“And the fame of Dick Turpin had been something less If he’d never rode to York on his bonnie Black Bess.”
ELIZA COOK: Black Bess
Everyone knows the tale of brave Dick Turpin, don’t they? The handsome hero of Hounslow Heath, the gallant ‘Robin Hood’ highwayman who, with a hearty “Stand and Deliver!” stole from the rich to give to the poor, his legend immortalised by his epic 200 mile ride from London to York on his faithful steed “Black Bess”?
There are some who doubt the entire story; there are some who doubt parts of the story and there are some who point instead to the exploits of William Nevison and a horse called Nutmeg.
John Nevison or William Nevison as he was often called was born near Barnsley in 1639, 66 years before Dick Turpin was even thought of. He first worked as a customs agent collecting taxes and hunting down smugglers but finding the job both erksome and poorly paid he turned to highway robbery, earning himself a reputation as an amicable “Robin Hood”…
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.
THE BALLAD “Bold Nevison”
At 4am one summer morning in 1676, at Gads Hill in Kent, Nevison robbed a sailor returning home from sea. Unfortunately the sailor recognised him. Realising that he needed to establish an alibi Nevison and his bay mare Nutmeg rode north crossing the Thames by the Tilbury Ferry and making their way to Chelmsford where they rested for half an hour. Then they continued northwards, resting occasionally on the way, first to Cambridge and then to Huntingdon where they picked up the Great North Road towards York. According to the story at one point they were pursued by 3 constables but managed to shake them off outside Pontefract (Pomfret as was) by jumping over a narrow gorge, now called Nevison’s Leap. At sunset of the same day, with 200 miles of bad road behind them Nevison and Nutmeg rode into York. After washing and changing his travel stained clothes and attending to the exhausted Nutmeg Nevison went out to find the Lord Mayor of York who was playing bowls. Engaging him in conversation Nevison made a bet with the Mayor on the outcome of his game - and made sure that the Mayor noted the time - 8.00pm.
Nevison was eventually arrested for the robbery in Gads Hill. In his defence he summoned the Lord Mayor of York who swore that Nevison was in York at 8pm on the day of the robbery… “I had supped with Nevison on the eve of the robbery in Kent. And no man can fly.” The court accepted this defence, refusing to believe that a man could have committed a crime at 4am in Kent and then ridden to York by 8pm the same day. Nevison was found not guilty and emerged as a folk hero.
The King, Charles 2nd and his brother, the Duke of York had followed the trial with interest. Being sporting men they were prepared to wager that Nevison had made the epic ride from Kent to York - and there were many happy enough to take their money. To settle the matter King Charles invited Nevison to a private audience on the understanding of the strictest secrecy. Nevison sportingly obliged. At a lavish supper held in private chambers Nevison admitted to the King that he had robbed the sailor at Gads Hill. He then described in considerable detail his ride to York. The King and the Duke won their bet and collected thousands of guineas in return. After that supper Nevison became known as ‘Swift Nick’, a nickname bestowed upon him by the King.
For all his Robin Hood reputation:- “I have never robbed no man of tuppence, And I’ve never done murder nor killed” William Nevison was eventually arrested in 1684 for the murder of Darcy Fletcher, a constable. He was found guilty and hanged at York Castle in May 1684. He was buried in an unmarked grave in St Mary’s Church, Castlegate… 21 years before Dick Turpin was born.
“Thus it was related of William Nevison, the great robber of the north of Yorkshire, that he levied a quarterly tribute on all northern drovers, and in return not only spared them himself but protected them against all other thieves; that he demanded purses in the most courteous manner, that he gave largely to the poor what he had taken from the rich.”
LORD MACAULAY, History of England 1848
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE
The story of Nevison’s Leap
Credit: The Ride to York is by Chris Rawlins
– from Martyn Day