John (also known as William) Nevison was one of Britain’s most flamboyant highwaymen, a man whose exploits earned him praise from even King Charles II, who was so impressed by the activities of this gentleman-rogue that he nicknamed the highwayman Swift Nick – allegedly! A measure of his fame may be surmised from the fact he is the only highwayman except Claude Du Vall mentioned (albeit briefly) by name in Lord Macaulay’s History of England.
Much about his life is shrouded in mystery, and confused by conflicting accounts from such writers as Macaulay and seventeenth century pamphleteers, so it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. The Newgate Calendar entry on William (John) Nevison forms the basis for most modern biographical entries, although it doesn’t mention the feat for which he is best known – the fabled ride to London that was later attributed to Dick Turpin.
Most probably, Nevison was born at Wortley near Sheffield around 1639/40. He came from a good family – according to reports his father is variously named as comfortably off wool merchant or a steward at Wortley Hall. Although he seems to have been prone to stealing and troublemaking at school, he worked as a brewer’s clerk in London for several years before absconding to Holland with a debt he had been sent to collect. He then apparently served in an English regiment under the command of the Duke of York in Flanders, distinguishing himself as a soldier, before returning to England. He seems to have lived quietly with his father until the old gentleman passed away, leaving him impoverished – at which point he decided to take to the road.
A charming man of tall gentlemanly appearance and bearing, it is claimed that Nevison never used violence against his victims. It seems that his romantic reputation was sealed through a renowned ride from the south of England to York in 1676, a feat later mistakenly attributed in popular legend to Dick Turpin and his horse Black Bess. The error arose in a novel called Rookwood written in 1834 by Harrison Ainsworth, who wrongly attributed the feat to Turpin. In fact the ride was already on record in 1724 (when Turpin was still a butcher’s lad in Whitechapel), in Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain , from which the following account is drawn:
THE RIDE TO YORK
At 4am one summer morning in 1676, a traveller at Gads Hill in Kent, England was robbed by John Nevison. The highwayman then made his escape on a bay mare, crossed the River Thames by ferry and galloped towards Chelmsford. After resting his horse for half an hour, he rode on to Cambridge and Huntingdon, resting regularly for short periods during the journey. Eventually, he found his way to the Great North Road where he turned north for York.
He arrived in York at sunset after a journey of more than 200 miles, a stunning achievement for both man and horse. He stabled his weary horse at a York inn, washed and changed his travel-stained clothes, then strolled to a bowling green where he knew the Lord Mayor was playing bowls. He engaged the Lord Mayor in a conversation and then laid a bet on the outcome of the match – and Nevison made sure the Lord Mayor remembered the time the bet was laid – 8pm that evening.
Later, Nevison was arrested for the robbery in Gads Hill and in his defence, produced the Lord Mayor of York as his alibi witness. The Lord Mayor could prove Nevison was in York at 8pm on the day of the robbery and the court refused to believe that a man would have committed that time in Kent and ridden to York by 8pm the same day. He was found not guilty of that crime and emerged as a folk hero, even impressing the king of England.
THE END OF THE ROAD
There are few other accurate records of Nevison’s career. His gang of six outlaws met at the Talbot Inn at Newark and robbed travellers along the Great North Road as far north as York and as far south as Huntingdon. He was arrested several times – in 1674, when he escaped from Wakefield goal before charges could be brought, and again in 1676 on charges of robbery and horse-stealing. Nevison was sentenced to transportation to Tangiers, but returned to England (or escaped before the ship disembarked from Tilbury) and once more took to highway robbery. He was arrested yet again in 1681 and escaped with the ingenious rouse of ‘playing dead’ – getting an accomplice to masquerade as a doctor and pronounce him dead of the plague.
The net was closing in around him however, especially after he killed a man called Fletcher, a constable who died while trying to arrest him. He was targeted by bounty hunters, and after a tip-off from the landlady was captured while drinking at the Magpie (or Plough) Inn at Sandal, near Wakefield. His execution was never in doubt and he was hanged at York Castle on May 4, 1684. The body was buried at St. Mary Church, York, in an unmarked grave.
Did you ever hear told of that hero,
Bold Nevison it was his name,
And he rode about like a brave hero,
And by that he gained a great fame,
Now when I rode on the highway,
I always had money in store.
And whatever I took from the rich
Why I freely gave it to the poor.
I have never robbed no man of tuppence
And I’ve never done murder nor killed.
Though guilty I’ve been all my lifetime
So gentlemen do as you please.
Though the subject of frequently issued prose chapbooks and broadsides, there do not appear to be many versions of this 17th Century ballad of Nevison. This version of the ballad was sung by Joseph Taylor and recorded on a wax cylinder for Percy Grainger in 1908