by Jayne Poppleton
“Did you ever hear tell of that hero,
Bold Nevison was his name,
He rode about like a bold hero,
And with that he gained great fame.”
Locals will be familiar with the area of Pontefract known as Nevison, and the pub there called ‘Nevison’s Leap’ whose sign shows a dandified highwayman on a dashing steed.
Both are named in honour of William John Nevison, Pontefract’s very own infamous highwayman.
Born in 1639, he proved a bright if troublesome child, once ordered to stand in the middle of the schoolyard with his britches down and whipped every day for a fortnight. As a teenage rebel he was restless, and eventually fled to London to seek his fortune. A strong, bright and good-looking lad he soon found work. But Nevison was in a hurry, and took a shortcut to riches by robbing a brewery.
Escaping to Holland, his charisma won him the admiration of the Dutch ladies (at least one of whom is reported to have died of a broken heart). After attempted elopements, duels and a lot of partying, he was arrested and thrown in jail. He escaped by clambering over rooftops and down a chimney, terrifying a startled family with his unexpected appearance in their fireplace.
Returning to England and establishing a safe-house in Wentbridge, Nevison made his living relieving the wealthy of their gold as they travelled the highways. With his good-looks, smart appearance, wit and audacity he became the pin-up of his day – the original dandy highwayman. Some victims even spoke of it being a pleasure to be robbed by him. Arrested many times, he always managed to escape; on one occasion by pretending to be dead and being carried out of prison in a coffin.
Nevison’s most famous escapade followed an early morning robbery in Gad’s Hill, Kent possibly in the summer of 1676. Afraid that he had been recognised, Nevison decided to establish an alibi by riding the 230 miles to York. Starting on his dark bay mare, he travelled the Great North Road, stopping only to change horses and take refreshment, both provided by his extensive network of trusted rogues.
Arriving in York later the same day, Nevison tidied himself up and proceeded to the local bowling green in order to be seen by as many people as possible. As luck would have it, the Lord Mayor of York happened to be playing. Nevison charmed his way into conversation with the great man, and casually asked him the time; it was just before eight in the evening.
The victim of the Gad’s Hill robbery identified Nevison as his assailant, and Nevison was committed to trail. The Lord Mayor of York was called to give evidence and confirmed that Nevison was indeed in York on the evening of the day of the robbery. No one would believe that anyone could commit a robbery in Kent at dawn and be in York before sundown, so Nevison was duly acquitted.
Nevison and his friends could not help boasting of his daring escape. This enhanced rather than diminished his popularity with the public. The King, Charles II, was delighted with the story and gave him the nickname ‘Swift Nick’ as he must have had the speed of the devil on his ride.
If the story of Nevison’s ride seems very familiar, it is because the tale was ‘borrowed’ and attached to another highwayman, Dick Turpin, by an author who needed to spice up Turpin’s story. Sadly the legend is firmly attached to Turpin in the public’s mind -but we in Pontefract know better.
Jayne is Chair of Pontefract Heritage Group.
For more information about the group, visit www.pontefractheritagegroup.org.uk
This article was featured in Issue 6 – July 2019.