Charles G. Harper

The Great North Road, the Old Mail Road to Scotland: York to Edinburgh

Published by Good Press, 2019
EAN 4057664575548

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Table of Contents

At last we are safely arrived at York, perhaps no cause for comment in these days, but a circumstance which “once upon a time” might almost have warranted a special service of prayer and praise in the Minster. One comes to York as the capital of a country, rather than of a county, for it is a city that seems in more than one sense Metropolitan. Indeed, you cannot travel close upon two hundred miles, even in England and in these days of swift communication, without feeling the need of some dominating city, to act partly as a seat of civil and ecclesiastical government, and partly as a distributing centre; and if something of this need is even yet apparent, how much more keenly it must have been felt in those “good old days” which were really so bad! A half-way house, so to speak, between those other capitals of London and Edinburgh, York had all the appearance of a capital in days of old, and has lost but little of it, in these, even though in point of wealth and population it lags behind those rich and dirty neighbours, Leeds and Bradford. For one thing, it has a history to which they cannot lay claim, and keeps a firm hold upon titles and dignities conferred ages ago. We may ransack the pages of historians in vain in attempting to find the beginnings of York. Before history began it existed, and just because it seems a shocking thing to the well-ordered historical mind that the first founding of a city should go back beyond history or tradition, Geoffrey of Monmouth and other equally unveracious chroniclers have obligingly given precise—and quite untrustworthy—accounts of how it arose, at the bidding of kings who never had an existence outside their fertile brains.

When the Romans came, under Agricola, in A.D. 70, York was here. We do not know by what name the Brigantes, the warlike tribe who inhabited the northern districts of Britain, called it, but they possessed forts at this strategic point, the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, where York still stands, and evidently had the military virtues fully developed, because it has seemed good to all who have come after them, from the Romans and the Normans to ourselves, to build and retain castles on the same sites. The Brigantes were a great people, despite the fact that they had no literature, no science, and no clothes with which to cover their nakedness, and were they in existence now, might be useful in teaching our War Office and commanding officers something of strategy and fortification. They have left memorials of their existence in the names of many places beginning with “Brig,” and they are the sponsors of all the brigands that ever existed, for their name was a Brito-Welsh word meaning “hill-men” or “highlanders,” and, as in the old days, to be a highlander was to be a thief and cut-throat, the chain of derivative facts that connects them with the bandits of two thousand years is complete.

A hundred and twenty years or so after the Romans had captured the Brigantes’ settlement here, we find York suddenly emerging, a fully-fledged Roman city, from the prehistoric void, under the name of Eboracum. This was in the time of the Emperor Septimus Severus, who died in A.D. 211 in this Altera Roma, the principal city of Roman Britain. For this much is certain, that, as Winchester was, and London is, the capital of England, so was York at one time the chief city of the Roman colony, the foremost place of arms, of rule, and of residence; and so it remained until Honorius, the hard-pressed, freed Britain from its allegiance in A.D. 410 and withdrew the legionaries. Two hundred years is a considerable length of time, even in the history of a nation, and much happened in Eboracum in that while. Another Roman emperor died here, in the person of Constantius Chlorus, and his son, Constantine the Great, whom some will have it was even born here, succeeded him. Both warred with the Pictish tribes from the North; that inhospitable North which swallowed up whole detachments; the North which Hadrian had conquered over two hundred years before, and now was exhausting the energies of the conquerors. Empire is costly in lives and treasure, and the tragedy of Roman conquest and occupation is even now made manifest in the memorials unearthed by antiquaries, recording the deaths of many of the Roman centurions at early ages. Natives of sunny Italy or of the south of France, they perished in the bleak hills and by the wintry rivers of Northumbria, much more frequently than they did at the hands of the hostile natives, who soon overwhelmed the magnificence of Eboracum when the garrisons left. The civilisation that had been established here, certainly since the time of Severus, was instantly destroyed, and Caer Evraue, as it came to be called, became a heap of ruins. Then came the Saxons, who remodelled the name into Eoferwic, succeeded in turn by the Danes, from whose “Jorvic,” pronounced with the soft J, we obtain Yorvic, the “Euerwic” of Domesday Book, and finally York. But whence the original “Eboracum” derived or what it meant is purely conjectural.

