herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

When The Post Was Highway Robbery

Once upon a time, postal workers had a lot more to worry about than hostile dogs, writes frank hopkins

Down through the years there have been periodic calls to provide gardai on the beat with guns, but most people would probably balk at the idea of arming postal workers with weapons. However the editorial writer of Saunders Newsletter of March 20th, 1786, obviously thought it was a great idea.

The proposal was made against the backdrop of increasing mail-coach robberies in Dublin and the writer asked: "Why could not our mail carts be so contrived, as conveniently to carry a man armed with a blunderbuss? Besides which the post boy could also have pistols in a belt about his waist."

The writer also proposed the development of what must be the forerunner to the armoured car when he suggested that "the mail should be confined in the cart, within a strong iron kind of cage, the key of which to be kept only by the respective post-masters on the road".

In the same edition it was reported that a young post boy, Alexander McLivery, had been executed at Newgate Prison in Dublin two days earlier for the theft of a number of letters. McLivery was the first post boy to be executed for theft under the Postal Act of 1784.

McLivery, who carried the post between Dublin and Drogheda was arrested in November, 1785, for stealing lottery tickets out of a letter. A search was subsequently carried out at the stable where McLivery lived in Drogheda and a number of stolen letters were found hidden there. McLivery was convicted and he was hanged in front of Newgate Prison on March 18th, 1786.

The mail coaches themselves were a great source of revenue for the city's footpads and highwaymen and, 'til the end of the 19th century, the Dublin suburb of Santry was an ideal location for attacks on the mailmen. At that time Santry was an isolated, lonely and heavily wooded spot and for many decades it was known as one of the most dangerous places in the greater Dublin area.

On September 17th, 1773, the Drogheda mail coach was held up at a place called the 'wall of Santry' by two highwaymen as it approached Dublin. The robbers were described as being about 20 and 16 years old and both were dressed in blue overcoats. The young men, said to have been well bred and remarkably polite, stripped the passengers of their cash and pocket watches. On learning that one of their victims was a priest, the highwaymen gave him back his purse.

Soon afterwards, a man named Fleming -- "a young man of good education" -- was arrested near Stradbally (Laois) and charged with the robbery. Fleming confessed to having taken part and implicated his fellow gang members in the process. He also showed the authorities where the loot from the robberies was hidden in return for immunity from prosecution.

In August, 1828, the Derry mail was on its way out of Dublin when the driver of a horse and cart deliberately drove at the stage coach breaking one of its lamps. The coach guard apprehended the cart driver and brought him to the police at Santry. However, some of the cart driver's friends attempted to rescue him and two of them were seriously wounded in the ensuing gun battle.

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