by Frank E Earp
This is the story of two men accused and convicted of ‘highway robbery’, – highwaymen, – and their executioners, – hangmen. In court records and other documents there are a number of men referred to as highwaymen; among these are John Nevison a.k.a. Swift Nick and Thomas Wilcox a.k.a. Sawley Thom. These men represent the two extremes of highway robbery. However, they have two things in common; they were both labelled highwaymen after committing highway robbery and murder in Nottinghamshire, both met their death at the end of a hangman’s rope. It is also the story of their executioners, the hangmen.
The word highwayman (or women), conjures up the rather romanticised picture of a ‘Turpinesk’ type figure, complete with black mask and pistol, mounted on a black horse and shouting ‘Stand and deliver’, whilst holding-up a Mail Coach. The truth is a little more mundane. The term, highwayman, was used to describe those guilty of ‘highway robbery’, – any form of robbery committed on a public road or highway. Whilst some of these crimes were committed against Mail Coaches by legends like Dick Turpin and ‘Swift Nick’ the majority were opportunity crimes committed by common criminals, like Thomas Wilcox, – and were what today we might term ‘muggings’. Whatever its form, highway robbery was a crime punishable by the ‘death penalty’.
A death sentence delivered by a court or judge was usually carried out by a judicial officer, appointed by the State or other legal authority. In order to protect these officials from charges of murder, they were issued with a warrant authorizing or ordering them to ‘execute’ the sentence, – hence the term ‘executioner’ or one who carries out the sentence of the court. Quite often they would be called upon to administer other forms of non-lethal punishment, like floggings. Executioners, who carried out the task by hanging, were naturally known as ‘hangmen’. Like the highwayman, the hangman has its stereotypical image, – that of the burly hooded or masked man. Although this may well have been the case in medieval times, by the 19th century executioners had become professionals who operated within their own district or county.
The Highwayman: John (William) Nevison a.k.a. Swift Nick, was born in Wortley near Sheffield around 1639/40. Nevison is one of history’s most famous and flamboyant highwaymen. Many of Nevison’s exploits, – including the famous ‘ride to York,’ – were wrongly attributed to the better known Richard (Dick) Turpin.
Nevison is a legend, and as such, his story has entered folklore with a good deal of mythos. He came from a ‘good family’ and was well educated. In his school years it is reported that he was a troublemaker and prone to stealing. After leaving school he took up the profession of brewer’s clerk in London. But ‘old habits die hard’, and the young Nevison absconded to Holland with debt he had been sent to collect. Here he joined a regiment commanded by the Duke of York and fought with distinction in the Flanders War.
With the end of the war, Nevison retuned to York where he lived with his father. After his father’s death Nevison ‘took to the road’ as a highwayman. By 1676, Nevison had already committed many crimes of highway robbery and murder and his reputation was established. One summer morning in that year, he robbed a traveller on the road at Gads Hill in Kent. Fearing that he had been recognised, Nevison made his escape and headed north. Nevison, stopping regularly for short rests, continued his journey until he arrived in York in the early evening, – a distance of some 200 mile from the scene of the robbery. Realising that his incredible journey would be deemed impossible Nevison set about establishing an alibi. He changed his clothes and mingled with a crowd who were watching a bowling match attended by the Lord Mayor. Nevison went to great pains to make certain he was noticed and even made a wager on the match with the Mayor. Nevison made sure the Lord Mayor remembered the time the bet was laid – 8pm that evening.
After his famous ride from London to York, John Nevison’s career and reputation as a highwayman continued. For a number of years Nevison and his gang of six outlaws operated out of the Talbot Inn at Newark. From here they robbed travellers and Mail Coaches along the Great North Road as far north as York and as far south as Huntingdon.
He was captured and imprisoned on several occasions, but always managed to escape. In 1681 he was imprisoned in Leicester Gaol and with the aid of accomplices made well his escape by feigning his own death from the plague. His abilities of both escape and evading capture, earned him the nick-name of Swift Nick, reputedly given by Charles II, an ardent admirer of his exploits.
Inevitably, such a high profile criminal attracted the attention of bounty hunters and after a tip off from the landlady; Nevison was captured whilst drinking at an Inn at Sandal, near Wakefield, and was taken for trial to York. Here he was found guilty of murder and highway robbery and on the 4th May 1684, executed on the gallows at York Castle. Nevison’s body was buried at St. Mary Church, York, in an unmarked grave.
The Hangman: The name of John Nevison’s executioner is unrecorded, but the site of the execution, – York’s Tyburn, – had a fearsome reputation. Its gallows, – designed to take up to 24 victims at a time, – consisted of a wooden triangle supported by three wooden pillars. This form of gallows was commonly known as ‘the three-legged mare’. Executions at York Castle drew large and rowdy crowds. The spectacle began with the arrival of the condemned prisoner brought to the place in a cart, sitting astride their own coffin. Until 1745, it was customary practice for the hangman to quarter the victim’s body after hanging.
We come now to the case of our second highwayman Thomas Sawly and hangman Samuel Haywood. In this instance, it is a complete role reversal of our first study. In this case we know more about the hangman than the highwayman and his crime.
The Highwayman: Thomas Wilcox a.k.a. ‘Sawley Thom.’ With a nick name like Sawley Thom, one would suspect we were dealing with an illustrious felon, but this is not the case. It probably denoted the mere fact that Wilcox came from the Derbyshire village of Sawley.
Sometime in March 1820, Wilcox was said to have committed the crimes of highway robbery and murder, – although some writers state there was some doubt about his guilt. He was convicted and found guilty of robbing and murdering Thomas Pearson of Chilwell on Derby Road near Barracks Lane. Sentenced to death, Wilcox was executed on the gallows on Gallows Hill, Mansfield Road Nottingham.
The Hangman: The hanging of Thomas Wilcox at Nottingham on 29th March 1820 was the first recorded execution carried out by Leicestershire man, Samuel Haywood. Haywood was an agricultural labourer. He was also a poacher, a crime for which he was arrested in March 1817. He was tried and convicted of being found ‘equipped for poaching’ on Friday 18th March 1817. Haywood was sentenced to two years imprisonment in Leicester’s Birdewell, – House of Correction. Whilst imprisoned he volunteered to carry-out the sentence of ‘flogging’ on another prisoner. Haywood must have performed his task well, because the governor offered him the vacant position of hangman for the counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
Haywood accepted the post and became a hangman, a career that was to span 30 years and led to 44 recorded executions, – with a further 14 unconfirmed. His final execution was that of John Platts at Derby on the 1st of April 1847. Haywood died of influenza on the 11th of March 1848 at the age of 70.