Charming rogue or dangerous outlaw? The timeless story of Thomas Easter, East Anglia’s dandy highwayman
- Credit: Archant
There's something oddly romantic about timeless tales of masked highwaymen. Arts editor Andrew Clarke speaks to writer-director Cordelia Spence about East Anglia's very own Dick Turpin
'Stand and deliver! Your money or your life!' This was the cry of many a dandy highwayman during the Georgian period. Figures like Dick Turpin were romantic rascals, dashing rogues that plundered the rich and charmed the ladies like land-bound pirates.
This may sound like an overly sentimental view of dangerous thieves and vagabonds who could have easily shot or stabbed you as they relieved you of your cash or jewellery but Old Bailey court records and witness statements reveal that many of them viewed themselves in such a manner. Dressed in a flamboyant way, some referred to themselves as a modern Robin Hood or as Knights of the Road.
One such individual was Thomas Easter from the village of Aylsham, in north Norfolk, close to the country estates of Blickling and Felbrigg.
Easter was East Anglia's dashing highwayman, frequently working all along what is now the A140 between Norfolk and Suffolk but eventually followed the rich pickings all the way to London where he was finally run to ground after he failed to gallantly rob a man of means on Putney Heath.
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His obstinate, intended victim told the court of Easter's dashing nature and charming manners. Court records tells of Easter introducing himself as 'a Gentleman of the Road' and how he was 'raising contributions upon the public'. When challenged by the offended aristocrat, Easter explained further: 'I rob the rich to give to the poor.' A real Robin Hood figure.
But, his image as a dashing and charming rogue was not enough to save him. Having been betrayed by an accomplice Easter was hanged at Tyburn weeks before Turpin's own execution in York.
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Apart from the trial transcripts little is known of Thomas Easter, but this is perfect for writer and theatre director Cordelia Spence, who has teamed up with fellow writer Tim Lane to put Easter into an East Anglian romp which offers audiences plenty of swash and buckle along with some atmospheric, folk-songs. The songs are designed to continue the story as well as reveal something of the inner thoughts and lives of the principal characters. Cordelia adds that where the facts are scant, she felt free to embellish the tale with well-researched speculation. 'Apart from being born in Aylsham in 1715 and being hung at Tyburn 24 years later, we don't know much about him, apart from what is set down in the trial transcripts, but we do know a lot about other highwaymen of the period. We do know that they used to hide out in Epping Forest which was on the road to London and considering that Easter was captured on Putney Heath, it is not unreasonable to assume that he mixed with his fellow highwaymen in this notorious area.'
She said that the trial transcripts make the highwaymen sound very contrite but letters, diaries and other writing reveal that they enjoyed living the life of a rogue. 'We found this young man who had to leave Aylsham, he had got into trouble. He was suspected of having committed burglaries and so we decided to run with it.
'We knew he worked along what is now the A140. We knew he went to London and we know what happened on Putney Heath because the witness described that in the trial but there was a glorious lack of detail about anything in between which meant that for me, as a writer, I could just follow my heart and just come up with a fantastic tale of derring do, of what a charming rogue seducing the young wives and mistresses of older aristocrats.
'I love stories which leave a lot of scope for dramatic license. His life gave us a structure and we gleefully filled in the rest.'
One of the fictional characters brought into the tale by Cordelia, is Thomas Easter's female companion Lady Elizabeth Temperance Fox, who was inspired by Margaret Lockwood's Wicked Lady. There were female highway robbers, so we gave him a highborn female accomplice to bring in that extra dynamic. We wanted it to be a dashing, exciting adventure with a good story but we also wanted the audience to invest in the characters.'
Cordelia included Dick Turpin in the story because she wanted to show the 'darker' flipside of the highwayman persona. Her Turpin is a callous, hard-hearted individual, not the charmer that Easter is, and although there is no evidence that the pair actually met, Spence maintains, if they were both hanging out in Epping Forest then it is highly likely that their paths would have crossed.
'To be honest the story just fell onto the page and Tim's songs give the play that extra dimension. It's all about characters. We gave Easter that fatal flaw, that love of gambling, and that desire to be more than a butcher's boy.'
An Honest Gentleman, by Cordelia Spence & Tim Lane, staged by Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company, is touring across Suffolk and Norfolk from March to the end of May visiting Beccles, Aylsham, Ipswich, Lowestoft, Diss, Sudbury, Norwich, Aldeburgh and Halesworth among other places. For a full list of venues and booking links go online to www.stuffofdreamstheatre.com/current-show/an-honest-gentleman/