On the morning of Saturday 22nd April 1815 three men went to the gallows at Lancaster castle. They were William Houghton, aged fifty three, David Bennett, thirty five, and George Lyon, who was fifty four. The men had actually been convicted of a burglary at Ince, near Wigan, although that was by no means their only crime. Lyon alone was similarly accused of eleven other such offences, but it was the burglary at the home of Charles Walmesley that finally put paid to what had become a notorious gang.
George Lyon -The Up Holland Highwayman
The Lancaster Gazette was a-buzz with news of the case, and followed the trial closely. The newspaper reported the words of the judge as he passed sentence, and gave a graphic description of the hangings themselves:
‘On Saturday last, about noon, George Lyon, David Bennett and William Houghton, convicted at our last Assizes of burglary near Wigan underwent the awful sentence of the law, on the Drop behind our Castle. Houghton was the first brought on the platform, who seemed to pray most fervently, as did the others, especially Lyon, who was the last tied up, and was dressed in black with topped boots. After hanging the usual time the bodies were taken down…and given to their friends for interment.’
– Lancaster Gazette 29th April 1815
There is no doubt that Lyon went to his death with some style, as was the tradition of the day. It was important to ‘make a good death’ and it seems that he had the black clothing and boots brought to the prison for just this reason. A later romanticised drawing show Lyon on the scaffold, all flowing black hair and noble countenance, but the truth was probably nowhere near so glamorous. For many years Lyon had been the scourge of his neighbourhood, a dangerous man to cross and a villain of long standing. He boasted that he had been ‘lugged’ (i.e. transported) when in his twenties for an attack on a local man on the King’s Highway at Wigan. He had been fortunate to escape hanging on that occasion, having his sentence commuted to transportation. The turn in world events meant that instead of finding himself in the American Colonies, however, it is more likely that he spent much of his commuted sentence confined to the hulks at hard labour. No record exists to show he ever left England, although that never stopped him from claiming that he had. The truth of it will probably never be known, but it cannot have harmed the reputation he liked to foster for himself as ‘King of the Robbers.’
Lyon’s career spanned thirty years. Using Up Holland as his base he and his gang carried out one burglary after another, with a little Highway Robbery thrown in for good measure, with the authorities seemingly powerless to prevent them. It seems that Lyon’s guilt was well known – indeed the Wigan Magistrates went as far as establishing a subscription fund to enable them to offer cash in return for information that might lead to Lyon’s arrest. In the end it was the use of a ‘thief taker’ working for Joseph Nadin, the Deputy Constable of Manchester, who trapped Lyon and his gang by using marked notes to purchase from Lyon silver stolen from Ince Hall.
Although arrested in October 1814 it wasn’t until the next Assize, in April of the following year, that Lyon and his accomplices stood trial. Appearing before Sir Alexander Thompson, Lyon, Bennett and Houghton were faced with an enormous weight of evidence in the face of which they offered no defence. The inevitable verdict was returned and the sentence of death duly passed.
After the executions Lyon’s body was released to his friends and taken back to Up Holland by Simon Washington, the landlord of the Old Dog Inn. Washington later described being caught in a severe thunderstorm en route, during which he was forced to shelter beneath the wagon in which George Lyon’s coffin rested. He arrived home in quite a state, swearing that he would never do such a thing again, for the devil had been with him all the way from Lancaster.
Lyon was laid to rest in the parish churchyard next to his mother on the day after his execution. According to accounts from the time a large crowd was on hand to witness the burial. Over the following years the legend of George Lyon, Highwayman, began to take root and blossom until he became a local hero, a sort of Dick Turpin ‘stand and deliver’ archetype. The legend was enhanced by stories passed down through generations in the village and surrounding area, and the publication of several romantic poems. His grave, which can still be seen, even became a place of pilgrimage for a time, but the truth remains that Lyon’s tale has grown in the telling and in light of the basic human need for heroes. He was probably little more than a common footpad and burglar, albeit one whose name still has the power to fascinate us today.