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Tom o' the Roads had ridden his last ride, and was now alone in the night.
From where he was, a man might see the white recumbent sheep
and the black outline of the lonely downs,
and the grey line of the farther and lonelier downs beyond them;
or in hollows far below him, out of the pitiless wind,
he might see the grey smoke of hamlets arising from black valleys.

Near every town and village in England there will be a cross-roads. Often they are older than the towns themselves, ancient meeting places where the pathways that have existed since time immemorial intersect. Folk tradition has it that the cross-roads are where worlds meet. Suicides were buried at them to confuse the restless spirits. The old blues greats received their musical mastery from the devil at the cross-roads.

Until the coming of the railways and motorways, visitors to my old hometown of Stroud would have come via the old London road that runs in stages from the capital, to Oxford, Swindon and Cirencester. The last leg of this journey is spectacular, clinging as it does to the northern edge of the Cotswold escarpment, overlooking the glorious Slad valley. The last stop where a weary traveller might rest is the pretty village of Minchinhampton, built near the cross-roads known to this day as Tom Long’s Post.

Five roads meet at Tom Long’s Post, the Cirencester Road, Windmill Road, Brimscombe Hill, Culver Hill and The Ladder. There is no consensus about how the Post itself got its name. At school, we were taught that he was a fearsome highway man in the late eighteenth century who would rob the stage coaches that brought the rich folk up from London. He had an affair with the daughter of the landlord of the Amberly Inn and was arrested there by the local sergeant. He was hanged at the crossroads where he committed his crimes, but his restless spirit followed the sign-post there to the Inn, which he still haunts today.

There is no record of a highwayman called Tom Long however, and in the eighteenth century the local executions were carried out at the County Gaol gallows in Gloucester. Another story, and one I actually heard first was that Tom Long, who may still have been a highwayman, hanged himself in a Rodborough house, and was buried at the crossroads as a suicide. The house was where one of my friends grew up and he believed the story whole-heartedly. The story was recounted by Charles Payne in a lecture at the end of the nineteenth century, but he made no further comment on it.

The lack of a record of Tom Long does not mean he never existed. It was common in England for members of various professions to be known collectively by one name. A soldier was Tommy Atkins, a sailor was Jack Tar, a hangman was Jack Ketch and a carrier or messenger was Tom Long. The archaic expression “waiting for Tom Long” means to have been kept waiting for a long time. It has been suggested that Tom Long’s post may have been nothing more prosaic than a drop-off and pick-up point for messengers, around which romantic stories grew.

Personally, I prefer to believe there may have been a highwayman, who was known as Tom Long because he stalked the long stretch of road that the messengers from London used. When he was caught or died, he may have been recorded under his real name and hence lost to us. If he did commit suicide, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he was buried at the crossroads. Even more ghoulishly, his body may have been displayed in a gibbet at the scene of his crimes.


Sources

Opening quotation is from The Highwayman by Lord Dunsany
Historical records are from the Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology Journal for 2000 pp 3 – 5
Definition of Tom Long is from E. Cobham Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 1898
The rest is from vaguely remembered folk stories and traditions.

For Up My Street (A Quest for Local Knowledge)

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