A story of a shit highwayman from a place near Wigan you have probably never heard of

Upholland prides itself as an ‘historic village’, the signs declare it such a place. 

We have travelled the urban roads from Wigan, past independent nail and hair salons with puns in their names, the betting shops, the pubs that appear to have been closed since 1987, the pubs that look closed since 1987 until someone staggers out for a fag. 

Upholland has the normal outspread of  ‘executive’ housing cheaply built on the fields that once surrounded it but it still has a view, a glorious view over the countryside that  still manages to exist. 

 The church is opposite a pub that is supposed to be a site of poltergeist activity, a now demolished house next door that veritably hummed with ghosts, written about in great depth by the renowned writer of the undead, Peter Underwood in ‘Ghosts of North West England.’

‘Velvets’, an ice cream parlour- on such a cold day the staff look bored on this strange little meandering street which hardly seems to exist, a place so near other bigger places, neither village or town, a quietly meandering sprawl with an ancient heart. 

‘But don’t worry, our famous ghosts won’t scare you away as Mike and Julie make the White Lion a fun place for all!’-  White Lion Website 

For once I feel safe that I will be able to find the grave I am looking for, I am not stumbling around in the darkest depths of rural Cumbria and for once I have the luxury of working wifi on my side.

 Yet now I am suddenly  staggering through the churchyard, the small area I am looking for has all the graves seemingly shunted upwards in a nightmarish lumpen garden of souls and stones, a rockery of the dead where nobody lies six foot long without an outcrop of similar old graves besmirching their territory. 

The undead  should sue. A grave cost a great deal of money in the time when these dead were still walking the quiet car-free lanes of old Upholland and I doubt they would be pleased at this. It’s like a newspaper article in a Proper Newspaper, in the Lifestyle section regarding neighbours subtly stealing your garden but in a somewhat more  grotesque form. 

As with Wigan graveyard, the pavement you walk on consists of fractured stones and memories of the dead, slab gravestones smoothly obliterating  over the years the ones they were meant to commemorate forever.  Under your feet until you look closely and see a remaining letter, a carefully enscripted sans serriffe, just one number of a forgotten forever date that once meant so much to some. This is such a hideous mockery of immortality and remembrance in a place meant to sanctify and remember. 

I understand that Upholland is a small village that outgrew itself as everywhere has. Before the dull Barratt style homes, those small bland avenues often using the names of what was once there to name themselves after, Orchard View, Badger Cott, people still bred and in times of poverty and strife, bred more. Their fragile houses might have been demolished, they may have lived far too many to a room but they still needed a burial space at a time when cremations had so to speak, died a death since the Iron Age. 

I dislike walking so closely over the interred, generally trying to walk around neat hummocks. There is something unpleasant about walking over such a human shaped mould in the earth but it is impossible to be respectful here. It does not help that I have my phone in front of me, looking at peoples Flickr accounts to try and find the grave I am looking for. 

The location is carefully described on the BBC Lancashire website but still so hard to find amongst these graves which are not weather beaten but weather smoothed. The photos on the internet show a grave next to a vibrant red plant, this is early February so I look for a plant, a shoot, a something, look at the contours of the tomb stone next to it, so suddenly surprising the amount of different contours in tomb stones when you actually look closely, properly. You learn something every day. 

I finally find it, the vibrant red plant is a strange limp grey stalk, a fake, its chemical  scarlet long since dissipated into the earth and to what and who lies underneath. Only a few letters of Nanny Lyon’s name is left, the child’s grave under which supposably lies her father. 

 I could not have found it without the internet; in a few years nothing will help. The photograph I found of the grave showed the name in far better condition, it is so chilling how quickly the strong stone remembrances of the dead are vanishing. We trusted in stone as we trusted in life. Let’s hope Heaven didn’t let these people down, they trusted in you Heaven, the last few bleak letters signifying their death can be transcribed into biblical quotations, not their own name, their loved ones, their story before their death and the cause of it (I have a guilty penchant for graves that relay the manner of the passing of those who lie underneath) 

 No, these people  had that hope, that promise of Something Else and that was the important thing to commemorate them by, the possibility of better things to come, rather than the ruminations of a short miserable life. It’s a good selling pitch to be fair in a time when life was arduous, hungry  and often painful and you saw too many children die before you. Without hope, what else? 

George Lyon- Robin Hood or Highwayman? 

When researching interesting graves, and all graves are interesting ( as all of humanity is interesting) there is,  as has been mentioned before, a frustrating lack of information to be found about normal people.

