Reminiscences of the Coaching Days - Robbery of £5000 and a Hanging
After the great road between Edinburgh and Glasgow, on which Armadale is built, was opened, it became the principal thoroughfare for coaches conveying passengers between these two cities, and many are the stories told of the attempts of highwaymen to hold up the coaches and rob the passengers, but one notable robbery deserves to be recorded here, since a local coach owner was the prime mover, and Armadale was the centre of the operation.
George Gilchrist, a prosperous but ne'er-do-weel horse couper and owner of the "Prince Regent"' coach, that plyed on the road with many others, had his stables at the foot of Engine Street, Bathgate, opposite the stable-yard of the present Royal Hotel, and learning that a large sum of money was to be conveyed from Glasgow to Edinburgh in his coach on the 24th of March, in 1831, he, having got into deep water financially, at once set to work to contrive some means by which he could become possessed of the money. At the Mid Callander Fair at Falkirk he met in with a notorious character named James Brown, who, over a dram in Kippen's Inn, readily listened to his nefarious plans.
The modus operandi was as follows:- Brown, together with Gilchrist's brother William, was to journey to a certain point on the road near Airdrie. There they would join the coach which carried the money, carrying with them an iron chain, when they would take seats on the outside, and a short distance further on he would join them, travelling inside with an accomplice disguised as a lady, and the money could then be abstracted. The three conspirators were rough, burly fellows, and the only difficulty that confronted them was regarding the lady. Here the evil influence of Brown came to the rescue. He volunteered to find a young lad who would play the part.
George Davidson, a young man who was engaged in the Sheriff-Substitute's office in Glasgow, being weak and easily influenced, soon got into bad company, and, acting under Brown's advice, he forged a, bill in the name of John M'Gregor, the Sheriff-Substitute. Fearful lest his crime should be discovered, he had flown from his home and taken up his abode with thieves and pilferers in Glasgow. His thin build and his rather effeminate cast of countenance made him eminently fitted for the part he was to play, and it was not long ere Brown had succeeded in pressing him into the services of the trio. Accompanied by George Gilchrist, he walked to a thick plantation in the vicinity of Forrestfield Loch, and from a band-box the couple took sundry "articles of lady fair" - a dress, a bodice, a pair of snow boots, an ermine mantle, and a thick veil - and soon Davidson stepped on to the turnpike road, the metamorphosis completed.
The day was wild and stormy, and exceptionally well suited for their plans, and punctually at 12 o'clock the "Prince Regent" coach set merrily off for Edinburgh. Along the wind-swept roads the horses trotted apace, for the coach was light and carried but one solitary passenger, besides the guard and blythe Jock M'Millan, the driver, as cheery an old Jehu as ever handled the ribbons. Notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, the one and only passenger eschewed the inside of the coach, and, with his peaked cap drawn over his eyes, sat side-by-side with the driver, the picture of silent misery. No wonder! The anxious little man who now and again scanned the road behind and before him was none other than James Smith, porter to the Commercial Bank of Glasgow, whose duty it was to carry to the branch of the bank in Edinburgh the sum of £5712 6s in notes, gold, and silver. In the foreboot of the coach, chained and padlocked, was a tin box containing the money, and though the chain was strong and the coach empty, James Smith had a premonition that something was to happen.
It was not, however, until at a point near Airdrie that the coach took on its first passengers in the persons of Wm. Gilchrist and Jas. Brown, who were well disguised as workmen, and taking their seats alongside of the driver and Bank porter, no apprehension was felt on the part of the porter from that quarter. A mile or two further on, the inside of the coach was occupied, when a gentleman accompanied by a lady hailed it, and, producing two tickets, the couple were put inside by the guard. Up went the windows of the coach, and instantly Gilchrist took out tools, ripped up the cloth of the coach, and proceeded with a brace and bit to bore holes in the wood. Cutting between the holes with a chisel, the twain had access to the foreboot of the coach. An attempt was made to cut the tin box, but finding they could not do this, they prised the lid with the chisel and forced the lock. During this part of the journey, while these operations were going on, the two workmen with the chain outside kept handling it with such effect that no movement inside could be detected. After an hour's work the robbers were in possession of the money, and, placing it about their persons, they allowed the coach to proceed about a mile until Armadale Toll was reached, when the inside passengers alighted and departed, after crossing the driver’s hand with a half-crown. Down the Linlithgow road they went until they reached the old road, when they turned west in the direction of Westcraigs, and were shortly afterwards Joined by Brown and Gilchrist's brother. The money was wrapped up in handkerchiefs, placed in the box that contained the clothes worn by Davidson, and buried in a hole.
