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George Lyon - Upholland Highwayman
some relevant dates and information

George Lyon was 54 when he was executed. Sentence was passed on Sat. 8th April, 1815 along with Houghton and Bennett. The other accomplice, Edward Ford, who had been working at Walmsley House, where the last robbery took place, as a painter, and for which robbery Lyon and his accomplices were eventually indicted. It was Ford who had suggested robbing the house to Lyon, and had himself taken part in some 17 previous robberies, but because he turned King’s evidence he was spared the capital sentence. The execution of Lyon, Houghton, and Bennett, took place just before noon on Saturday, 22nd April 1815 - the year of the Battle of Waterloo.

Just five years before in 1810 the House of Lords had thrown out a law passed by the Commons that would have prohibited the death penalty for theft offences.

All other capital sentences passed that day were commuted, except for the Upholland trio of Lyon, Houghton and Bennett, and two others, Moses Owen for horse stealing, and John Warburton for "highway robbery".

John Higgins, Chief Gaoler of Lancaster Castle - known as the gentleman gaoler - allowed Lyon to wear his best black suit and "topped" jockey boots for his execution as he had promised, and these items had duly been brought over from Up Holland for him.

On that Saturday morning just before noon the condemned men were marched from their cells in Lancaster Castle to the Drop Room, and through its doors and out on to the scaffold, and in front of the usual hanging day crowd some 5000 people who crowded onto the grass bank of what had once been the castle moat, and is opposite that which is called Hanging Corner, the sentences were duly carried out.

Visitors to Lancaster Castle today can still visit the Drop Room, where the condemned had their arms pinioned before execution, and see the pitch-dark, windowless dungeons which had also been used to hold the dozen or so Lancashire witches over a century earlier.

The sentences were duly carried out by Old Ned Barlow, who was hangman of Lancaster Castle and who in his career executed some 133 people.

After his death Lyon's body was handed over to Simon Washington, landlord of The Old Dog Inn in Up Holland, and a companion, for its return to Up Holland for burial.

The Old Dog Inn building still stands on the steep street called Alma Hill, in the village.

Lyon had not wanted his body left at Lancaster as it would have been handed over to surgeons for dissection as was the normal procedure with the bodies of executed criminals. In a poignant letter to his wife written on the 14th of April with the aid of the prison chaplain the Reverend Cowley, who had visited all the prisoners on death row, he implored her to arrange for his body to be returned home.

That return journey home undertaken by Simon Washington and companion was horrendous, made during a raging thunder storm, so bad, with thunder and lightning all around the cart, that at one stage both men had to shelter under it from the torrential rain, Washington declared that the devil himself had followed them throughout the journey, and he swore he would never make such a journey again.

As the cart approached the final part of its journey, a huge crowd was observed moving off from Orrell Post near Upholland in the direction of Gathurst, to observe the return of George Lyon's body. When word came through that the cortege was instead passing through nearby Wrightington and heading for the road through Appley Bridge instead, the crowd rushed across the fields from the Gathurst Bridge which still spans the Leeds to Liverpool canal, to meet the cart at Dangerous Corner, and then followed it in procession through Appley Bridge, and up the long steep climb through Roby Mill, until it eventually reached Parliament Street in Up Holland, and the last few hundred yards to The Old Dog Inn, where Lyon's body was laid out in the landlady's best parlour overnight.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the pub the next day, and even climbed onto the roofs of adjoining buildings, to see the coffin as it was taken for burial to St. Thomas's churchyard in Up Holland on Sunday 23rd April 1815. George Lyon is buried in his mother's (some say his grandmother's) grave, the inscription simply reads "Nanny Lyon, Died 17th April 1804" His name is not recorded on the stone.

Directly opposite the grave stood the famous haunted house, with violent poltergeist happenings over a long period in 1904. This drew thousands of sightseers to the village, and many locals thought that the ghost of George Lyon was responsible.

Prior to arrest

George Lyon's one claim to fame as a highwayman came from the fact that with his accomplices he had planned a stage coach robbery at a meeting in the Legs of Man pub in Wigan, Lyon and his friends then persuaded the ostler at his local, the Bull's Head Inn in Upholland, to lend them horses for a few hours and held up the Liverpool mail coach at nearby Tawd Vale, firing two shots across the coach, and so forcing the driver to pull up, they robbed the passengers before returning to Upholland, and were back in the Bull's Head when the robbed coach later arrived at the inn with the tale of the robbery, Lyon and his accomplices of course had an alibi as people had seen them in the pub earlier in the afternoon. Other than this one highway robbery incident it seems he was just a habitual thief, and indeed in his younger days had been transported to one of the colonies for a number of years before returning to Upholland.

It was in the Bull's Head after the robbery at Westwood Hall that an undercover agent and thief taker by the name of John McDonald met up with George Lyon. The agent had been loaned to the Wigan police by the Assistant Chief Constable of Manchester because the local Wigan police were too well known to Lyon and his friends. It was by frequenting the Bull's Head over a period of time that McDonald was able to gain the trust of Lyon, making out he was a dealer in stolen goods and using some of the money loaned from the assistant Chief Constable - a sum of £10 out of the £20 loaned for the purpose - to buy the stolen silver which Lyon had agreed to sell. Lyon took McDonald to his house and showed him the stolen goods, and this was the downfall of George Lyon and his accomplices, leading to their arrest, conviction and subsequent execution. It is said Lyon had boasted to McDonald that he was the prince of thieves.

Reproduced with thanks to Jim Farrell and WiganWorld.

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