During most of the Regency, Finchley Common was exactly that, common land on which local inhabitants had the right to graze their animals and gather fuel for their fires. For more than a century, it was also notorious as the scene of many robberies by highwaymen, since it was situated along the main route north out of London. There were many people who would not venture onto the Finchley Common at night for just that reason. In 1816, the process of enclosing Finchley Common was finally set in motion and today, there is little evidence of the common left.
A brief history of Finchley Common and its enclosure . . .
Finchley originated as a small rural parish north of London, situated on the edge of the ancient Forest of Middlesex. The name is believed to be Saxon, with the suffix "ley" referring to an open area in a woodland, perhaps occupied by finches. Alternately, the open area could have been land owned or used by a man named Finch. The exact source of the name is lost to history. Though the great Roman road of Watling Street was cut through the Middlesex Forest, no evidence of Roman occupation has ever been found in the area of Finchley. Nor, curiously enough, is Finchley included in the great Domesday Book. This apparent oversight is believed to be due to the fact that Finchley was then considered to be part of the Manor of Fulham.
The first written records of Finchley date to the eleventh century, when it was listed as part of the property of the Bishop of London, who also controlled Fulham Manor. The following century, regular farming began in the area, as sections of the forest were slowly cleared away. In the fifteenth century, the inhabitants of Finchley claimed the right of common over the area bounded by the parishes of Finchley, Friern Barnet and Horsey. By the sixteenth century, the residents of Barnet and Hornsey had also claimed common rights over the same land and the area became known as Finchley Common and comprised about one thousand acres. Rights of common allowed those people who claimed them to graze their livestock and gather fuel for their fires in that area. As the sixteenth century progressed, the Bishop of London had much of Finchley Common cleared of most of its trees. However, the land was not put to the plow as it was discovered that the soil was a dense marled clay which was not suitable for tillage. But grass grew well in the clay soil, as did the few great trees which remained from the ancient Forest of Middlesex, so people continued to pasture their animals and gather their firewood on Finchley Common.
By the sixteenth century, the main road which ran north out of London, to York, and eventually on to Edinburgh, known as the Great North Road, passed right through Finchley Common. Over time, several inns and public houses were established on the common along the route of the Great North Road. Merchants who offered goods and services which supported transportation also set up their premises in the area. At the southern end of Finchley Common, less fragrant perhaps, but quite lucrative, a large hog market began to develop during the seventeenth century. It was a prominent feature of the common through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, including during the Regency.
By the second half of the seventeenth century, the increasing traffic along the Great North Road was attracting many highwaymen, thieves who specialized in robbing those who traveled along that road, since travel, particularly by coach, was available primarily to the affluent. Until the last decade of the eighteenth century, most gentlemen and merchants typically had to carry most of their money as gold coins, since the smallest bank note denomination at that time was £10. This was common knowledge among the criminal community. And Finchley Common became one of the highwaymen’s favorite places to waylay their victims. But records show that the majority of crimes committed on Finchley Common were perpetrated by outsiders. Only a very few locals were ever arrested or tried for committing crimes on the common. The majority of the highwaymen who operated on Finchley Common were from other places. Due to its proximity to the metropolis, most of those gentleman of the road were from London.
By the last decades of the eighteenth century, Finchley Common had become quite notorious for the highwaymen who skulked there in the dark of night. So much so that in 1790, the Earl of Minto, who could in no way be considered a timid man, delayed starting out on a journey so he would not have to drive through the common during the hours of darkness. He wrote to his wife that "I shall not trust my throat on Finchley Common in the dark." A wise decision, since no one was safe from the highwaymen who operated on Finchley Common and more than one prominent or important man was robbed while passing through the area in the dark of night. There were a few instances of murder on Finchley Common over the years, but that crime seems to have been much less common than what was nearly a plague of highway robbery.
Whereas honest citizens were leery of crossing Finchley Common during the hours of darkness, the highwaymen who struck fear in their hearts tended to avoid the common during the day, at least while they were alive. Through the eighteenth century, a number of the gentlemen of the road who were caught and tried for their crimes were most often hung at Tyburn. However, if it was believed they operated in the area of Finchley, their bodies were then often suspended in chains from a gibbet on Finchley Common. Their corpses were left to hang there for weeks or months, intended as a warning to others who might be considering embarking on a life of highway robbery. Corpses dangling from gibbets were a regular feature of the landscape of Finchley Common throughout the eighteenth century, by which time they were more common in that area than trees. The last recorded public gibbeting of a hanged man on Finchley Common took place in 1789, the punishment meted out to the highwayman, Cornelius Court.