Meantime the coach was birling along the road gaily, and it was with a sigh of relief that Smith descended from the coach as it drew up at Uphall Inn, where he was to meet the Edinburgh porter, when he recollected that the only inside passengers by the way had been a young lady of prepossessing appearance and a gentleman companion.
But when the blythe old coachman glanced into the foreboot of the coach, and then, horror-stricken, into the porter's face, John Smith seemed to know in a moment that he had neglected his charge, and with a scared look on his countenance, he clasped the arm of the coachman and exclaimed, "Good God, don't say the box is gone !"
Old Jock, usually so garrulous and voluble, for once was stricken dumb, and the two could only stand and gaze into the foreboot, till Robert Laurie, the porter at Edinburgh, who was to take the money from the custody of Smith, came from the tap-room of the hotel, and thrusting his hands into the foreboot, and opening the padlock, drew out the box. A glance was sufficient to show that it had been tampered with. No key was required to turn the lock. Round the edges of the lid were marks of violence, and inside there was naught but a small remittance slip and a fragment of a one-pound note which had been torn by the robbers in their hasty extraction of the contents.
The little party, staggered by the blow, passed into the hostel to calm themselves and prepare to send information to Edinburgh.
Meanwhile the robbers were disposing of their ill-gotten gain. It was a well-planned affair, and the real culprits might never have been detected had not Gilchrist, while in his cups confided in another horse-dealer named James Morrison, who had been a firm friend of his in his more prosperous days.
Morrison, in the hope of a substantial reward, informed the authorities, and on the 14th July, 1851, the four were tried before the High Court of Justiciary for the crime. After a lengthy trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against George Gilchrist and George Davidson, and they were sentenced to be hanged on the morning of the 3rd August. William Gilchrist and James Brown were acquitted, the evidence being insufficient to convict them.
The two companions were placed in separate cells in the Tolbooth of Glasgow, long since demolished. Erected in the reign of Charles the First, it was situated at the corner of High Street and Trongate, with the Cross Steeple as the angle tower, and having a frontage to both streets. At the rear of the building was the condemned cells, and within the gloomy, iron-bound dungeons lay the two unfortunate prisoners. For Gilchrist the day of reckoning was at hand, but the day of death was not yet to dawn for the lad Davidson.
One day a thickly-veiled figure entered the office of John M'Gregor, the Sheriff-Substitute, and requested an audience with him. The "Shirra" was in a good mood, and told the clerk to show the woman in.
She entered, and raised the veil.
"Mary !" exclaimed M'Gregor, " it's never you come to haunt me, and bring back days which were all but forgot ?"
"Yes, John," replied the woman, "it's Mary. I have not come to haunt you, but haunted you will be unless my boy is saved from the murderous gallows. My boy did I say——"
"But I know him not," protested the Sheriff. "I never knew there was a child. Where is he?"
"George Davidson, who is under sentence of death in the Tolbooth for robbery, and who served in your office ere he fell into evil ways. Oh! save him!" and the woman fell sobbing at his feet.
The love story of John M'Gregor, Sheriff-Substitute, and Mary Davidson has no place here. Cruel circumstances parted them in the midst of their youthful love, but M'Gregor never forgot the lassie whom he lost, and despite his position he carried out a scheme which gained for the unhappy lad freedom and life.
With the assistance of Mary's husband, a douce elder of the Relief Kirk, it was arranged that a service of prayer and supplication should be held in the condemned cell. The turnkeys - stern, God-fearing men - were invited to be present and pray for the soul of the condemned, and while they were on their knees, they were overpowered, gagged, and bound, and their keys taken from them. The chains of Davidson were unlocked, and he walked through the grim portal of the Tolbooth, and shortly afterwards he was smuggled out of the country by M'Gregor to Australia, and thereafter he journeyed to New York, where he remained, living the life of a semi-recluse, scarce leaving his little room lest his dread secret should become known, and his fellows should point the finger of scorn at him.
But strangely moves the finger of fate, and though George Davidson lived unpunished, but by the dictates of his own conscience, the grim, ghastly Nemesis stepped in so recently as the year 1904, and ere the body was cold in the grave, metaphorically speaking, the secret was known to those who came to give the old man decent burial.
Gilchrist, while on the scaffold, expressed his satisfaction at young Davidson’s escape, and his last words were - "Thank God I suffer alone".
But for the fact that the coach was owned by Gilchrist, and that it was proved that he had long planned the robbery, he might have been reprieved, since a strong, influential petition was got up in his favour. A great deal of the gold was afterwards found stowed away in the barrels of a gun.