 Normal people of course don’t actually exist, everyone’s life has some element of fascination and interest about it. A stone slab with just a name, or part of a name is ambiguous, especially in a graveyard of a town or village you do not know; so much history now lies forgotten underneath. The intrigues, the infidelities, those who were eccentric and clever and did so much of intrigue and fascination that is all now lost, those who discovered things that newer people ‘discovered’  but there was no paper trail, the witty, the evil, the desperate, the bright. Gone. No online  trail describing their ancient animosities with neighbours, their beauty, their shocking affairs, their cruelty,  their way to make a rabbit last a week, their perilous voyage to the Antipodes and the incredible sight they saw on the way back. 

 What you don’t know and never will know is so much more exciting and exotic than the oversharing of the present age. Stonehenge will be visited for centuries beyond my death, too ancient  and remote for vague conjecture, we will resort to the archaeologist’s phrase of ‘ritual’ as a handy word to plaster the ignorance, suppositions and  hypothesis of ages  which intercourse with the cold hard scientific facts of archeologists discoveries. 

 But, but… the inscriptions on these graves, these graves in every churchyard in every town and city will be ignored,  will vanish, time warped and time smoothed. Many books date themselves by describing modern or unlisted places of interest that when the reader visits the site, it is gone, changed to a new place, a new portal. With graves, it is the opposite, it is the race to finish, to document what was once there, now  the tombs still stand there, grandly smoothly relaying nothing. 

It takes a short time to remove a gravestone  but a longer  time for the gravestones  to remove their raison d’etre. The graves  have now become more utilitarian,  a way of walking around a church, a pathway or a lawn of stone, laid back to back staring at the sky, a slippery hazard, where once normal  people, normal  people in  the antiquated layers of clothing  that you now only stare at when they are behind glass at museums, but these clothes were right in front of you once staring at the same grave. They   laid flowers, sobbed and stared and threw that first handful of dirt to a place where the buried have now  long since been  removed, a bit troublesome and a slipping hazard, their grave now part of a flat convenient  pathway. 

Who looks at a path? The ones of worth are still protected by their money, despite the fact they are nothing but bones. Who would pull down a grand slab tomb or ornately carved resting places of  wealthy influential local families, guarded by the might,  money and prestige of silent stone angels, cherubs and  other such heraldry? 

 Information about a name on a ‘normal’ gravestone is thus so hard to find due to the footprints of  so many other parishioners treading  on the path beneath their feet,  especially if the ones interred and rehomed  were not ones to write, ones who had little money, ones without a renowned home, a’ good’ name, a name before they died and a legend afterwards.

 I feel I do the truly dead, those who never had a  chance to even be history, slate wiped clean, trodden underfoot, a misservice, merely rehashing old legends and infamies but try as I might, it is so hard  for a modern stranger on a brief visit to a parish to bring back a stranger from the dead when there is nothing left. 

Those who  died as murderers and villains had much written about them but due to their harsh sentencing were not often placed in consecrated ground, rather flung in quicklime in mass pits in the grounds of a prison, no tombstone, no elegy. Many prisoners lie, intermingled with each other underneath the car park at Lancaster Castle, teenage bones dissolved before they ever reached maturity. 

George Lyon is unusual in that he and his accomplices were buried in sanctified ground, here in Upholland Church, the reason being they did not actually murder anyone when carrying out their misdeeds so despite their hanging at Lancaster Castle, they were allowed a final trip back to be buried here. One wonders if the forebears of Daily Mail readers were chomping at the bit at such luxury permitted. 

 He was also allowed to be buried in his best suit- oh the outrage of the luxury of being suffocated to death if your corpse can be stiffly maneuvered into your ‘good black suit’, so sad, so much life still in it. 

George was born in Upholland in 1761 and buried there in 1815. 

George Lyon (paraphrased by me) 

 A highwayman, a gentleman and thief, a rascal with a dashing smile and a way with the ladies even as I  assist them with the removal of their jewelry. Sounds good, don’t it? Seems such a rough word ‘stealing’, I am aiming for better. The coach driver might  get shot in the face but who cares about such a lowly servant? His face generally the type to look better for it, a good deed done again! I am a hero, a Robin Hood, a new brave Lancashire legend ferociously galloping across the ancient forest, well,  Wigan to retrieve bounty off the fine slender, oh so slender necks of the beautiful richly adored, err, adorned enemy. 