Christianity, fulfilling Divine promise, had brought “not peace, but a sword” to the Romans, and the Saxon king, Edwin of Northumbria, had not long been converted and baptized at York, on the site of the present Minster, before he was slain in conflict with the heathen. It was Paulinus, first Archbishop of York, who had baptized Edwin in 625. Sent to the North of England by Gregory the Great, as Augustine had already been sent for the conversion of the South, it was the Pope’s intention to establish two Archbishoprics; and thence arose centuries of quarrelling between the Archbishops of Canterbury and those of York as to who was supreme. York, indeed, only claimed equal rights; but Canterbury claimed precedence. In the Synod of 1072 the Archbishop of York was declared subordinate to Canterbury, but half a century later, in order to make peace, Rome adjudged them equal. Even this did not still the strife, and Roger Pont l’Évêque, the Archbishop of York, who was contemporary with Becket, and aided the king in his struggle with that prelate, was especially bitter in the attempt to assert in all places and at all seasons this equality. He renewed the contention with Becket’s successor, and provoked an absurd scene at the Council of Westminster in 1176, when, arriving late and finding the Archbishop of Canterbury present and already seated, he sat down in his lap. The result was, that the Council of Westminster immediately resolved itself into a faction fight, in which my lord of York was jumped upon and kicked, for all the world like a football umpire who has given an unpopular decision. Even this did not settle either the Archbishop of York or the strife, and so at last, in 1354, it was decreed that each should be supreme in his own Province, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury should be “Primate of All England,” while his brother of York should bear the title of “Primate of England”; but whenever an Archbishop of York was consecrated he should send to the Primate of All England a golden jewel, valued at £40, to be laid on the Shrine of St. Thomas. “Thus,” says Fuller, in his inimitably humorous manner, “when two children cry for the same apple, the indulgent father divides it between them, yet so that he gives the better part to the child which is his darling.” Rome has long since ceased to have part or lot in the English Church, but this solemn farce of nomenclature is still retained.

In such things as these does York retain something of its old pride of place. Even its Mayor is a Lord Mayor, which was something to be proud of before these latter days, now Lord Mayors are three a penny, and every bumptious modern overgrown town is in process of obtaining one. The first Lord Mayor of York, however, was appointed by Richard the Second, and thus the title has an honourable antiquity.

In its outward aspect, York is varied. It runs the whole gamut, from the highest antiquity to the most modern of shops and villas; from the neatest and tidiest streets to the most draggle-tailed and out-at-elbowed courts and alleys. From Clifton and Knavesmire, which is a great deal more respectable and clean than its evil-sounding name would lead the stranger to suppose, to the Shambles, Fossgate, and Mucky Peg’s Lane (now purged of offence as Finkle Street) is a further social than geographical cry, and they certainly touch both extremes. “Mucky Peg” and the knaves of the waste lands outside the city are as historic in their way as Roman York, which lies nine feet below the present level of the streets, and for whose scanty relics one must visit the Museum of the Philosophical Society in the grounds of the ruined St. Mary’s Abbey. In those grounds also the only fragment of the Roman walls may be seen, in the lower stage of the Multangular Tower, once commanding the bank of the river Ouse.

York is perhaps of all English towns and cities the most difficult place to explore. Its streets branch and wind in every direction, without any apparent plan or purpose, and thus an exploration of the Walls, of which the city is, with reason, extremely proud, becomes the best means of ascertaining its importance and the relative positions of Castle and Minster. It is no short stroll, for, by the time the whole circuit is made, a distance of nearly three miles has been covered. These medieval walls form, indeed, the most delightful promenade imaginable, being built on a grassy rampart and provided with a paved footpath running on the inner side of the battlements, and thus commanding panoramic views within and without the city.

