TRCH Priscilla

Out of Time: Highwayman "Swift" Nick Nevison

17 July 19 words: LeftLion

Our regular history feature takes a look at the colourful life of Nick Nevison, who traded in Newark during his time as a highwayman...

Any mention of the word ‘highwayman’ is likely to conjure up a romanticised image of a mysterious caped figure with a flintlock pistol in each hand, a tricorn hat atop his masked face and the immortal command, “Stand and Deliver!” In popular mythology, the idea of the gentleman thief roaming the countryside on horseback, taking what he needed from those who could afford to lose it and always being one step ahead of the law, personified the aspirations that exist – albeit often well hidden – within us all. The highwayman was unconventional, he was a libertarian, he was charming, adventurous, gallant and, most importantly, he was free. 

Naturally, when such a group captured the imagination of the public, what was subsequently written about highwaymen in Britain became so wildly embellished to the extent that fact is now hard to distinguish from legend. But while the finer points will forever remain lost to history, we do know that highwaymen operated in Britain from the seventeenth century until the early 1800s, making a living from robbing those who dared to travel the roads without proper protection. 

Among the most notorious and flamboyant of these men during the Golden Age of highway robbery was John Nevison who, although born in Yorkshire, plied his trade in Newark during the seventeenth century. At that time, the Great North Road ran like a scar across the length of Britain, serving as the main coaching route that joined London to North Scotland. As one of the more central rest stops along the route, Newark provided the ideal base for Nevison and his gang, providing rich pickings from York to Huntingdon. 

By the mid-1670s, Nevison’s reputation as a gentleman thief who only targeted the rich, refused to use violence and was never less than polite was cemented, and his activities began to garner attention from the authorities. It was in 1676 that his most famous exploit, riding from Kent to York in a single day, occurred – although, thanks to William Harrison Ainsworth and his novel Rookwood, posterity has wrongly attributed it to fellow highwayman Dick Turpin. 

The story goes that at 4am one summer morning, Nevison robbed a wealthy traveller at Gad’s Hill, near Rochester. Escaping via a ferry across the Thames, he proceeded to gallop some 200 miles away from the scene of the crime, arriving at York at sunset. Ensuring his presence was noted, he met with the city’s Lord Mayor, even entering into a wager over a bowls match. When he was eventually arrested for the robbery, the Lord Mayor supported his alibi, claiming that there was no possible way that a man could have made the journey in such a short space of time. With the law stating that a man could not be tried for the same crime twice, Nevison earned enormous notoriety from his exploits, even allegedly earning praise from King Charles II, who took delight in giving him the nickname “Swift Nick”.

But as much as the public revelled in the adventures of Nevison and his fellow highwaymen, the authorities were clamping down on a problem that plagued the British coaching roads. Nottingham was the setting for one of the more macabre examples when, in 1766, James Bromage and William Wainer were sentenced to death for highway robbery. After being led to St Mary’s Church on High Pavement, they were read their execution sermon but, before the act itself was carried out, the pair were forced to lie in their own graves to ensure that they would fit. 

“Swift” Nick Nevison’s own demise came seven years after his famous ride from Kent to York. The law had come close to delivering justice several times previously, but the ever-evasive Nevison wasn’t a man to be taken easily. He escaped Wakefield gaol in 1674, and in 1676, having been sentenced to transportation to Tangiers, jumped from the ship that was to take him to his fate before it had left port. Having been arrested yet again in 1681, he arranged for an accomplice to masquerade as a doctor who, having declared Nevison “dead”, quickly carried his very-much-still-alive body out of prison and to freedom once more. His luck ran out, however, in 1684 when, following an uncharacteristic bout of violence, he killed a constable named Fletcher during an arrest attempt. Constantly the target of bounty hunters who were after the £20 price on his head, the net tightened around Nevison, and he was captured in Wakefield, and hung at York Castle on 4 May 1684. 

Far from being exclusive to Britain, the practice of highway robbery took root all over the world: the Wild West of the USA had bandits and road agents like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, Australia had bushrangers like Ned Kelly, Greece had Klephts and India had its Thuggees. The exploits of these highwaymen captured the public’s imagination in a way that few other criminal exploits have done before or since, living their lives as many of us wish we could, but few of us are brave enough to, and meeting their deaths at the gallows with laughter and humour, showing no fear in the face of the authority they’d spent their lives rallying against.