He was known as the ‘gentleman highwayman’ and is one of the Blackmore Vale’s most infamous sons.
But it’s doubtful whether any of the bad boys of history have turned their lives around quite as comprehensively as John Clavell.
Born at Glanvilles Wootton in 1601, Dorset’s answer to Dick Turpin pursued a career as a burglar, horse thief and highwayman.
But although this ‘ill-led life’, as he called it, earned him a death sentence, he was reprieved and turned over a new leaf to become a poet, dramatist, doctor and lawyer.
Clavell’s notoriety was recorded by John Hutchins in his 18th century History of Dorset and by various authors of books on highwaymen.
But until 30 years ago little else was known of him.
Most of what we now know is down to John Pafford, former librarian at the University of London, who lived in Dorset from his retirement in 1971 until his death in 1996.
Dr Pafford first learned of Clavell in 1932 when a 17th century manuscript arrived at the British Museum for identification.
‘It was a five-act play called The Sodder’d Citizen, which had long been known by name but which no-one had seen,’ Dr Pafford told me in 1993 following publication of his book on Clavell.
The play, based on Clavell’s life as a highwayman reformed, was published in 1936, after which other fragments of information began to trickle in.
Over the next 60 years Dr Pafford gradually pieced together Clavell’s remarkable story – and developed a ‘certain admiration’ for him.
‘I have a lot of respect for him, although he was boastful and cocky and in some ways never grew up,’ he said. ‘He was constantly active and pulled himself together and made good.’
Clavell was born into a good family, described by Hutchins as boasting an ‘antiquity not to be equalled in this county and very rarely in any other’.
He was the nephew and heir apparent of Sir William Clavell, owner of Smedmore House near Kimmeridge, who shared some of John’s energy and eccentricities.
Sir William was a scholar, poet and a gentleman soldier knighted for his part in dealing with an Irish rebellion.
He was also a disastrous entrepreneur whose schemes – extracting alum from Kimmeridge cliffs, producing salt by boiling sea water and using Kimmeridge shale to fuel a glassworks – brought him to the brink of ruin.
John Clavell’s home at Glanvilles Wootton is now called Roundchimneys but was formerly Golden Grove and was originally the Manor House.
His early home life was unstable and Dr Pafford believed his ‘broken home’ and ‘unsatisfactory father’ had much to do with his later life of crime.
There were financial problems and a document dated 1617 reveals that John’s father, John Sr, ‘hath for many years past lived from his wife and with a woman whom he keepeth in his house, for which he hath been publicly reproved by the Justices of Assizes’.
The misdemeanour was considered so serious that Clavell Sr had been ‘driven out of Dorset for the cause aforesaid’ and was now living in Somerset.
John Jr’s life of crime appears to have started as an 18-year-old student at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he broke into the treasure house and stole the college plate.
He later fell victim to moneylenders and financial tricksters, running up debts which landed him in the debtors’ prison at Newgate.
There is also an account of him running penniless through London streets, pursued by the moneylender’s men.
His other recorded crimes include robberies at Aylesbury and Edgware and horse theft at Westminster.
In 1625 he led a gang on a series of ‘frequent and insolent’ robberies around London.
Clavell himself later wrote that highwaymen were popularly known as ‘knights of the road’, held in awe by the public and called ‘captains’ by alehouse servants.
In 1626 he was sentenced to death but took advantage of an amnesty that marked King Charles I’s coronation.
He languished in jail for two years but was then pardoned and began the reformed phase of his life.
Clavell was already married to Joyce, a girl of humble origin, who had nursed him through sickness and helped him to obtain his reprieve.
Joyce meant everything to him and he wrote about her at length.
Clavell’s notebook lists payments for doctors, nurses and a midwife and a bill for funeral expenses, suggesting that Joyce may have died in childbirth in 1634.
This would also explain a moving elegy to a lady he had lost.
Clavell later moved to Ireland and married a nine-year-old Dublin heiress, Isabel Markham.
Her wealthy father was a friend of the Lord Chancellor, which led to Clavell being made a barrister in November 1635.
He conducted a number of legal cases in London and Dublin and represented his uncle in property lawsuits.
Clavell also practised as a physician and his writings include 23 pages of prescriptions and other medical matters, some claiming to have cured various people.
His talents were recognised at the highest level and he became something of a celebrity.
One of his written works, A Recantation of an Ill-led Life; or a Discourse of the Highway Law, in Verse, was ‘approved by the King’s most excellent majesty and published by his express command’.
It was written while Clavell was still in prison – ‘from my lonely chamber in the King’s Road’ – and includes a personal appeal to the King for mercy.
Clavell died in 1643 of pleurisy. It is not known where he is buried.