On November 9, 1690 near South Mimms, several highwaymen stopped a London-bound convoy and robbed it of the £15,000 in taxes it was carrying from the Midlands. During the holdup the highwaymen waylaid other passing travelers, plundered them and tied the victims to nearby trees.
Despite some arrests and the threat of execution by hanging, bands of highwaymen continued to target travellers in the area. One of the most famous of these highway crimes occurred on the summer evening of August 23, 1692. John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, veteran of the battles of Sedgemoor and Walcourt, was riding in his coach attended by an escort of dragoons along the St Albans Road (he had an estate in St Albans). The coach carried a treasure chest packed with gold and silver coins. A band of perhaps 40 highwaymen ambushed Marlborough and his retinue. In the ensuing melee with the dragoons, as many as 10 highwaymen were killed. The bandits nevertheless managed to relieve the duke of 500 guineas. The ringleader of this and other escapades in the area was ‘Captain’ James Whitney.
Whitney was born into a poor family in Stevenage in about 1660. He started work as a butcher’s apprentice in Hitchin, and later became the landlord of the George Inn at Cheshunt (some sources report the name of the establishment as the White Bear or the Bell). His position as a publican put Whitney in contact with a stream of colourful characters, and highwaymen were among his patrons.
The business however proved unprofitable, and some of his criminal friends tried to convince Whitney to join their ranks and ‘take to the road.’ Tempted by visions of adventure and riches, the landlord ultimately agreed. Whitney’s cleverness, and perhaps his penchant for fancy clothes and manners, soon had him promoted to leader of his own gang, and he came to be referred to as ‘Captain’.
The size of the band varied, and Whitney periodically broke up the group and operated alone – the latter a tactic intended to confuse the authorities. The number of Whitney’s gang is reported to have been anywhere between 30 and 80 men. He is thought to have had 50 by 1690 when he targeted the coach at Wash Lane in South Mimms carrying £15,000 of tax money.
James Whitney was arrested and sent to Newgate prison. He was eventually caught and hanged at Tyburn for his crimes in 1693.