Highway robbery Pictured to capture the fashion style of highway men (or rather women) are our two models Emily and Diane. Below Diane wears a midnight blue evening gown from Winscombe’s Bridal Boutique
Congresbury was founded with the help of a magic walking stick. Rupert Bridgwater goes in search of the village’s Celtic saint and discovers the strange tale of an incompetent highwayman
Congresbury (variously pronounced Coo’m’s’bri and Kongs-bri) by rights should be called Congar’sburgh (burgh is Saxon for fort) - which sounds like a chillier version of the popular Cuban party dance - The Conga - performed communally on New Year’s. Alternatively it could even be called Cyngarcaer - the Welsh for Congar’s fort - since the Strawberry Line village was founded by a Pembrokeshire Celtic Christian saint in the fifth century when he planted his magic walking stick into the ground - and up sprung a yew tree - or so the story goes.
It’s known to most people by the set of lights outside the Ship and Castle Inn at the bridge over the Congresbury Yeo - and the long tailbacks caused by a combination of commuters, holiday makers and visitors to Cadbury Garden Centre. Pull off the A370 and you’ll be rewarded by taking a pleasant stroll round the village centre where there’s quiet lanes, friendly old fashioned pubs and best of all the beautiful church of St Andrew’s set in green and pleasant grounds. It’s also where you’ll find the remnants of St Congar’s magic stick - bits of which are strapped to a yew tree.
St Congar may be the official founder of the village but as always there are other candidates - the most likeliest being the community’s location on a meandering river blocking the road south west from Bristol. Despite there being evidence of Iron Age and Roman occupation nearby it’s fairly certain that at around the first century a hamlet had grown up at the lowest crossing point on the Congresbury Yeo. But never mind that explanation - St Congar’s is much more fun. Although it appears he didn’t hang around. According to what little is known of the holy wanderer he returned to Wales, possible visiting Cornwall and even Brittany en route to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.
So much for saints - now, what about the sinners? In particular what about the highwayman Richard Hewlett? He is without doubt the most famous bad lad of the area. Unfortunately for him he was also the most incompetent robber in the annals of 19th century Somerset crime.
Banished to Canada for horse stealing in the 1820s at Wick St Lawrence the failed farmer set out with £50 in his pocket (a gift from a relative) to start a new life in the colonies. Except, he never got there. It appears he used the money to set himself up with all the equipment one needs to be a highway man. Pistols, maps of main roads, a cloak, a mask, dates and places of wealthy markets, notes on lonely routes taken by the well-heeled - and of course a velvet bag into which to collect his booty.
On the night of October 30th, 1830, farmer and businessman Charles Hardwick of Hewish, was on his way home by horse with £450 in cash following a good day at Bristol market. He had just
passed Congresbury when he was engaged in conversation by a fellow mounted traveller - the wayward Hewlett. Once Hardwick’s guard was down Hewlett drew his pistol and fired at point blank range hitting his victim in the shoulder. Instead of finishing off the farmer with another shot or slitting his throat with his dagger Hewlett alarmed by what he’d done galloped off without having affected a robbery.
He raced back towards Congresbury - pursued by the injured Hardwick. As they approached the bridge in a mad horse race, Hewlett pulled sharply on his mount’s bridle to avoid a horse and cart causing both horse and man to fall heavily - bringing down behind them the injured Hardwick on his steed. The two men fell upon each other in a desperate fight for survival. Hewlett pulled a knife and plunged it into Hardwick’s side, but the injured farmer managed to put Hewlett into a bear hug and prevented him from leaping up and escaping. The carter called the village constable and Hewlett was arrested.
Not only had he failed to rob the wealthy land owner - he’d been caught red-handed by his victim despite being badly injured.
Arrested and imprisoned in Taunton, Richard Hewlett was unlucky. He hadn’t committed murder and hadn’t stolen anything - in today’s parlance he had committed actual bodily harm, assault and attempted robbery. But in 1830 he was tried just before the law was changed. The Black Act of 1723 which listed 50 capital crimes had been dismantled with a number of reforms reducing the list - but robbery was still punishable by hanging. Clemency was granted in many cases but more than 100 executions took place every year. It would be another two years before the The Punishment of Death Act drastically reduced the number of capital crimes - too
late for Hewlett.
He was tried in Taunton, found guilty and executed the following spring in Ilchester. His victim Charles Hardwick had been seriously injured in the incident but recovered and lived another two decades. A further two decades after his death a local man was moved by the farmer’s story of survival in his life and death struggle with Hewlett. Mr Kinglake of the parish raised cash to commemorate the event and Mr Hardwick’s life and death struggle and had a granite cross positioned in the churchyard - where it stands to this day.
For more about the village’s history join the local society. Visit www.congresburyhistory.org.uk/
Strawberry Line Times September 2013
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