The Flying Highwayman

August 09th 2017 by Lydia Smith

A search through part of the John Munnings Collection (one of my favourites!) revealed the tale of a miller’s son who became the famous Flying Highwayman. Of course, the story of a man born into a milling family and in the business of robbing travellers is one I couldn’t resist retelling! Interested to discover the story of the mill world’s very own Robin Hood? Read on to find out more…
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“HIGHWAY ROBBERY Whereas Thomas Fowle of Devizes in the County of Wilts was attacked on Monday afternoon on the Plain near the 11 mile stone by two highwaymen, who robbed him of five guineas and a half and his watch (maker’s name – Grand, London, the dial plate is remarkable by having dots of gold between the hours; and the outside case has a small squat). The two men were well mounted on dark-brown horses, one of the horses has both hinder heels white; they both had surtout coats on and appeared to be lusty men. He who robbed Mr. Fowle was about five feet ten inches high and was booted and spurred. Whoever will give notice so as one or more of the above highwaymen may be apprehended, shall on conviction receive five guineas reward over and above the £40 allowed by Act of Parliament, to be paid by me: THOMAS FOWLE.”

This is the text from an advert that appeared in the Salisbury Journal in 1777, written by a Thomas Fowle about his unfortunate encounter with Boulter.

Thomas Boulter was probably born around 1748, to a miller from Poulshott, near Devizes. He grew up to become one of the most well-known and highly regarded highway men of the period, just short of Robin Hood! It is believed that Boulter’s mother was publically whipped, while his father served a prison sentence for horse stealing, leading some to suggest this could have resulted in his contempt for authority. Whatever the cause, Boulter clearly had a knack for this sort of work, he repeatedly evaded capture in an eyebrow raising series of events! Even though a highway man did not have the most moral task, Boulter prided himself on his gentlemanly manner. He acted with courtesy to any women he came across, and would sometimes return items of sentimentality to the victim (if he was feeling kind enough!). He also created a character for himself by taking great care in his appearance and clothing choices, maybe he wanted to remove suspicion by looking wealthy?. Personally I think this makes Boulter much more likeable, you can just imagine a ruthless robber dressing up nicely before going out to search for victims!

By the end of 1775, he already had a price of £40 on his head, clearly the miller’s son was already making a name for himself- good or bad! In an attempt to keep his gentlemanly image, whenever he would commit a robbery, he would often redistribute the loot to the poorest. He wanted people to see him as a generous figure and know he would never rob a poor man, even though they wouldn’t have much to steal in the first place. In his attempts to find new ground, Boulter moved up to Yorkshire. Here, however, he was less successful and was arrested then sentenced to death. It is possible that the Yorkshire authorities did not know of his past, because they offered him a pardon on the condition he would join the army. This offer he took up and was in the army for a grand total of 6 days before he deserted to resume his previous career!

It was after this that he met James Caldwell, the 2nd man in the advert above. Caldwell was different to Boulter; he did not share his taste for theatrics in his work, or his cordiality to his victims. The pair moved to Birmingham, where they were again arrested and sentenced to death. This time Thomas had enough money on him to bribe the guards into arranging his escape, which was successfully carried out. In a characteristic act of cockiness, he took lodgings just a few doors down from the prison, his logic being that they wouldn’t search for an escaped convict so close! His luck however soon ran out, he was caught in Dorset while attempting to flee across the ocean. In Winchester he was sentenced to death, and in August 1778 he was hanged alongside Caldwell.

This is one of the many fascinating stories you can find with just a little digging through the collections here. It goes to show how many weird and wonderful people, stories and events you can find all encompassed in our milling heritage. The world of millers is definitely not all fantails and flour, this tale is proof there is always something anyone can find interesting at the Archive! I hope you found the story of Thomas Boulter, the miller’s son turned famous bandit, as interesting as I did!