Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davis, William (1627-1690)

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1215287Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 14 — Davis, William (1627-1690)1888Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth

DAVIS, WILLIAM (1627–1690), highwayman, known as the ‘Golden Farmer,’ from his habitually paying with gold coin to avoid identification of his plunder, was born at Wrexham in Denbighshire in 1627, but removed in early life to Sodbury, Gloucestershire, where he married the daughter of a wealthy innkeeper, and had by her eighteen children. He was a successful farmer until the last month of his life, but used this trade as a cloak, having early taken to the road in disguise, and robbed persons returning from cattle fairs or travelling to pay rent. He was dexterous in gaining information, and his character was above suspicion. He became the captain and leader of a large gang, among whom was Thomas Sympson, alias ‘Old Mobb,’ born at Romsey in Hampshire, who robbed for forty-five years with no other companion than the ‘Golden Farmer.’ Davis robbed the Duchess of Albemarle in her coach on Salisbury Plain, after a single-handed victory over her postilion, coachman, and two footmen. He took three diamond rings and a gold watch, besides reproaching her for painting her face and being niggardly. Between Gloucester and Worcester he robbed Sir Thomas Day of 60l., after inveigling him into a declaration that the county would make good any money lost on the highway if ‘betwixt sun and sun.’

Davis had begun this career, as an experiment, after the king's death in 1648–9, when twenty-two years old. His wife had no suspicion of him, and in all the ordinary relations of life he was eminently respectable. His charming manners enabled him to secure the fidelity of accomplices and attract the confidence of his victims. He retired from his profession for a few years, but was tempted back to the highway, in hope of making up a large sum for purchase of adjacent land. He had fallen out of practice, and was recognised. Soon afterwards, being discovered in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, at that time a sanctuary, he had a narrow escape, and shot a pursuing butcher. Being apprehended he was committed to Newgate, tried for the murder at the Old Bailey Sessions, 11–17 Dec. 1690, and his previous crimes became known. He was condemned to be hanged at the end of Salisbury Court (instead of Tyburn, as usual), where he had shot the butcher. He died on 22 Dec. 1690, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, and was afterwards hung in chains on Bagshot Heath. He had left affectionate messages for ‘Old Mobb,’ who was suspected of having betrayed him. Mobb was hanged at Tyburn on Friday, 30 May 1691.

According to George Daniel [q. v.] of Canonbury, the ‘Golden Farmer’ had been a corn-chandler in Thames Street, selling by day and despoiling the farmers at night. The contemporary ballad, his ‘Last Farewell,’ admits his close connection with ‘a gang of robbers, notorious hardy highwaymen who did like ruffians reign;’ also with housebreakers and burglars, clearing 500l. one time, in money and plate.

[Captain Alexander Smith's History of the Lives of the most noted Highwaymen, &c. 2nd edit. 1714, i. 1–30; Compleat History, ib. 1719, i. 48 and following 21 pp.; Captain Charles Johnson's General Hist. of the Lives and Adventures of the most famous Highwaymen, &c., fol., 1734, pp. 106–8, a narrative copied from Smith's, with the errors of dates uncorrected; Narcissus Luttrell's Brief Relation, ii. 144, 147, 148, 253; Bagford Collection of Broadsides, Brit. Mus. Case, 39 K. vol. ii. fol. 74; The Golden Farmer's Last Farewell, to the tune of the Rich Merchantman, printed for P. Brooksby, &c., 1690; reprinted verbatim, with introduction and notes, in Bagford Ballads, 1877, 1st div. pp. 239–46; The Golden Farmer, or the Last Crime, a domestic drama, by Benjamin Webster, acted at the Victoria Theatre, 26 Dec. 1832, and printed in Cumberland's Minor Theatre, vol. vi., with remarks by D. G.; also many chapbooks, chiefly compiled from Smith and Johnson.]

J. W. E.