The Newgate Calendar - Supplement 3

The Newgate Calendar - WILLIAM NEVISON


Highwayman who robbed his fellows. Executed at York, 4th May 1684

            THE progress of the arts and sciences is not more rapid than that of folly and vice. The latter is natural, while the former is acquired. In the following memoir it will be demonstrated, that the best education may be perverted by vicious dispositions.

            William Nevison was born at Pomfret in Yorkshire, and his parents being in good circumstances, conferred upon him a decent education. He remained at school until he was about thirteen years of age. During that period, his blooming talents promised a luxuriant harvest. But the general bent of his future character, and the ruling motive of all his actions, were exhibited at that period. He commenced his depredations by stealing a silver spoon from his own father. The too indulgent parent, instead of chastising him for the crime, transferred the unpleasant work to the schoolmaster. That father who loses the authority over his own children, may either expect to lose them altogether, or have his heart grieved, and his family dishonoured by their conduct. The schoolmaster having punished young Nevison for his theft, he spent a sleepless night in meditating revenge. He knew that Syntax had a favourite horse who grazed in an adjacent park. William rose early in the morning, moved quietly into his father's closet, stole his keys, and supplied himself with cash to the amount of ten pounds. Then taking a saddle and bridle from his father's stable, he hastened to the park where the schoolmaster's horse fed. He saddled and bridled the animal, and with all haste rode towards London. About a mile or two from the capital, he cut the throat of the poor horse, for fear of being detected. Arrived in London, he changed his name and clothes, and then hired himself to a brewer.

            Though under the necessity of being laborious, in order to obtain the necessaries of life, his mind was always upon the stretch to invent some more expeditious mode of acquiring money, than the slow return of annual pay. He often, ineffectually, attempted to rob his master. One evening, however, the clerk happening to use his bottle too freely, he followed him to the counting-room, and while he was enjoying a recruiting nap, he stole the keys of the desks, and relieved them of their burden, to the amount of about two hundred pounds. Without waiting to discover whether the clerk or the servant should be blamed for the cash, he sailed for Holland.

            But change of climate did not change his dispositions. Through his instigations the daughter of a respectable citizen robbed her father of a large sum of money, and a quantity of jewels, and eloped with the Englishman. They were pursued, taken, and committed to prison. Thus detected, Nevison would certainly have finished a short but villainous career in a foreign land, had he not made his escape.

            With no small difficulty he arrived in Flanders, and enlisted into a regiment of English volunteers, under the command of the Duke of York. In that station he behaved with considerable reputation, and even acquired some money. But his restless temper and avaricious disposition did not permit him to remain in a situation of industry or sobriety. He deserted, went over to England with his money, purchased a horse, together with all other necessaries, and commenced his depredations in a systematic form His success was uncommon, and he every day found means to replenish his coffers, and to nourish his extravagancies. Nor would he unite his fortune with any one, who, from selfish motives, might interrupt him in his lucrative employment. One day when Nevison was in search of booty upon the highway, he met two countrymen, who admonished him not to proceed in his journey, as the place was infested with robbers, and they had just been rifled of forty pounds. He requested them to turn back with him, to show him the road the robbers had taken, and he would engage to recover their money. They complied, and they soon came within sight of their plunderers. He then requested the countrymen to remain at a distance, and he would manage the matter alone. He accosted the first one, saying, "Sir, by your dress, and the colour of your horse, you appear to be the person that I was in search of; and if so, my business is to demand the repayment of the forty pounds you borrowed from two friends of mine." "How," quoth the highwayman, "forty pounds, sir!—what! is the fellow mad?" "So mad," replied William, "that your life shall answer me, unless you give me better satisfaction." Then instantly presenting his pistol to his breast, the robber cried, "My life is at your mercy." "No," says our hero, "it is not that I seek, but the money you robbed these two men of, who are riding up to me, which you must refund." He delivered what he possessed, informing him that his companions had the remainder. Upon this Nevison causes him to dismount, and delivered him into the custody of the two countrymen, while he himself mounted the thief's horse, and rode after his associates. Supposing, from the colour of the horse, that it was their friend whom they had left behind, they, upon his appearance, waited his arrival.

            "How now. Jack," says one of them, "what made you engage with yon fellow?" "No, gentlemen, you are mistaken in your man: Thomas, by the token of your horse and arms, hath sent me to you for the ransom of his life, which comes to no less than the price of the day, which, if you presently surrender, you may go about your business; if not, I must have a little dispute with you at sword and pistol." At which one of them let fly at him, but, missing his aim, Nevison lodged his bullet in the right shoulder of his antagonist. The other robber seeing his companion wounded, called for quarter. After some negotiation, it was agreed that their friend should be liberated, upon condition of their delivering their cash, which amounted to about one hundred and fifty pounds. William took his leave of them, returned to the countrymen, delivered them their forty pounds, and released the prisoner, according to agreement. He, at the same time, rallied the countrymen upon their cowardice, in so tamely surrendering their money.

