1685: John Nevison, speed demon

It might have been this date in 1685* that the famously speedy highwayman John Nevison (or William Nevison) was hauled to York’s gallows on the Knavesmire and launched into eternity.

The 1660s and 1670s were his time, when the ex-soldier Nevison made the coachmen of the Great North Road stand and their their passengers deliver from York to Huntingdon. “In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber,” the Newgate Calendar would later memorialize. “He was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party.”

Not all that much is really known of Nevison, but he earned his place in outlaw lore with a reputed 1676 escapade. After the pre-dawn robbery of a traveler in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, Nevison hopped on a rocket horse and spurred it north all the way to York. Google Maps makes that 350+ km trip a nearly four-hour drive today, by the A1. Nevison miraculously made it on horseback by sundown, then cleaned himself up and strolled out to the bowling green to lay a friendly, and alibi-establishing, wager with the Lord Mayor.

Unfortunately for Nevison, Harrison Ainsworth appropriated the legend of the bandit’s impossibly fast ride for a later outlaw, Dick Turpin — who in Ainsworth’s Rookwood rides his famous mare Black Bess to death in a wholly fictitious sprint from London to York.

To be completely fair to that fickle muse Clio, it has been postulated that Nevison’s own legend was appropriated from yet another highwayman, Samuel Nicks, which would account for the nickname “Swift Nick” or “Swiftnicks” won by this feat of horsemanship. Nicks and Nevison might be one and the same man, but they might very well be two different humans whose legends were already conflated before Ainsworth was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.** If there was a distinct “Swiftnicks”, Nevison has the considerable advantage over him for our purposes of having some identifiable biography and an identifiable hanging-date. But it is to this other fellow, Nicks, that Defoe attributed the gallop in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, available online here:

it was about four a clock in the morning when a gentleman was robb’d by one Nicks on a bay mare, just on the declining part of the hill [Gad’s Hill, Kent -ed.], on the west-side, for he swore to the spot and to the man; Mr. Nicks who robb’d him, came away to Gravesend, immediately ferry’d over, and, as he said, was stopp’d by the difficulty of the boat, and of the passage, near an hour; which was a great discouragement to him, but was a kind of bait to his horse: From thence he rode cross the county of Essex, thro’ Tilbury, Homden, and Bilerecay to Chelmsford: Here he stopp’d about half an hour to refresh his horse, and gave him some balls; from thence to Braintre, Bocking, Wethersfield; then over the downs to Cambridge, and from thence keeping still the cross roads, he went by Fenny Stanton to Godmanchester, and Huntington, where he baited himself and his mare about an hour; and, as he said himself, slept about half an hour, then holding on the North Road, and keeping a full larger gallop most of the way, he came to York the same afternoon, put off his boots and riding doaths, and went dress’d as if he had been an inhabitant of the place, not a traveller, to the bowling-green, where, among other gentlemen, was the lord mayor of the city; he singling out his lordship, study’d to do something particular that the mayor might remember him by, and accordingly lays some odd bett with him concerning the bowls then running, which should cause the mayor to remember it the more particularly; and then takes occasion to ask his lordship what a clock it was; who, pulling out his watch, told him the hour, which was a quarter before, or a quarter after eight at night.

The public gallows, nicknamed “York Tyburn”, was torn down in the early 19th century. A worn stone labeled simply “Tyburn” today marks the former site of the fatal tree.

* May 4, 1685 is one of several execution dates suggested for Nevison; all appear to lack recourse to any definitive primary document. The Ballads and Songs of Yorkshire, Transcribed from Private Manuscripts, Rare Broadsides, and Scarce Publications is our source here; it attributes its dating to Macaulay, although I have not found it in the latter’s History of England. Other possibilities include May 8, or March 15, in either 1684 or 1685.

** This site suggests that Nicks might also be the same as, or conflated with, yet another highwayman, Captain Richard Dudley.