The story of Joan Phillips is one that has been retold many times. The beautiful daughter of a wealthy farmer in Northamptonshire in the seventeenth century, she was seduced by Edward Bracey into a life of crime. After a series of adventures, they took to highway robbery which was eventually to lead to their undoing. Joan was caught in an attempted robbery of a stagecoach on Loughborough Road; tried at the Lenten assizes in Nottingham; and hanged in April 1685 on a gallows erected at Wilford Lane close to where she had been captured. Accounts differ as to what became of her body: being left to rot in a cage, buried in a church yard in Nottingham or in a village in Sherwood Forest.
It makes a wonderful story … but is it true? The entry on Joan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sounds a warning. It tells us that the source for the story of Joan is Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the most Notorious Highwaymen, first published in 1719 and “no other authenticating evidence about Joan has yet come to light”. Furthermore, “it has been demonstrated that Smith’s work was historically inaccurate”.
One place we might look for a mention of the hanging is in the parish register of the local church, St Giles’. Although we find no mention of Joan’s hanging, on the back cover of one of the registers is written:
In Bridgford Parish Gallows set nere to Wilford Lane in Bridgford Lordship August the ninth and a man hanged August the tenth and buried under the gallows 1726. No one ever knew gallows to stand in the Lordship before.
Although 41 years after Joan Phillips was said to be hanged, surely the memory of the beautiful highwaywoman would have come quickly to the minds of the older inhabitants when they heard news of the gallows being built?
But perhaps it is better to enjoy the story rather than question whether it is true. The following account is taken from the Annals of Nottinghamshire by Thomas Bailey 1853:
Joan Phillips was the daughter of a respectable farmer in Northamptonshire. She is stated to have possessed a fine form, with a face of more than ordinary beauty, and a mind at once keen, artful, and daring. Such a person could not fail to draw to herself numerous admirers of the opposite sex.
Among these suitors was one, in all the principal attributes of his character, the very counterpart of herself: the name of this young man was Edward Bracey. He had a fine figure, good address, insinuating manners, and a spirit that delighted in enterprise, and mocked at danger. Feigning a position in society which he did not really occupy, he soon ingratiated himself into the affections of the ambitious country maiden; and, eventually, succeeded in seducing her from the paths of virtue. Having thus made poor Joan at once his dupe and his victim, and secured her perfectly in the trammels of his own vicious propensities, she soon became a ready instrument in his hands in carrying forward those acts of fraud and violence by which, though unsuspected by her, he had hitherto been enabled to keep up that appearance in the world which, at the outset of their acquaintance, allured and captivated her mind.
The first act of criminality to which she was urged by her destroyer was to rob the dwelling of her father. This she so effectually accomplished, as to carry off all the money and plate in the house, and elope in safety with her paramour. From this time they carried on together a course of depredation and violence, by which they amassed considerable property, and eventually settled themselves in a public-house in the suburbs of Bristol, which soon became the resort of all the profligate and thoughtless young men of the vicinity, drawn to this den of infamy, partly by the fame of Bracey’s reputed wife, whose beauty and fascinating manners were employed as lures to lead them on to their destruction, and partly for the purpose of engaging in those gaming transactions, in which the master of the house was too skilful an adept, as many of them eventually found, to their sorrow and ruin. Dupe after dupe, through the blandishments of the sorceress, and the daring, but artful villainy of Bracey, was sacrificed in various ways, to the gratification of their cupidity
One victim, named Rumbold, after being decoyed into the toils of this profligate woman, was induced by her to join with Bracey in the commission of a highway robbery. When the feat was accomplished, and the unprincipled pair had got possession of the spoils, they turned round upon their victim, and, knowing him to be a young man of some property, threatened him with an impeachment, unless he would make over to them the reversion of an estate worth about one hundred pounds a year. Rumbold, to save himself from the dangerous consequences of the act of villainy and imprudence in which he had been engaged, complied with their demand. Before, however, he was allowed to quit the house, they sold the reversion to another person, and then, with whatever they could collect together, by the disposal of the trade, and from other sources, quitted hastily that part of the country, and went no one knew whither.
After this, Joan frequently attired herself in man’s apparel, and, mounted on horseback, with pistols in her holster, accompanied Bracey in his daring acts of plunder on the highways. Numerous were the robberies which, it is stated, they thus committed together. At length, having reached Nottinghamshire, and engaged some gentlemen travelling in a carriage, the woman was captured, and conveyed to prison, from which she never emerged, but to be taken to the place of execution.
She was hanged on a gallows erected at Wilford-lane, and on the road to Loughborough, then the common place of execution for malefactors from the prisons of Nottingham.
Joan Phillips was tried at the Lent assizes, 1685, and suffered the penalty of her crimes during the month of April following: she being, at that time, in the twenty-ninth year of her age. Bracey, some short time afterwards, was killed, in resisting the attempt made to take him into custody.