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While poking around Smithfield recently I had occasion to take a break in a local hostelry and over a pint started reading an old guidebook. First thing I learnt was that the Great North Road that links London to Scotland and was the main route of travel from medieval times until the 20th century begins near to Smithfield Market, and is measured from that point onwards.

The first datum point along the route was Hick’s Hall the first purpose-built sessions-house for the Middlesex justices of the peace. The Hall was built in 1612, on an island site in the middle of St John Street. Records suggest it was a pretty busy place and was the site of the trial of “The Monster of London“, which I’ve written about in an earlier post.

Site of Hick’s Hall

Hick’s Hall circa 1730

Today there is still an island in the road on the site of the hall (where the bicycles are parked).

The first mile marker was located around Hodges Row just south of Islington Green.

1 mile marker

The Green is not as much as a village green, but a parcel of left over manorial land that retained it’s public grazing rights. At one time it had a pond and several Ducking Stools. In the 17th century it was a much frequented location for courting couples, if a gentleman wanted to impress his lady friend they would probably walk out to Islington where he would lavish her with puddings and sweetmeats. A work of 1658, “New Academy”, alludes to the “Cream and Cake Boys” who took their lasses to Islington Green to feast on white pots, puddings, pies, stewed prunes, and tansies.

2 mile marker

Mile two sees us in the Highbury area. The traveller would have looked across the fields and seen either a ruin or a large manor house dependant on the era. The manor house was a substantial stone building used as a country residence by the priors of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, it was destroyed in 1381 by the followers of Jack Straw (one of the three ringleaders of the Peasants Revolt in 1381) in hatred of the prior Sir Robert Hales, and its moated site was popularly known thereafter as Jack Straw’s castle.

3 mile marker

The tired or thirsty traveller may well have paused at the three mile market and taken the short detour to the Devil’s House. A former moated farmhouse, it was converted into a tavern in the early 1700s.

4 mile marker

Arriving at the four mile marker, the traveller from London is faced with two sharp climbs up Highgate Hill before arriving in Highgate Village. Judging by accounts of trials I’ve read this seems to be the beginning of the area in which the Highwaymen operated. On the 29th December 1728 William Hucks Esq. was travelling towards Highgate in his carriage when at the bottom of Highgate Hill his chariot was stopped by two men on horseback. One approached the carriage and pushed a pistol through the window and demanded his Watch, Rings, and Money, which he gave him, telling him he had no more, to which the Prisoner replied, “I’ll take your Word for it.” The two men were Benjamin Wileman and John Doyle. Doyle appears at first glance to have been an unwitting accomplice and later went to the local magistrate to report the robbery and implicate Wileman as the man with the pistol. Wileman was later arrested and stood trial at the Old Bailey. He was found guilty of Highway Robbery and sentenced to death. During the trial several people attested that Doyle had probably set Wileman up. Doyle’s wife had been transported to Australia several years earlier and had somehow managed to escape before serving her sentence and return to London where she resumed life with her husband. This seems to have been common knowledge amongst their friends and acquaintances, however Mrs Doyle and Wileman did not like each other and after one particularly large argument Wileman had threatened to report her to the authorities, so it seems as if this was Doyle’s way of permanently keeping him quiet.

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