy on the historical stuff, it contained almost everything I needed, from basic facts to historically-appropriate names (in fact, the full name of one of my main characters is taken from a real-life highwayman).

I took numerous notes, and more than one plot point was inspired by the stories inside.

A few highwayman facts:

  • The eighteenth-century was the heyday of highwaymen. Highwaymen didn’t really exist  after 1830.
  • Most highwaymen were young men under thirty.
  • Many highwaymen died young, often after only one or two forays on the road.
  • There were some ‘ladies of the road’, but many disguised themselves as men.
  • Most highwaymen worked alone, to avoid being shopped by an accomplice. If they did work in groups, they would often use false names.
  • Most highwaymen killed their victims to prevent identification later. Some tied their victims up, and disposed of their horse by either shooting it or slitting its bridles and letting it go.
  • Despite this, there was a myth of the ‘gentleman of the road’, who was gallant to ladies and courteous to everyone. Highwaymen might give themselves false titles to appear more gentlemanly. There were stories of highwaymen giving a coin back to those they’d robbed, to avoid leaving them destitute.
  • Some highwaymen were gamblers needing to pay off debts; others were wealthy and did it for excitement.
  • Inns were considered safe havens for highwaymen. When staying at an inn, a highwayman could find out who was on the road who’d be worth robbing, and who would put up a fight. Sometimes the innkeeper would help them for a share of the takings.
  • Highwaymen faced the death penalty whether or not they acted courteously. They might be gibbeted (caged, sometimes while still alive) as a punishment and warning, and displayed at crossroads, gateways or near town walls. Sometimes their bodies were coated in tar and their eyes removed so their remains lasted longer. The last gibbeting was in 1832.

If you write, have you ever had to delve into historical research? I’d love to know what you did and how it went.

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