Old York: The Shambles

Endeavour, by an effort of the imagination, to see the ground outside the walls free from the suburbs that now spread far in almost every direction, and you have the York of ancient days, little changed; for from this point of view, looking down upon the clustered red roofs of the city, with its gardens and orchards, the towering bulk of the Minster, and the broad expanse of adjoining lawns, nearly all the signs of modern life are hidden. Something of an effort it is to imagine the great railway station of York away, for it bulks very largely outside the walls near the Lendal Bridge; but the mediæval gates of the city help the illusion, and hint at the importance of the place in those times. Micklegate Bar, the chief of them, still bears the heraldic shields sculptured hundreds of years ago, when kings of England claimed also to be kings of France and quartered the semée of lilies with the lions. There are four arches now to this and three to the other bars, instead of but the one through which both pedestrian and other traffic went in olden times; but the side arches have been so skilfully constructed in the mediæval style that they are not an offence, and are often, indeed, taken on trust as old by those unlearned in these things. Stone effigies of men-at-arms still appear on the battlemented turrets, and take on threatening aspects as seen against the skyline by approaching travellers. But did they ever achieve their purpose and succeed in deceiving an enemy into the belief that they were really flesh and blood? If so, they must in those days have been very credulous folk, to be imposed upon by such devices.

Crossing the Ouse by Lendal Bridge, where chains stretched across the river from towers on either bank formerly completed the circle of defences, Bootham Bar is reached, spanning the exit from York along the Great North Road. Still a worthy approach to, or exit from, the city, it wore a yet more imposing appearance until towards the close of the coaching age, when its barbican, the outworks with which every one of the York bars was provided, was wantonly destroyed. Those who would recall the ancient appearance of Bootham Bar and its fellows, as viewed from without, have only to see Walmgate Bar, whose barbican still remains, the only one left in the march of intellect and of “improvements.” Then it presented a forbidding front to the North, and with the walls, which were here at their highest and strongest, disputed the path of the Scots. The walls have been broken down and demolished between the river and this bar, and modern streets driven through, so that something of the grim problem presented to a northern enemy is lost to the modern beholder; but the view remains among the finest, and comprises the towers of the Minster, peering in grandeur from behind this warlike frontal. The Scots were here soon after Bannockburn. In 1319 an army of 15,000 came down, and York would probably have fallen had it not been for these strong defences, the finest examples of military architecture in England. As it was, they found York too well cared for, and so, destroying everything outside the walls and leaving it on their left, they endeavoured to pass south by Ferrybridge. At Myton-upon-Swale, near Boroughbridge, they met the English, hastily brought up by the Archbishop, and defeated them with the utmost ease. But prudence was ever a Scottish characteristic, and so, with much booty, they retreated into Scotland, instead of following up their advantage.

The Walls of York

The walk along the walls from Bootham Bar to Monk Bar is glorious in spring, with the pink and white blossoms of apple, pear, and plum-trees, for here the well-ordered gardens of the ecclesiastical dignitaries are chiefly situated. Midway, the wall makes a return in a south-easterly direction. Monk Bar, whose name derives from General Monk, Duke of Albemarle, was once known as Goodramgate, and the street in which it stands still bears that name, supposed to be a corruption of “Guthram,” the name of some forgotten Danish chieftain. At some distance beyond it, the wall goes off due east, to touch the river Foss at Layerthorpe, where that stream and the quagmires that once bordered it afforded an excellent defence in themselves, without any artificial works. Thus it is that the wall ceases entirely until the Red Tower is reached, on the outer bank of the Foss, where it recommences and takes a bend to the south-west. From this point to Walmgate Bar and the Fishergate Postern it is particularly slight, the necessary strength being provided by the Foss itself, forming a second line of defence, with the castle behind it. Thence we come to the broad Ouse again, now crossed by the Skeldergate Bridge, but once protected, as at Lendal, by chains drawn from bank to bank. On the opposite bank, on the partly natural elevation of Baile Hill, stood a subsidiary castle, and here the wall is carried on a very high mound until it rejoins Micklegate Bar.