Reckon I’ll be reet. The ladies like me, I seem to have, if I say so myself, have a bit of a way about me. The whole Robin Hood thing, does seem a bit of a waste to go to all the effort and danger of being a highwayman just to give it all to some lazy sod who hasn’t got the wherewithal to try and make a go of it himself. Ladies like a good deed though and I like to think of meself  as a legend in my own time so I’m not complaining, like. I’m  not actually disagreeing with the gossip, maybe exaggerated a bit, but not my fault what other people run with. I might have mentioned being a ‘prince of thieves’. It’s a good phrase. A good summings up of a man like me, not my fault if people’s minds turn to Robin Hood. 

This whole highwayman thing, I mean, I do like being a highwayman, the whole glamour of it, it’s a good way to meet women but I’m a bit wary of actually doing it again, it’s not gone so well really if you do not mind me saying so.

It seemed a step up from thieving, I’ve done my time for thieving, was  close to being hanged by the neck until dead, ‘ the phrase still whizzing around my ears in the darker reaches of the night. I’ve done proper stuff too and were good at it. Just didn’t pay so well, you would think a handloom weaver would get a bit more respect wouldn’t you? Qualified one an’ all. 

I was sent away instead, not expected to return, someone else’s problem, a shrouded splash over the bows of a diseased and corrupted ship, a shallow  dusty grave somewhere far away with no tombstone, no funeral.  All that for relieving a young man of so many shillings I reckon he had done worse than me to have in his poor pocket at such a time of night, in such an area of Wigan.

 I’m not happy to relate the fact that the court has belittled the worth and bravery of my stealing. They say 16  shillings, I say 90 guineas and I had all my highwayman mates around me, not just a petty thief out on his own, cold and  hungry, no I shielded my accomplished, brave and bold and ready to die so I was. Not sure if they wrote that down. Told em to, like. Make the sentence worth it, blaze of glory and all that, be someone, be GEORGE LYON, lion by name, almost lion by nature. Oh, that’s good, that is. 

  Who do you believe? What sort of fool would make his crime worse just to sound  good, finally be a man, wink at the girls in thrall to my derring do, almost instinctively throw a non-existent velvet cloak over one shoulder? I do regret it, like. 

I, however, due to my, if you don’t mind me saying so, my grace, wit and charm, am one of those few to have made that perilous journey there and back. More than that I am not inclined to say, not a good place to be but reckon I’m still browner than them here as a result but reckon still, I fear the cold a lot more now. And also fear for my freedom more now that I know more than most how it feels to have it curtailed. 

When I returned,  I decided to be better. 

Went into the weaving trade, this is Wigan after all, spent nigh on ten long years at it, tried to reform myself, tried to be good, not bad at the old weaving but after dark, tried to not get back into my old ways by keeping in the company of good women, too many good women to be fair in such a small place. 

In a letter written by Ellen Weeton to Mrs. Whitehead and dated 23 May 1809 she says: “In two houses near together [in Upholland] there have been in each, a mother and daughter lying-in, nearly at the same time; and one man (the notorious George Lyon) reputed to be father of all four.

I decided to excel myself and better myself by becoming more than just your common thief or weaver. 

‘For several years before 1814 Lyon (who referred to himself as “King of the Robbers”) and his “desperate gang” (essentially his younger friends, David Bennett and William Houghton) committed the most daring depredations and eluded the vigilance of the local authorities. He is said to have boasted that the hemp had not been grown nor the rope “twun” that would fit his neck.’

Oh,  much thieving commenced, let me tell you, silver tankards, silver watches, tea chests, watches and guineas- we had them all, thieving was our very nature.

Yes, I suspected you had heard about the first attempt about the actual highway robbery. 

I think people can bloody put up or shut up to be fair. Them that mocked me hadn’t the nouce to do owt themselves, merely mock with their fat arses sucked so far in the seats of The Black Bull that they couldn’t move if they tried. At least I’m a man of means, a businessman.

It’s quite hard being a highwayman who hasn’t highwaymanned before. Had it all planned out, see? Had my outfit looking smart, nobody but God can plan the weather though, ey? 

I know now, it’s all about the timing. That might be the reason I now have  poor children without my surname or a father to their name in this parish. I have always trusted in timing too much. A few seconds can change the world. 

 You can all mock me but have you ever tried Highwaymanning yourselves? 

It’s not as easy as it looks, apart from the dapper aspect which just comes real natural to me. 

Didn’t think that much about the weather or the timing, just the thrill, the pleading cries and terrified quaking admiration of the beauties within. Then remembered I was holding up the coach conveying wages to the coal mine- I know it sounds bad, not that Robin Hood but well, we all got to apprentice our new trade somewhere. 

