Barely noticeable on the A360 which runs across Salisbury Plain is an old memorial, hidden away amongst the tall grasses and overgrowth at the side of the road. Cars speed endlessly by and most are going so fast that they never even notice it is there. This area of the Plain is considered one of the most remote and there is little else here other than farmland, with the abandoned village of Imber off limits down a distant track.
The stone, erected in 1839, is a warning against 'theives and robbers' (sic) after a farmer was attacked and robbed on his return from market. This was a fairly commonplace event, as farmers of Salisbury Plain were some of the wealthiest individuals in this rural economy, certainly better off than many, and they were always at their wealthiest on their return from market, their goods having been sold and money pocketed.
On this particular occasion, farmer Matthew Dean of Imber (the abandoned village which is owned by the military and can only be visited for a few days each year), was attacked on the exact spot where the memorial now stands, by four men. There was a lengthy chase and one of the robbers eventually fell down dead. The remaining three were apprehended, sentenced and subsequently transported to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) for 15 years.
Two memorials were erected - one is at the spot where the robber died, but this is now on MOD land and so cannot be visited by the public. The other is this one which is by the side of a busy A road, which was once little more than a quiet track. Standing at 1.6 metres high with a cast iron plate attached to the front of the limestone, it reads:
AT THIS SPOT Mr. DEAN, of Imber was Attacked and Robbed by Four Highwaymen, in the evening of Octr. 21st. 1839. After a spirited pursuit of three hours one of the Felons BENJAMIN COLCLOUGH fell dead on Chitterne Down. THOMAS SAUNDERS, GEORGE WATERS, & RICHARD HARRIS, were eventually Captured, and were convicted at the ensuing Quarter Sessions at Devizes, and Transported for the term of Fifteen Years. This Monument is erected by Public Subscription as a warning to those who presumptuously think to escape the punishment God has threatened against Theives and Robbers.
The warning is very clear - this is what happens to robbers who try to take what is not theirs. The fact that this was paid for by public subscription shows just how many locals were infuriated by the regularity of the thefts.
Visiting the Robbers' Stone
You can find the stone at w3w: shun.slug.herds
There is a layby just beyond the stone where you can pull in. Do not try to slow down on the road to look at it and do not walk on the road, as the traffic is fast and regular at that location - stick to walking on the grass verge and listen out for oncoming traffic. Likewise, do not wander through the surrounding countryside as it is MOD land and off-limits to the public. If you see a red flag flying in the area, it means that live firing is taking place.
From the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, Thursday 24 October, 1839
HIGHWAY ROBBERY, AND DEATH OF ONE OF THE ROBBERS
Mr. Matthew Dean, a respectable farmer of Imber, was returning from Devizes Fair, between 6 and o'clock Monday evening last, he was attacked by four men near Gore Cross Farm, two of whom seized the bridle of the horse upon which he was riding; the other two pulled him to the ground, and rifled his pockets—one pressing his nose and mouth to prevent his giving an alarm—the other putting his hand over his eyes to prevent his identifying them.
They took from his sidepocket, a pocket-book containing three £20 notes of the North Wilts bank; and from another pocket, one sovereign and a half in gold, and £2 in silver. The horse having galloped away during the scuffle, Mr. Dean, upon recovering himself, followed the men on foot and within 50 or 60 yards met Mr. Morgan of Chitterne, to whom he mentioned the attack. The men had but a minute or two before passed close to Mr. Morgan, and were then in sight. therefore turned his horse, and pursued them; one of whom soon lost sight of; the other 3 he kept in view until labourers came up, and they continued the pursuit, the fellows taking a circuitous route. They might now have taken them, we understand but fearful they had fire-arms about them, as threatened to shoot any man who came near them, Mr. Morgan thought it prudent to get further assistance, and called on Mr. Hooper, who immediately joined in the pursuit on horseback, armed with a double-barrelled gun.
Whilst running over the down, one of the 3, a stoutish man, fell flat upon his back. Thinking, however, that this was a mere trap, and that if they stopped to encounter him, the other two might effect their escape, Mr. Morgan and the labourers passed him, and followed the others. Soon after which, whilst the fellows were keeping their pursuers at bay, Mr. W. Sainsbury West Lavington, came up, and without a moment's hesitation went into them and desired them to surrender.
They were armed with large foal-sticks and threatened Mr. Sainsbury if he touched them. Upon which, Mr. S. holding up the brass end of a hunting-whip said, "If this is not enough for you, I have a brace of bull-dogs in my pocket (pistols) and if you make the least resistance, I will shoot you dead on the spot." The fellows then quietly surrendered.
The pursuit occupied three hours ; and at last the fellows were taken very short distance from the spot where the robbery was committed. They were excellent hands at dodging. The fellows in their examination before the Magistrates, said their names were George Waters and Thomas Sanders. They said they knew nothing of the robbery ; and had frequently expressed their willingness to go with those who had been dodging them about ; but that they for a long time refused to come near them. They were committed for trial at the Sessions.
The pocket-book was found on the down—the notes safe. the following morning the third man was discovered corpse on the very spot where he was seen to fall ; and inquest was yesterday held on the body before Mr. Whitmarsh, and a highly respectable Jury.
The investigation lasted from morning until night. The evidence having been gone through, relating to the robbery, the manner in which the man, after warm pursuit, had been seen to fall—his being discovered corpse the following morning, &e Mr. Whitmarsh made some observations to the Jury, relating to the crime Felo-de-se. A Felo-de-se (he said) was one who deliberately puts an end to his own existence ; or, commits any unlawful act, the consequence of which is his death.
It was therefore for the Jury to say, under the extraordinary circumstances of the case, whether the evidence would warrant verdict to that effect, or not. As it appeared from the evidence of Mr. Hitchcock, the surgeon, that his death was occasioned by the of rupture a large vessel on the brain, produced in all probability by over-excitement and exertion in running from the hands of justice, the Jury returned a verdict of Felo-de-se accordingly; upon which the coroner issued his warrant for the burial on that night. There can no doubt that the man was run'd to death.
At the termination inquest, his wife arrived. She stated that her husband left Fisherton (where he resided) about mid-day on Monday, unknown to her. He has left two children. The deceased was a strong-built broad-chested man, about 5 feet 5 in. high, a native of Staffordshire. A piece of candle, carefully folded up, was found in. his pocket.
The Jury was well pleased with the manly and spirited conduct of Mr. Morgan, that they entered into a subscription, for the purpose purchasing piece of plate for him.
On the next morning there was found, within twenty yards of the spot where the robbery was committed, a bag containing skeleton keys of different sizes, instruments for picking pockets, a box Lucifer matches, and a candle. So well provided with the necessary implements for their business, it is impossible to calculate the extent of robbery and burglary such a gang might have committed had they not been captured. About three-quarters of a mile further on, near some hurdles, were found a crow-bar and a pocket handkerchief, with a heavy stone, as large as a trap ball, tyed firmly in one corner: this, dexterously used, would kill a bullock : 39s. in silver has been picked up scattered about the down, and with it a small key taken from Mr. Dean's pocket.