There are but few so-called “streets” in York. They are mostly “gates,” a peculiarity of description which is noticeable throughout the Midlands and the North. And queerly named some of these “gates” are. There is Jubbergate, whose name perpetuates the memory of an ancient Jewish quarter established here; Stonegate, the narrow lane leading to the Minster, along which went the stone with which to build it; Swinegate, a neighbourhood where the unclean beasts were kept, and many more. But most curious of all is “Whipmawhopmagate,” a continuation of Colliergate. This oddly named place is rarely brought to the notice of the stranger, because it has but two houses; but, despite its whimsical name, it has a real, and indeed a very old, existence. Connected with its name is the institution of “Whip Dog Day,” a celebration once honoured on every St. Luke’s Day, October 18, by the thrashing of all the dogs met with in the city. According to the legend still current, it seems that in mediæval times, while the priest was celebrating the sacrament at the neighbouring church of St. Crux, he dropped the consecrated pax, which was swallowed by a stray dog who had found his way into the building. For this crime the animal was sentenced to be severely whipped, and an annual day was set apart for the indiscriminate thrashing of his fellows. A more likely derivation of the name of Whipmawhopmagate is from the spot having been the whipping-place of religious penitents, or of merely secular misdemeanants.


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The grim blackened walls of York Castle confront the traveller who approaches the city by Fishergate, and lend a gloomy air to the entrance; the more gloomy because those heavy piles of sooty masonry nowadays encircle a prison for malefactors, rather than forming the defences of a garrison, and keep our social enemies within, instead of a more chivalric foe without. For over two hundred years York Castle has been an assize court and a gaol, and the military element no longer lends it pure romance. Romance of the sordid kind it has, this beetle-browed place of vain regrets and expiated crimes, of dismal cells and clanking fetters; but if you would win back to the days of military glory which once distinguished it, your imaginary journey will be lengthy indeed. These battlemented walls, enclosing four acres of ground, and with a compass of over eleven hundred yards, were completed in 1856, and, with the prison arrangements within, cost £200,000. If, as the poet remarks, “peace hath her victories, no less renowned than war,” she also needs defences, as much against the villainous centre-bit as against the foreign foe.

But there is still something left of the York Castle of old, although you must win to it past frowning portals eloquent of a thousand crimes, great and small, guarded by prison warders and decorated with notice-boards of Prison Regulations. Clifford’s Tower, this ancient portion, itself goes no farther back into history than the time of Edward the First; and of the buildings that witnessed the appalling massacre of the Jews, in March 1190, nothing fortunately remains. It cannot be to the advantage of sightseers that the blood-stained stones of that awful time should stand. History alone, without the aid of sword or shattered wall, is more than sufficient to keep the barbarous tale alive, of how some five hundred Jews of all ages and sexes fled for protection to the Castle keep, and were besieged there for days by Christians, thirsting for their blood. Their death was sure: only the manner of it remained uncertain. The wholesale slaughter of Jews at Lynn, Lincoln, and Stamford rendered surrender impossible, and rather than die slowly in the agonies of starvation they set the Castle on fire, husbands and brothers slaying the women and children, and then stabbing themselves. Those few who feared to die thus opened the gates as morning dawned. “Affliction has taught us wisdom,” they said, “and we long for baptism and for the faith and peace of Christ”; but even as they said it the swords and axes of ruthless assassins struck them down. Christ was avenged, and, incidentally, many a Christian debtor cried quits with his Jewish creditor as he dashed out the infidel’s brains. It is not often given to champions of causes, religious or political, to make one blow serve both public and private ends, and those Christians were fortunate. At the same time, sympathy with the murdered Jews may easily be overstrained. They had but sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Trading and following the traditional Jewish occupation of usury, they had eaten like a canker into the heart of York. They had lived in princely style, and knew how to grind the faces of their Christian debtors, whose lives they had made miserable, and so simply fell victims to that revenge which has been aptly described as “a kind of wild justice.”