Stood there on a bleak soot stained verge as crows shrieked and swirled over me, never got to know a scrubby dead tree as much in my life. I was reet soaked at the time I reckoned the coach would come. Stood there a bit longer. Needed a piss. Stood a bit more. Never thought this Highwayman lark would be so bleeding boring. And wet. My feet cold. My hair puffs up when it’s wet. Need a piss. 

Finally, the sound of wheels. I pull my trousers up ( typical timing) and slide ( it was meant to be a spring) into the road. I stand there, a figure of sodden yet terrifying appearance. I reach into my coat, bring out the gun. 

I press the trigger. 

Nothing happens. No explosive retort. No terrified screams, no money. Instead, I stand there furious and vengeful, my gunpowder soaked and impotent, my blood hot. The carriage driver, the one I  regretfully consigned to his grave ten times over this last month, laughs at me, flicks his whip AT me and then deliberately at his horses in a way designated to make them veer towards me and splash me with mud from the axles as I lunge away and land in the filthy ditch that had for so long been my viewing point and hiding place. The crows caw their delight. I feel all of Nature despises me and me alone. 

  I would dearly like to report him to the constabulary but certain points might be hard to explain. My coat is ruined, I wish to send the blaggard a bill but feel it might compromise my position. 

Literally. 

I’ll learn from this experience and improve, them bastards won’t get away with it. I will keep my powder dry next time.

I want my children to think well of me. Their mams may not but I am a man, did not think such fruit would so quickly abound and in such quick succession to such  different women. I hope this silly episode does not reach their ears, they think little of me enough, in retrospect should have ploughed the field further away but the roads are dirty and dangerous, the crows shriek and surround and I am happy enough here, have ventured further than most people in this dismal place. 

This time I will succeed, enough time wasted, shrivened and beholden to others. 

Firstly I need accomplices. Next an alibi.  See I’m learning, isn’t it? 

This time a mail coach, a proper target. I sit with a good ale in the pub and salute all around me. Then I, with my still friendly grin and cunning ways manage to persuade an ostler at The Bulls Head to ‘lend’ me a few horses and off we go at a fast and furious pace to Tawd Vale. This is more like it. 

This time when I shoot my gun across the terrified passengers’ heads, it works. A flurry of activity and pockets of richness. Then a furious gallop  worthy of Black Bess herself. A brief calming down, a splash of putrid drain water that feels like it’s been blessed. We return to our seats, chat and intermingle as if we had never been gone then when the drawn faces of the ambushed come shocked and swaying into view, we are the first to listen, to commiserate, to be horrified, our hands holding still their jewelry in case it shakes itself  in outrage. The perfect alibi. 

It was a bit too much to be fair, all of this and I learned my lesson well but not that  day, my demise came a lot closer to home. 

The death of George Lyon

Another narrative relays  that the accused did not have a horse and he and his accomplices just ran, no such glamour such as a loyal horse, loyal friends at pubs,  just thieves running for their lives, not the brightest, not highwaymen,  but horseless thieves with dreams beyond their station.

Enter thief-taker John Macdonald, asked to catch this ‘robber’ and his cohorts,  this robber who was linked to daily thefts which in  such a small area was causing much dismay.  Macdonald came to Upholland dressed as  a peddler, befriended the unsuspecting Lyon and George happily shared his ‘flash’ talk, happy to have a truly exotic criminal for a friend. He told his new friend of certain items of interest he had in his possession, maybe bragged a bit about how they came to be. 

 His new friend was not slow in contacting the police and arranging for Lyon’s room to be searched. 

George Lyon was caught and tried for his crimes at Lancaster Castle when he was in his mid fifties. He wrote a pitiful  letter to his wife  begging for a Christian burial in Upholland instead of the ignominious lime pit and John Higgins the chief gaoler of Lancaster Castle aqueinced due to the fact that Lyon had claimed no victims lives and thus he was allowed to wear his best until after his death. 

His death by hanging by the neck until dead. 

His body was collected by Simon Washington, the landlord of the Old Dog Inn in Upholland (no longer existing) and it is said that a storm accompanied the faithful landlord and his regular patron the entire long way home, a service you would not get in a Wetherspoons. Washington said the devil himself had followed them the whole way home. Lyon’s body was laid out in Washington’s best parlour and hundreds  clamoured to see his earthly  remains. 

George Lyon finally achieved his fame, dapperly dressed before being placed into the grave of his daughter. 

 No Robin Hood, no Highwayman, just a man who thought he could win, could be a legend in his own lifetime. 

A highwayman who died still in want of a horse.

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