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Dick the Devil’s Bairns – Breaking the Border Mafia

Family ties run deep in Cumberland, and if popular local TV presenter Helen Myler (nee Skelton) were to take part in the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ programme, she would discover ancestral lines right back into the dark heart of Border Reiving history in the area. Helen’s distant relative, the gentleman Lancelot Skelton, was a juror at a murder trial held in Carlisle on the 17th of August 1584 involving one of the most notorious reivers of them all.

Richie Graham of Brackenhill ran up huge debts in his official role of bailiff of Gilsland while also running a protection racket that saw the names of those paying –to intimidate those that weren’t – nailed up on the church doors at Arthuret and Canonbie. Richie was also involved in horse theft, counterfeiting and the later infamous breakout of Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle.

The Assize that Lancelot sat on found Simon Graham and others guilty of the murder of George ‘Percival’s Geordie’ Graham when they assaulted him at Levenbriggs and Simon sliced him open with two sword strokes to the legs. Richie Graham also stabbed George in the back with a spear, and he died in Carlisle from his wounds a week later. Although Richie was found guilty, he didn’t hang for his crime and, in true ‘Teflon Don’ style, continued to be a major organised crime figure for around another twenty years.

Another of Helen’s ancestors asked to be granted an escheat on a number of properties in the Forest of Inglewood from Lord Burghley after the owner Oliver Kirkbride fled from the area as he was suspected of murdering one of his neighbours, a Dodson, in 1593.

The Twentyman family in Carlisle are also well known and respected, not least for John Twentyman’s long and dedicated service with Northbank FC and the Cumberland FA, and their ancestor’s lives were similarly touched by the reivers in 1593.

Robert and John Twentyman’s mansion at Orton was ‘feloniously broken’ by a band of Liddesdale reivers who stole 28 cattle, four horses, their weapons and riding gear, and robbed the house. Robert was also taken hostage by the Armstrongs ‘alias Kinmonts’ who ransomed him back in 20 days for £20. The total cost of the raid was some £105. As this example shows, the business of reiving was about much more than just the theft of stock and the reiver’s organized criminal empire also included burglary, demanding protection money with menaces, hostage taking and engaging in blood feuds.

Nationality was of little importance to the reiving Families and the power, wealth and influence of the family itself was their major concern. This led to them organising themselves into criminal gangs on surname lines to both protect and enhance their land holdings and stock – making them one of the earliest examples of a Mafia in the World, predating the more famous Sicilian mob by around two centuries.

The Carlisle writer Jon Tait explores the rise and subsequent fall of the rural Border gangs in his new book ‘Dick the Devil’s Bairns – Breaking the Border Mafia’, a heavily researched and readable story of historic true crime in the area. The 244-page book (ISBN: 978-3-7439-9566-6) is priced at £12 (e-book £2.48) and is published by Tredition GmbH. It is available now from many online retailers.

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