Clifford’s Tower, standing where these scenes were enacted, is a roofless shell, standing isolated on its mound within the Castle walls, and obtains its name, not from its builder, but from Francis Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, who made a doorway in it in the time of Charles the First. It was ruined by explosion and fire in 1684, and so remains, shattered and overgrown with trees and grass, a picturesque object that the eye loves to linger upon in contrast with the classic buildings that occupy the old Castle wards, and speak of crime and its penalties. He who would bring back the crimes and ferocities of a hundred and fifty years or more to the mind’s eye can have his taste gratified and the most vivid pictures conjured up at the sight of such choice and thrilling relics as the horn-handled knife and fork with which the bodies of rebels captured in the ’45 were quartered; the leathern strap that Holroyd used for the purpose of hanging his father from the boughs of a cherry-tree; a fragment of the skull of Eugene Aram’s victim, Daniel Clark; the curiously varied implements used by wives and husbands who murdered their yoke-fellows, ranging from the unwifely sledge-hammer and razor wielded by wives, to the knives and pokers chiefly affected by the husbands; Jonathan Martin the incendiary’s impromptu flint and steel, and the bell rope by whose aid he escaped from the Minster; and those prime curiosities, Dick Turpin’s fetters. Even Turpin’s cell can be seen by those who, after much diligent application to the Prisons Department of the Home Office, procure the entrée to the Castle; and in that “stone jug,” as the criminals of old called their cells, the imaginative can reconstruct their Turpin as they will. Many a better man than he has occupied this gloomy dungeon, but scarce a worse.

York Castle: Clifford’s Tower


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One of the most notorious of the criminals who were haled forth from this condemned hold to end their days on Knavesmire was Richard Turpin, who was hanged on the 17th of April, 1739. This cruel and mean ruffian, around whose sordid career the glamour of countless legends of varying degrees of impossibility has gathered, was the son of a small innkeeper and farmer at the appropriately named village of Hempstead, in Essex. The inn, called the “Crown,” almost wholly rebuilt, however, is in existence to this day, and his baptismal record may yet be read in the parish register:—“1705, Sept. 21, Richardus, filius Johannis et Mariae Turpin.”

Apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel, he soon set up in business for himself, obtaining his cattle by the simple and ready expedient of stealing them. He married a girl named Palmer, whose name he afterwards took, and after a career of house-breaking and cattle-lifting in Essex and parts of Middlesex, in which he figured as one of a numerous gang who never attacked or plundered unless they were armed to the teeth and in a great numerical superiority, found the home counties too hot to hold him; and so, after shooting his friend, one of the three brothers King, all highwaymen, in the affray at Whitechapel in 1737, in which he escaped from the Bow Street officers, he fled first into Essex and then into Lincolnshire. Authorities disagree, both as to the particular King who was shot, and on the question of whether Turpin shot him accidentally in aiming at one of the officers, or with the purpose of preventing him giving evidence disclosing his haunts. The legends make Tom King the martyr on this occasion, and represent him as bidding Turpin to fly; but the facts seem to point to Matthew being the victim, and to his cursing Turpin for a coward, as he died. It is quite certain that a Tom King, a highwayman, suffered at Tyburn in 1755, eight years later.