Though some believed that it was the ultimate enclosure of the lands of Finchley Common which drove highwaymen away from the area, there were other factors which spoiled things for the robbers. The first proposal to enclose Finchley Common was made in 1803, at which time a clever wag drew up a proposal which was to be presented to the House of Commons on behalf of the gentlemen of the road, requesting compensation for their supposed losses in the event of enclosure. In his memoirs, the Reverend Sidney Smith recorded the proposal his friend had drawn up:
Whereas, we, your loyal highwaymen of Finchley Common and its neighbourhood, have laid in, at a great expense, a large stock of pistols, blunderbusses, and other instruments of plundering the public (laughter) — and whereas the division of Finchley Common, sanctioned by your honourable house, will deprive us of all due remuneration for our capital and industry: — we therefore pray that your honourable house will order us such compensation as you shall deem fit. (Laughter).
The proposed enclosure did not proceed at that time, though it is unlikely the "proposal" for the relief of the Finchley Common highwaymen was responsible for the lack of action.
Two years later, in 1805, some of the more prominent residents of the area demanded action be taken to provide more safety to travelers. A group of mounted men, known as the Bow Street Horse Patrol, regularly patrolled the stretch of the Great North Road between Highgate and Whetstone, which passed through Finchley Common. These patrols certainly did discourage the remaining highwaymen who liked to set upon their victims in that area. However, highway robbery was already on the decline. Though there was more traffic along the Great North Road, not all of those travellers were affluent, nor did they carry large amounts of cash. Many were also armed, with modern guns that were easier to use and much more accurate. Another factor which made their ill-gotten gains more dangerous to have was that paper money was available in many more denominations than it had been in the previous century. And those paper bank notes were much easier to trace than were gold coins. Therefore, even if he made a clean getaway, a highwayman might still be brought to trial if he were later apprehended with bank notes known to have been stolen.
Also in 1805, another campaign to enclose the Finchley Common acreage was initiated by John Bacon, a landowner in nearby Barnet. The process did not go smoothly and dragged on for another six years. It was not until 1811, that an Enclosure Act for Finchley Common was finally passed by Parliament. Even with the passage of the Act, the list of allotment awards, which detailed which parcels went to who, was not made public until 1816. It was only then that the land was fenced off by its new owners and the rights of common which had been enjoyed the locals were curtailed. Though there had been only one reported instance of highway robbery in Finchley Common, in 1807, many people still believed that it was the enclosure of the acreage which actually drove the gentlemen of the road from the area.
Curiously, it was not until more than a decade after the enclosure of Finchley Common that one of the most famous highwaymen in all England became associated with the area. One of the few trees which still stood on the common, a great and ancient oak, was said to have been the hiding place of the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin. Despite the fact that there has never been any evidence that Dick Turpin ever spent any time on Finchley Common, about 1830, nearly a century after his death, the image of the highwayman was carved into the trunk of this massive oak tree, which stood just off the Great North Road, nearly opposite the Green Man Inn, at Brown’s Wells. This oak tree, which lost most of its top in a powerful lightning strike during the reign of Queen Victoria, continued to flourish until 1952. It was known locally as "Turpin’s Oak."
During the Regency, Finchley was a small village, which had grown up rather haphazardly along the Great North Road, but was nonetheless quite respectable. In the Regency travel and guidebook, Picturesque Walks and Rides, Finchley was described as " . . . a long straggling village." The village was included as part of an area which was described as a pleasant ride or drive out from London on a summer’s day. The locale was also noted to offer opportunities for both fishing and bird hunting. There were also several charming private villas scattered over the area. Many people living during the Regency considered the environs of Finchley, and Finchley Common, to have a most agreeable and rural character. Before the enclosure, there were quite a number of small open meadows and even a few secluded spots where those seeking some rural relaxation could take their ease. Many of these rural retreats were within easy reach of a inn or public house which could provide all the essentials for a country picnic.
Dear Regency Authors, should you need a setting in a small rural village or a pleasant villa within an easy distance from London, Finchley might serve your purposes very well. Or, if some of your characters want a day out in the country, but you would rather send them to some place other than Richmond, perhaps Finchley Common would suit? Might the hero take the heroine and her young siblings for a drive out of the metropolis to the north? As they travel along the Great North Road through Finchley Common, will he regale the youngsters with tales of the highwaymen who used to prey upon travelers there? Will the heroine scold him for frightening the children, or might she take another tack? Or, might the hero and heroine drive out of the city on a fine day and decide to share a picnic in one of those secluded spots on Finchley Common? Will they stop at the Green Man Inn, the Swan, the Five Bells, the White Lion or the Bald-faced Stag for their provisions? Are there other ways in which the village of Finchley or Finchley Common can serve as a setting in a Regency romance novel?
Author’s Note: For those seeking more details on Finchley and Finchley Common, the British History Online site has a most useful page of facts, which includes a very nice map of the area, dated 1814.