Heritage: How ‘fairy music’ helped conman steal a horse in Romford

Romford market some 300 years after Stephen Bunce's scam. Picture: John Hercock

Romford market some 300 years after Stephen Bunce's scam. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin recalls a confidence trickster who robbed an honest traveller

Stephen Bunce was born about 1680. A natural scammer, Bunce's cunning aroused admiration - and amusement. Like the highwayman thug Dick Turpin, he became something of an anti-hero.

One hot summer day he hid alongside the main road to Romford, probably somewhere around Gidea Park or Harold Wood, waiting for a victim.

On the lonely highway, he spotted a well-dressed man, obviously wealthy, astride a handsome horse - an obvious target.

The rider was probably Abraham Bartlett, a cordwainer (shoemaker) of Maldon. A very wealthy businessman and property owner, Bartlett would have stopped in Romford to rest his horse when visiting London.

Bunce rarely used violence. He stretched out across the road, pressing his ear to the ground.

Bartlett was not pleased by the obstruction. "What the plague are you listening to?", he demanded.

Most Read

Bunce gestured to him to be quiet, before sitting up and answering in wondering tones.

He'd often heard people talk about fairies, he explained, but he'd never thought he'd encounter them himself.

But now, on this main road near Romford, he was listening to their underground orchestra.

"In this very place, I hear such a ravishing and melodious harmony of all kinds of music, that it is enough to charm me to sit here, if possible, for all eternity."

Abraham Bartlett was a rough man, but even he was tempted. Dismounting, he ordered Bunce to hold the reins of his horse, knelt down and placed his ear on the ground.

"I can hear nothing," he complained. Bunce gently suggested he was using the wrong ear. Bartlett turned over, now facing in the opposite direction.

That gave Bunce the opportunity to leap on to the steed and gallop away.

But, as he approached Romford, Bunce knew he had a problem. Horse thieves were hanged. Bartlett's mount had distinctive markings which made it easily identifiable, and so too risky to try to sell the animal. How else could be turn his trick to a profit?

Bunce guessed that Bartlett was a regular traveller who probably called to a favourite Romford inn - and that the horse knew its way there.

When he reached the Market Place, he jumped down, patted the animal to continue walking, and followed close behind. The horse turned into an inn yard - you can still see a Romford inn yard at the Golden Lion.

Its reins were grabbed by an ostler, who called out "Here's Mr Bartlett's horse". The landlord promptly appeared, alarmed that an important customer had perhaps suffered an accident.

Bunce had played a classic scammer's trick: he could now use his victim's name.

Brazenly, he told the innkeeper that Mr Bartlett was playing cards at Ingatestone, and had lost money gambling. Urgently needing to borrow fifteen guineas to settle his debts, he'd sent Bunce to offer his horse to the friendly innkeeper as a security for a loan.

A guinea was 21 shillings, fifteen guineas was £15.75p - but worth about £1600 in modern money values.

Of course, said the landlord. Indeed, he'd hand over 100 guineas if the excellent Mr Bartlett needed the money.

Bunce pocketed the cash and was well away by the time Bartlett trudged to the inn, hours later, covered with dust and perspiration. The landlord was full of concern. He'd been delighted to help. There'd been no need for Mr Bartlett to pledge his horse. He shouldn't have walked so far to settle this trifling debt on such a sultry day.

Bartlett of course was angry being swindled, but even he saw the funny side of the trick. Decently, he made good the landlord's loss.

"The rogue has made me pay fifteen guineas for hearing one tune of the fairies!", he exclaimed.

To make matters worse, Abraham Bartlett hadn't heard a single note.

Bunce's luck eventually ran out. He was publicly hanged at Tyburn, site of London's Marble Arch, in 1707. He was 27.