As for Turpin, or Palmer, as he now called himself, he settled at Welton, near Beverley, and then at Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, as a gentleman horse-dealer. He had not long been domiciled in those parts before the farmers and others began to lose their stock in a most unaccountable manner. The wonder is that no one suspected him, and that he could manage, for however short a period, to safely sell the many horses he stole. He even managed to mix freely in company with the yeomen of the district, and despite his ill-favoured countenance, made himself not unwelcome. But his brutal nature was the cause of his undoing. Returning from a shooting excursion, he wantonly shot one of his neighbour’s fowls, and on being remonstrated with, threatened to serve one of his new friends the same. He was accordingly summoned at the Beverley Petty Sessions, when it appeared that he had no friends to find bail for him, and that he was, in point of fact, a newcomer to the district, whose habits, now investigated for the first time, proved suspicious. Eventually he was charged with stealing a black mare, blind of the near eye, off Heckington Common, and was committed to York Castle. From his dungeon cell he wrote a letter to his brother at Hempstead, to cook him up a character. The letter was not prepaid, and the brother, not recognising the handwriting, refused to pay the sixpence demanded by the Post Office. On such trivial things do great issues hang! The village postmaster happened to have been the schoolmaster who had taught Turpin to write. He recognised the handwriting and read the letter. He was a man of public spirit, and, travelling to York, identified the prisoner as the Richard Turpin who had long been “wanted” for many crimes.

After his trial and condemnation the farmers flocked in hundreds to see him. His last days in prison were as well attended as a levee, and, to do him justice, his courage, conspicuously lacking at other times, never faltered at the last. He became one of the shows of that ancient city for a time, but nothing daunted him. He spent his last days in joking, drinking, and telling stories, as jovial, merry, and frolicsome as though the shadow of the gallows was not impending over him. He scouted the Ordinary, and suffered no twinges of conscience, but busied himself in preparing a decent costume for his last public appearance. Nothing would serve him but new clothes and a smart pair of pumps to die in. On the morning before the execution, he gave the hangman £3 10s. to be divided among five men who were to follow him as mourners, and were to be furnished with black hatbands and mourning gloves. When the time came and he went in the tumbril to be turned off, he bowed to the ladies and flourished his cocked hat as though he would presently see them again. He certainly, when he had mounted the ladder, kept the people waiting for the spectacle they had come to see, for he talked with the hangman for over half-an-hour. But when the conversation was ended, he threw himself off in the most resolute fashion, and had the reward of his courage, for he died in a moment.

Thus died the famous Turpin, in the thirty-third year of his age. After the execution his body lay in state for that day and the succeeding night at the “Black Boar” inn in Castlegate. The following morning it was buried in the churchyard of St. George’s, by Fishergate Postern, and the evening afterwards it was dug up again by some of the city surgeons, for dissection. By this time the mob had apparently agreed that this brutal horse-stealer, who according to the contemporary London Magazine, was “so mean and stupid a wretch,” was really a very fine fellow; and they determined that his remains should not be dishonoured. Accordingly they rescued the body and reinterred it, in black lime, so as to effectually balk any further attempts on the part of the surgeons.

Dick Turpin, although his name bulks so largely in the legendary story of the roads, was by no means the foremost of his profession. He was brutal, and lacked the finer instincts of the artist. It could never, for instance, have been in his nature to invite the wife of a traveller he had just robbed to dance a coranto with him on the Common, as Duval did on Hounslow Heath when the distant clocks were sounding the hour of midnight. With Turpin it was an oath and a blow. Curses and violence, not courtesy, were his methods. Therefore, it is with the less compunction that we may tear away the romance from Richard Turpin and say that, so far from being the hero of the Ride to York, he never rode to York at all, except on that fatal morning when he progressed to York Castle in chains, presently to be convicted and hanged for the unromantic crimes of horse, sheep, and cattle stealing. He was little better than a vulgar burglar and horse-thief. It was Harrison Ainsworth who made Turpin a hero from such very unpromising material, and he, in fact, invented not only the ride to York, but Black Bess as well. According to the novelist, Turpin started from Kilburn, and came into the Great North Road at Highgate, with three mounted officers after him. Thence he turned into Hornsey, and so by the Ware route, the mare clearing the twelve feet high toll-gate on the way without an effort. They always do that in fiction, but the animal that could do it in fact does not exist.

