The highway robbery of Matthew Dean in 1839 led to the erection of two monuments, which still exist. The first is alongside the A360 between Gore Cross and West Lavington and marks the spot where the robbery took place. The second stone is just inside the Chitterne parish boundary at Chapperton Down. It marks the spot where one of the fleeing robbers, Benjamin Colclough, fell down and died.
The Chitterne Robber’s Stone is inside the Minstry of Defence’s Imber Range Danger Area, where live firing takes place during military exercises and public access is generally prohibited. A recent exchange of emails about the Chitterne stone with a keen photographer led to his disappointment. Not necessarily because of the Salisbury Plain by-laws – he could have chosen a quiet time to visit the stone – but because the photo of the stone on the history pages is out-of-date. Since the photo was taken a protective fence has been erected around the monument, rendering it less appealing for atmospheric photography. The text of the article about the robbery on the history pages needs up-dating too. Here is a better version:
Matthew Dean, an Imber farmer, was making his way home on horseback from Devizes market to Imber on 21st October 1839 when he was attacked at Gore Cross by four men. They pulled him off his horse and robbed him of three £20 pound notes from North Wilts Bank, a sovereign and a half in gold, £2 in silver and his hat. His horse ran off and after recovering Dean followed them on foot.
Nearby he came across James Morgan, a farmer from Chitterne, who rode after the four men and saw one of them discard his smock. Meanwhile Dean enlisted the help of John Baish, carter, and James Kite, the farmer at Gore Cross farm. They joined the pursuit on horseback with Morgan, but losing sight of one robber, carried on chasing the other three.
Eventually the three robbers sat down exhausted and Morgan left to get more help leaving Baish and Kite to guard them. William Hooper, a farmer, came to help with a loaded gun and a faster horse, but after threats and retorts the robbers made off again and ran for about a mile and a half. One robber fell and they left him and chased after the other two. Hooper’s brother James joined the others and when he confronted the two robbers they threw down their sticks and surrendered.
But Kite and Baish were reluctant to take hold of the robbers and yet another argument broke out. James Hooper went to get more help and the two robbers made off again with William Hooper, Morgan, Kite and Baish in chase, now joined by Hooper’s shepherd and his son. After about a mile the robbers were exhausted but still armed with large fold sticks. They threatened Mr W Sainsbury who came to assist with the arrest, but upon being threatened in return with Sainsbury’s whip and two pistols, they surrendered. While the shepherd was sent to Imber for a horse and cart the whole company headed towards West Lavington. The robbers gave up their arms when the cart arrived and rode in it to the Lamb at the bottom of Rutts Lane, West Lavington, where they were handed over to the constables. Deans pocket book with the £20 notes was found intact on the downs.
Next morning James Morgan found the body of Benjamin Colclough on the downs. Colclough had been a hawker, thirty-five years old, and had died from a ruptured vessel in his brain. At his inquest the jury gave a verdict of felo-de-se, ‘one who deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits an unlawful act, the consequence of which is death.’ His body was buried at Chitterne All Saints without funeral rites.
The fourth robber, Harris, was caught soon after and detained for further examination. He had been seen with the other three at various times near the site of the robbery and was found near a hayrick where he had probably spent the night. Dean swore he was one of the robbers, so he was kept in Devizes prison with the two others pending trial.
At the trial the three, Thomas Saunders, George Waters and Richard Harris, were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, present day Tasmania.
The stone monuments, built by Mr Sheppard of Bath, were erected by public subscription on the same day in August 1840, as a warning to those ‘who presumptuously think to escape the punishment God has threatened against thieves and robbers’. The ceremony was attended by many, and refreshments were provided at Tilshead Lodge by ladies of the locality.
This update is thanks to more recent research about the robbery and its aftermath by Lyn Dyson and Quentin Goggs. Their book, ‘The Robbers’ Stone’, is a mine of information and has much more on the trial and what became of the robbers. If you want to know more I recommend getting hold of a copy. It was published in aid of West Lavington Youth Club in 2012 and is available online.
Be aware that the map reference for this grade 2 listed stone monument quoted on the Historic England website is wrong! The correct OS Grid reference is 006477 Sheet 184 Salisbury. Thanks to PT for this information.