Voices from the Old Bailey, Radio 4<br/>Beyond Belief, Radio 4

How we love a dandy highwaymen
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The Independent Culture

In a week when a murderer and child-beater had baffling tributes paid to him with flowers and on Facebook, it was interesting to hear how 18th-century highwaymen were hero-worshipped.

One of them, Jack Rann, condemned to death in 1774, spent the time between trial and execution in as pleasant a manner as could be expected in the circumstances. "On Sunday last, at least seven girls dined with him," a contemporary observer wrote.

When James MacLaine was awaiting the drop, he received 3,000 visitors at Newgate Prison one Sunday, and another observer worked himself into a lather about "the prints that are published of the malefactors, and the memoirs of their lives and deaths set forth as if they were military heroes".

This came up in the fascinating first of four programmes in Voices from the Old Bailey, which draws on the archives of the Central Criminal Court. The transcripts make a fabulously rich resource (oldbaileyonline.org). They were mostly thugs, the highwaymen – there's distressing testimony from a maid raped by one of the Turpin gang – and the myth of the gentleman robber was largely down to MacLaine, some of whose victims were so dazzled by his charm that they refused to prosecute.

Playing on the fashion for masquerades, MacLaine wore a Venetian mask on the job, not that it did him much good in the end. There was more covering up in the returning series Beyond Belief, which explored the sacredness of hair: Muslims hide it, some Jews shave it, Sikhs never cut it. Taj Hargey, a liberal Muslim educationalist, asserted that the hijab is cultural, not religious: the term "hijab" is mentioned seven times in the Koran, meaning a screen or partition, he said – not once does it refer to covering the hair.

We heard from a Muslim convert, a barrister who sometimes removes her hijab in court and couldn't satisfactorily explain why she wears it at all. The Koran requires it, she said, though "there is a gap for women to make their own decisions". Hargey tut-tutted. She was confusing her texts, he said. "This shows how sad Islam has become."