At Tottenham (always according to the novelist, of course) the people threw brickbats at the gallant Turpin. They “showered thick as hail, and quite as harmlessly, around him,” and Turpin laughed, as, indeed, he had an occasion to do, because the Tottenham people must have been the poorest of marksmen. And so pursuers and pursued swept through Edmonton and Ware, and quite a number of places which are not on our route. At Alconbury Hill he comes into view again, and the inconceivable chase proceeds until Black Bess expires, at sunrise, within sight of the glorious panorama of York’s spires and towers.

There are very many who believe Ainsworth’s long rigmarole, and take their ideas of that unromantic highwayman from his novel, but the dashing, highsouled (and at times maudlin) fellow of those pages is absolutely fictitious.


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Ainsworth constructed his fictitious hero from a very slight basis of fact. What a pity he did not rear his narrative on better lines, and give the credit of the Ride to York to the man who really did it. For it was done, and it was a longer ride by some twenty-six miles, at least, than that recounted in the vulgar romance of Rookwood. It was, in fact, a better ride, by a better man, and at a much earlier period.

John Nevison was the hero of this exploit. It was on a May morning in 1676, at the unconscionable hour of four o’clock, that he robbed a traveller on Gad’s Hill, near Chatham, and, fired with the ambition of establishing an alibi, immediately set off to ride to York. Crossing the Thames from Gravesend to Tilbury, he rode on his “blood bay” to Chelmsford, where he baited and rested his horse for half-an-hour. Thence on to Cambridge and through the town without drawing rein, he went through by-lanes to Fenny Stanton, Godmanchester, and Huntingdon, where he took another half-hour’s rest; continuing, by unfrequented ways, until York was reached, the same evening. Of course, he must have had several fresh horses on the way. Stabling the horse that had brought him into the cathedral city, he hastily removed the travel-stains from his person, and strolled casually to the nearest bowling-green, where the Mayor of York happened to be playing a game with some friends. Nevison took the opportunity of asking him the time, and received the answer that it was just a quarter to eight. That was sufficient for his purpose. By this question and the reply he had fixed the recollection of himself and of the time in the Mayor’s mind, and had his alibi at need. Sure enough, he needed it a little later, when he was arrested for another highway robbery, and the Gad’s Hill traveller happened to be the one witness who could swear to him. Nevison called his York witnesses, who readily enough deposed to his being there on the evening of the day on which the traveller swore he had been robbed by him near Chatham. This was conclusive. No one conceived it possible for a man to have been in two places so remote in one day, and he was acquitted. Then, when the danger was past, his sporting instincts prevailed, and he told the story. He became the hero of a brief hour, and Charles the Second, who dearly loved a clever rogue, is said to have christened him “Swift Nicks.” If we roughly analyse this ride we shall find that Nevison’s performance amounted to about 230 miles in fifteen hours: a rate of over fifteen miles an hour. To have done as much was a wonderful exploit, even though (as seems certain) he had remounts at the houses of confederates. He probably had many such houses of call, for he was one of a numerous band of highwaymen whose headquarters were at Newark.

This escape served him for eight years longer, for it was in 1684 that his career came to a close on Knavesmire, where he was hanged on the 4th of May.

There was something of the Robin Hood in Nevison’s character, if we are to believe the almost legendary stories told in Yorkshire of this darling of the Yorkshire peasantry. He robbed the rich and gave to the poor, and many are the tales still told of his generosity. Such an one is the tale that tells of his being at a village inn, when the talk turned upon the affairs of an unfortunate farmer whose home had been sold up for rent. Among those in the place was the bailiff, with the proceeds of the sale on him. Nevison contrived to relieve him of the cash, and restored it to the farmer. Perhaps he was not so well-liked by the cattle-dealers along the Great North Road, whom he and his gang robbed so regularly that at length they commuted their involuntary contributions for a quarterly allowance, which at the same time cleared the road for them and afforded them protection against any other bands. Indeed, Nevison, or Bracy, as his real name appears to have been, was in this respect almost a counterpart of those old German barons on the Rhine, who levied dues on the travellers whose business unfortunately led them their way. The parallel goes no greater distance, for those picturesque miscreants were anything but the idols of the people. Nevison was sufficiently popular to have been the hero of a rural ballad, still occasionally heard in the neighbourhood of his haunts at Knaresborough, Ferrybridge, York, or Newark. Here are two verses of it; not perhaps distinguished by wealth of fancy or resourcefulness of rhyme:—

Did you ever hear tell of that hero;
Bold Nevison, that was his name?
He rode about like a bold hero,
And with that he gain’d great fame.

