This week's blog is a much loved story from Calne's history about the Cherhill Gang

The long stretch of road across the downs between Calne and Beckhampton and on to Marlborough was a popular hunting ground for highway men and footpads in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The legend of the Cherhill Gang has grown over the years, a gang who carried out their robberies naked. However the evidence for this depends on a single source, the Reverend W.C Plenderleath, Rector of Cherhill 1860-91. Like many clerical gentlemen of that period he was an antiquarian, particularly interested in white horses and other chalk hill figures. In an article for the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine he recounted the memories of an elderly Cherhill resident, who recalled footpads and highwaymen operating on the Bath Road at Cherhill.

He remembered one man who used to leap out on travellers naked, relying on the shock value and the fact that he could not be identified later by his clothes. He assumed that his victims would be too modest to describe any distinctive parts of his anatomy. There is no evidence that there was a whole gang who practised robbery in the nude, but that is how the legend has developed.

One highwayman who was very active on the Cherhill Downs was Charles Taylor, who was eventually caught and convicted at Salisbury assizes in 1743. A gibbet stood on the downs between Cherhill and Beckhampton for many years where the body of a highwayman in an iron cage was often swinging in the wind, as a warning to others.


On the other side of Calne, Old Derry Hill was another dangerous place for travellers. Before the new section of the Bath Road was cut up the gentler ascent of New Derry Hill, passenger and mail coaches had to toil up the steep and treacherous Old Derry Hill and turn left along Church Road to emerge again on the main road from Rag Lane. Because coaches and riders were forced to travel slowly up the hill they were easy prey for highwaymen. The Lysley Arms, then called The Swan, did a good trade comforting shocked passengers who had been accosted by robbers or involved in coach accidents.

In an age when punishments for crimes were ferocious and people could be transported for poaching and petty theft, there was some sympathy and admiration amongst poorer folk for highwaymen. An image was created of the highwayman as a dashing knight of the road, robbing the rich to help the poor with his own code of chivalry. There is evidence that some of them did abide by a code of honour, polite to women and not robbing the same person twice, but others were violent and not averse to robbing anyone, rich or poor.

My favourite story concerns the misfortune of Sergeant Merewether. Henry Alworth Merewether was a prominent resident of Calne. Sergeant at Law, attorney-general to Queen Adelaide and Town Clerk of London, he was responsible for the building of Castlefields House where he lived after his retirement.

The story goes that after a day at the assize courts in Devizes, Merewether was returning home in the early evening pleased with himself because his oratory had secured a not guilty verdict for a local man accused of highway robbery. His progress was halted by a cry of ‘stand and deliver’ and to his surprise the robber pointing a pair of pistols at him was the very man whom he was responsible for getting acquitted that morning. Clearly lawyers could not rely on the gratitude of their highwaymen clients!

By Sue Boddington

Sue is the Curator at Calne Heritage Centre. For any local history inquiries contact Sue via email@calneheritage.co.uk 

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