Britain’s Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates and Rogues

Few figures in history have captured the popular imagination as much as the outlaw.

From gentleman highwaymen, via swashbuckling pirates to elusive urban thieves and rogues, the brazen escapades and the flamboyance of the outlaw made them the antihero of their time – feared by the rich, admired by the poor and celebrated by writers and artists.

In this three-part series, historian Dr Sam Willis travels the open roads, the high seas and urban alleyways to explore Britain’s 17th- and 18th-century underworld of highwaymen, pirates and rogues, bringing the great age of the British outlaw vividly to life.

Sam shows that, far from being ‘outsiders’, outlaws were very much a product of their time, shaped by powerful national events. In each episode, he focuses not just on a particular type of outlaw, but a particular era – the series as a whole offers a chronological portrait of the changing face of crime in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Episode 1: Highwaymen

Episode 1: Highwaymen

Sam begins with the arrival of a new breed of gentleman criminal out of the ashes of the English Civil War – the highwayman.

Heavily romanticised in literature, these glamorous gangsters became a social menace on the roads and a political thorn in the side of the creaking British state – threatening to steal our wallets and our hearts.

But underneath the dashing image of stylish robbers on horseback lay a far darker reality.

Episode 2: Pirates

Episode 2: Pirates

Episode two follows Sam as he takes to the high seas in search of the swashbuckling pirates of the golden age of piracy during the early 18th century.

Following in the wake of the infamous Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Calico Jack and others, Sam charts the devastating impact these pirates had during an era of colonial expansion and how, by plundering the vast network of seaborne trade, they became the most wanted outlaws in the world.

Episode 3: Rogues

Episode 3: Rogues

In the final episode, Sam looks at urban crime, fraud and corruption in the 18th century, uncovering a fascinating rogues’ gallery of charmers, fraudsters and villains.

Charmers like thief and serial escaper Jack Sheppard, so notorious that almost a quarter of a million people turned up to witness his hanging.

Almost as controversial in her lifetime was Mary Toft, a fraudster who managed to convince no less than King George I and his surgeon that she had given birth to rabbits, making her, perhaps, the original ‘con’ artist.

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Britain’s Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates and Rogues
  • Info
  • Release date2015
  • Full runtime3 hours (3 episodes)
  • Presenter and writerSam Willis
  • Production CompanyBBC