He maintained himself like a gentleman,
Besides, he was good to the poor;
He rode about like a great hero,
And he gain’d himself favour therefore.

Yorkshire will not willingly let the fame of her Nevison die. Is not his Leap shown, and is not the inn at Sandal, where he was last captured, still pointed out? Then there is the tale of how he and twenty of his gang attacked fifteen butchers who were riding to Northallerton Fair, an encounter recounted in a pamphlet dated 1674, luridly styled Bloody News from Yorkshire. Another memory is of the half dozen men who at another time attempted to take him prisoner. He escaped and shot one of them, also a butcher. Nevison and butchers were evidently antipathetic. Released once on promising to enter the army, he, like Boulter, deserted. That he could break prison with the best he demonstrated fully at Wakefield; but his final capture was on a trivial charge. It sufficed to do his business, though, for the prosecution were now prepared with the fullest evidence against him and his associates, and their way of life. They had secured Mary Brandon, who acted as housekeeper for the gang. According to her story, they were John Nevison, of York; Edmund Bracy, of Nottingham; Thomas Wilbere, of the same town; Thomas Tankard, vaguely described as “of Lincolnshire”; and two men named Bromett and Iverson. This last was “commonly at the ‘Talbott,’ in Newarke,” which was their headquarters. The landlord of that inn was supposed to be cognisant of their doings, as also the ostler, one William Anwood, “shee haveinge often scene the said partyes give him good summs of money, and order him to keepe their horses close, and never to water them but in the night time.” They kept rooms at the “Talbot” all the year round, and in them divided their spoil, which in one year, as the result of ten great robberies, came to over £1,500. No other highwaymen can hold a candle to this gang, either for their business-like habits or the success of their operations.


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That once dreaded mid-eighteenth century highwayman, Thomas Boulter, junior, of Poulshot in Wiltshire, once made acquaintance with York Castle. The extent of his depredations was as wide as his indifference to danger was great. A West-countryman, his most obvious sphere of operations was the country through which the Exeter Road passed; but being greedy and insatiable, he soon exhausted those districts, and thought it expedient to strike out for roads where the name of Boulter was unknown, and along which the lieges still dared to carry their watches and their gold. He came up to town at the beginning of 1777 from his haunts near Devizes, and, refitting in apparel and pistols, gaily took the Great North Road. Many adventures and much spoil fell to him in and about Newark, Leeds, and Doncaster; but an encounter between Sheffield and Ripon proved his undoing. He had relieved a gentleman on horseback of purse and jewellery, and was ambling negligently away when the traveller’s man-servant, who had fallen some distance behind his master, came galloping up. Thus reinforced, the plundered one chased Mr. Boulter, and, running him to earth, haled him off to the nearest Justice, who, quite unmoved by his story of being an unfortunate young man in the grocery line, appropriately enough named Poore, committed him to York Castle, where, at the March assizes, he was duly found guilty and sentenced to be hanged within fifteen days. Heavily ironed, escape was out of the question, and he gave himself up for lost, until, on the morning appointed for his execution, the news arrived that he might claim a free pardon if he would enter his Majesty’s service as a soldier, and reform his life. His Majesty badly wanted soldiers in A.D. 1777, and was not nice as to the character of his recruits; and indeed the British army until the close of the Peninsular War was composed of as arrant a set of rascals as ever wore out shoe-leather. No wonder the Duke of Wellington spoke of his army in Spain as “my blackguards.” But they could fight.