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Saturday, August 15, 2009

YOU CAN'T KEEP A GOOD MAN DOWN.


I believe we all know people who have clearly chosen the wrong profession; doctors sickened by the sight of their patients, bartenders opposed to public intoxication and politicians with an unhealthy reverence for the truth. But it is hard to imagine a man who applied himself for so long to a profession for which he had less talent, whose career path was more pockmarked with failure, an individual with more of a supplementary destiny for disaster than Mr. George Lyon, from the little English village of Up Holland, Lancaster. George called himself the “King of the Robbers”. But although George made his living as a thief, he was a natural born lover. He just never figured out how to make a living at it.The village gets its name from the same source as the nation of the same name. In the middle ages a “holland’ was a bolt of cotton cloth, and during the 18th century the rolling hills and plains of Lancashire, in northwest England, were one of the world’s great cotton growing regions, along with the western section of what would become the Netherlands. So wealthy did one cotton growing Lancashire family become that they took the name “de Holland”. The de Hollands are known as an “ill-fated” family primarily because of Robert de Holland who established the village of Up Holland on a ridge, midway between the towns of Wigan and Skemersdale, in 1307. In a power play between the vacillating King Edward III and the bold and decisive Earl of Lancaster, Robert initially sided with Lancaster. But Edward unexpectedly acted decisively and Lancaster uncharacteristically dithered and so Robert switched sides just before the Battle of Boroughbridge, on March 16, 1322 - at which Lancaster was killed. The King won but he never fully trusted Robert again and had him thrown into jail. Robert stayed there until 1328 when somebody did the King a favor and chopped off Robert’s “ill-fated” head. By the time George Lyon was born on a back street in Up Holland in 1761, the cotton plantations of Lancashire were feeding the birth of the industrial revolution. Initially weaving was a home business, where working families bought a hand loom on time for two pounds , usually from the same employer who bought the finished cloth from them. For the rest of his life, when asked to give a profession, George always said “Weaver”, but it is likely he worked at it only as a child, “…carding and spinning cotton… until I became of sufficient size and strength for my father to put me into a loom”, as William Radcliffe explained from his own life. In the late eighteenth century there were as many as 75,000 handloom weavers in Britain. Then in 1785 the Reverend Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, which could be operated by children, and the income of weavers began to plummet.But George was not qualified to claim he was the victim of economic displacement because he had already established a career as an inveterate thief. In 1786, at the age of 25, George was arrested for mugging a man on the Kings Highway in Wigan. This was a hanging offense, but instead of death, George was sentenced to be lugged, or “transportation”, to the American colonies. Perhaps as many as 50,000 convicts a year were shipped to America in chains, most being sold into indentured servitude for seven years. That would make convicts the single largest source of emigrants to America in the century leading up to the revolution. Mostly this heritage has been whitewashed out of the history books, but it does explain Doctor Samuel Johnson’s 1769 description of Americans as “…a race of convicts (who) ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.”But although George was sentenced to seven years in the penal colony of America, there is no record he ever made it transoceanic. However, I am of the opinion that he did, and that at the end of his term George was forceably returned to England as an undesirable, even in a convict nation, leaving a trail of his genes behind him. In 1793 the officials of Up Holland were unpleasantly surprised to see George Lyon in the flesh, returned from exile and free as a bird. There had been expectations the reprobate would be scalped by a Red Indian or an offended husband or at least drowned at sea. The primary complaint does not seem to have been that George was a master criminal so much as a legendary local lothario. He was married, but according to a May 1809 letter by Miss Ellen Weeton, “In two houses near together, there have been in each, a mother and daughter lying in (giving birth), nearly at the same time; and one man (the notorious George Lyon) reputed to be father to all four!”Branded as a serial fornicator, George Lyon indisputably ever was. But his reputation as a highwayman rests on a single escapade, when he and two partners decided to hold up the mail coach which carried cash for the Maypole Colliery. One afternoon George and his two accomplices rendezvoused at the Bull’s Head Pub in Up Holland and drew attention to them selves. At an opportune moment they slipped out to the barn, mounted their rented horses and were waiting at the Tawd River Bridge as the mail coach bound for Liverpool approached. The plan was for George to block the road and fire two shots to convince the coachman to stop. Then while George held his third flint lock pistol on the driver the accomplices would take the money box and rob the passengers. Unfortunately George had not taken the weather into account. It was raining heavily, and when George pulled the triggers, the hammers of his two pistols slammed onto wet powder. Unharmed the coachman whipped the horses around George and the coach wheels splashed him as it galloped past. Having failed as a highwayman George returned to his primary profession as a thief. But I believe it was the official outrage over George’s favorite leisure pursuit which prompted the government’s investment in a professional “thief taker” named John McDonald. By representing himself as a fence McDonald was able to buy stolen goods from George, paying for them with marked money. In October of 1814 George was arrested, and after a brief trial, on April 8th, 1815, he was sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was not unusual for the time. Of the 213 people hanged at Lancaster Castle between 1800 and 1865 only 20% had been convicted of murder. The rest had been sentenced for burglary, lying under oath, arson, or rustling cattle or sheep. Judgment day for George was Saturday, April 22nd , 1815, in the hangman's corner of Lancaster Castle. At about noon, dressed in his best black suit and well shined jockey boots, George was led from the Drop Room by John Higgens, 'The Gentleman Jailer', and delivered into the hands the hangman. A crowd of 5,000 witnessed as the noose was slipped around George's neck. The trap door was opened on the low platform. George dropped about three feet and then slowly strangled to death. As the Lancaster Gazette recorded, “After hanging the usual time (an hour) the bodies were taken down…and given to their friends for internment.” A huge crowd attended the funeral back in Up Holland, a large section of which included George's prodginy. George Lyon, king of the lovers, was dead at fifty-four. He was buried next to his mother, sharing a grave with his daughter, Nanny Lyons, and it is her name on the stone that caps their grave.

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