Retelling the fascinating story of Banbury's notorious 18th-century highwayman
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In May 1743, Banbury highwayman Mansell Sansbury committed his last crime.
The Birmingham Gazette tells us that: ‘The Birmingham Stagecoach was robb’d about two miles from Banbury, and about one hour after the robbery was committed, the noted Sansbury and his accomplice, who have infested these Roads were taken, being drunk, and asleep among the standing corn.’
The Sansburys were hard-working Banbury tradesmen: mercers, bakers, grocers. Mansell’s own father was a highly-respected cutler. Born in 1716, Mansell appears to have
been apprenticed to his father.
Young men generally waited until their six-year apprenticeships were completed at the age of 21, plus a few years so that they were established in a business of their own before taking on the financial responsibility of a wife and home. By this time they were generally around 30. But, at just 20 years old, Mansell ran off to Oxford with Margaret Allington, an apothecary’s daughter.
And exactly nine months after the marriage, a baby was born. Sadly little Samuel Sansbury’s time on this earth was brief: Mansell and Margaret’s son died at just eight days old.
Was this bad start in life, the point at which, Mansell Sansbury began to go off the rails?
His father Samuel, progressed up the ranks, of Banbury society as an alderman, a justice of the peace and eventually even qualified as, a ‘gentleman’. And there was plenty of money in the family; Samuel acquired property, and presented Mansell’s mother with not one, but two gold watches.
Mansell himself traded as a grocer from the corner-house between the Market Place and Parson’s Street. Life was comfortable. Even so, one market-day in May 1743, when everybody was pre-occupied in town, naughty Mansell lay in wait a couple of miles south of Banbury.
By this time, a network of coaching inns with helpful timetables enabled the business of highway robbery to become more organised. No more hanging-about in copses by the road, hoping that a rich traveller would simply happen along.
An accomplice would spend the evening at an inn on the coach road, quietly nursing a pint of ale, keeping his ears open and sussing out who was on the road.
If a particularly well-to-do party was travelling, the scout would race ahead on a fast horse to inform the highwayman, who would quietly get into position and wait.
Market-day in Banbury was on a Thursday at that time. The Birmingham coach left London on Wednesday, and arrived in Birmingham on Saturday, so it looks as if Sansbury was raiding a coach, on its way back from the capital.
Very sensible of him. Why? Well, travellers paid extra for carrying large sums of cash. A journey on the Birmingham stage coach to London cost £1 5s, but the passenger was; answerable for jewels, rings, watches, money, or plate, unless paid for after the rate of thruppence, for every twenty shillings value’ – a sort of insurance payment for the coach-owner. So it was cheaper to travel without cash on the outward journey.
While in London, visitors would call upon their banks to withdraw the necessary cash with which to acquire all the newly-available goodies in the shops. This was the age of so-called “luxury", when silks, spices, and china became essential to any upwardly-mobile middle-class family – goodies which they then brought home in their luggage.
One of the villages on the route was Bodicote, and this was where Sansbury decided to stage the hold-up. It may have been at Hopcroft’s Holt that Sansbury’s scout spotted his last target.
If the scout were to note that a rich party was preparing to leave early the following morning, there was plenty of time for him to gallop the ten miles to Banbury during the night to tip-off Sansbury, and for Sansbury to make his way to a convenient hiding place by the side of the road in Bodicote in readiness to way-lay the coach the following morning.
Everything went beautifully to plan, but unfortunately one of the items purchased in London by the travellers in question on that day was a consignment of brandy. After the hold-
up Sansbury sensibly settled down in a cornfield to lie low for a while until the heat was off.
Not so sensibly, he celebrated his success with enough brandy to send him off to sleep. Apparently, his faithful horse—there always has to be a faithful horse—hearing the hue and cry, attempted to nudge him awake as his pursuers closed in, but failed.
How anybody knows this is unclear, unless the horse gave a statement later. Anyway, Mansell Sansbury—notorious desperado and Banbury grocer – was at last under lock and key. Sansbury was kept in custody until the Buckingham assizes in July, where he was sentenced to death, and hanged the next morning at 7 o’clock. He was 26.
Julie Ann Godson's books on the history of Oxfordshire are available at Amazon.co.uk. You can read about her research at www.julieanngodson.com, and follow her on Facebook at @julieanngodson