            In all his exploits William was tender of the fair sex, and bountiful to the poor. He was also a true loyalist, and never made any contributions upon that party. He one day fortunately encountered a rich usurer, stopped his coach, and demanded that he would deliver the money which he had extorted from poor widows and orphans.

            The pistol presented to his breast, and the reproaches of William, filled his guilty mind with inexpressible terror, and he began to expostulate for his life. "That shall be granted," replied Nevison, "upon condition of your surrendering your gold." He reluctantly drew out sixty pieces of gold; but this sum being inadequate to the necessities of William, he constrained the usurer to mount upon the postilion's horse, and allowed the coach with three ladies in it to proceed. The poor Jew, now thinking that the hour was at hand when he would be bereft of his life, and separated from his treasures, experienced all the violent emotions of terror, chagrin, and despair. William compelled him to draw a note upon sight for five hundred pounds upon a scrivener in London. He then permitted him to ride after his friends to acquaint them with his misfortunes; while he himself rode all night, that he might have the money drawn before advice could be sent to prevent it.

            After several adventures of a similar nature, William one day robbed a rich grazier of four hundred and fifty pounds, and then resolved to retire. Accordingly he returned home, and, like the prodigal son, was joyfully received by his father, who, not having heard of him during seven or eight years, supposed that he had been dead. He remained with his father until the day of his death, living as soberly and honestly as if no act of violence had ever stained his hands. Upon the death of his father, however, he returned to his former courses, and in a short time, his name was a terror to every traveller upon the road. To such a degree did he carry his plan, that the carriers and drovers who frequented that road, willingly agreed to leave certain sums at such places as he appointed, to prevent them being stripped of their all.

            Continuing his wicked courses, he was at last apprehended, thrown into Leicester jail, put in irons, and strictly guarded. But, in spite of all the precautions of the county, he effected his escape. One day, two or three of his trusty friends visited him; one of whom being a physician, he gave out that he was infected with the plague, and that, unless he was removed to a larger room, where he might enjoy free air, he would not only himself perish, but communicate the infection to all the inhabitants of the jail. He was instantly removed, and the jailor's wife would not allow her husband to go farther than the door of his room, for fear of the infection; which afforded Nevison and his friends time to perfect their scheme. The physician came twice or thrice every day to see him; and continued to declare his case hopeless. At last a painter was brought in, who painted all his body with spots, similar to those that appear upon a person infected with the pestilence.

            In a few days after, he received a sleeping-draught, and was declared to be dead. The inquest who sat upon his body were afraid to approach in order to make minute inspection, and thus a verdict was returned that he had died of the plague. His friends demanding his body, he was carried out of prison in a coffin.

            This interview with a coffin only rendered him more callous and daring in vice. He, with redoubled vigour, renewed his depredations, and, meeting his carriers and drovers, he informed them that it was necessary to increase their rents, to refund his expenses while in jail, and his loss of time. It was at first supposed that it was his ghost, who carried on the same pranks that he had done in his lifetime. The truth of this, however, came to be suspected, and the jailor offered a reward of twenty pounds to any person who would restore him to his former dwelling.

            Resolved to revisit the capital, he upon his journey met a company of canting beggars, pilgrims, and idle wanderers through the earth. Continuing in their company for some time, and observing the merry life that they pursued, he took an opportunity to propose himself as a candidate for admission into their honourable fraternity. Their leader applauded his resolution, and addressed him in these words: "Do not we come into the world arrant beggars, without a rag upon us? And do we not all go out of the world like beggars, saving only an old sheet over us? Shall we then be ashamed to walk up and down the world like beggars, with old blankets pinned about us? No, no, that would be a shame to us, indeed. Have we not the whole kingdom to walk in at our pleasure? Are we afraid of the approach of quarter-day? Do we walk in fear of sheriffs, sergeants, and catchpoles? Who ever knew an arrant beggar arrested for debt? Is not our meat dressed in every man's kitchen? Does not every man's cellar afford us beer? And the best man's purses keep a penny for us to spend?" Having by these words, as he thought, fully fixed him in love with begging, he then acquainted the company with Nevison's desires; in consequence of which they were all very joyful, being as glad to add one to their society, as a Turk is to gain a proselyte to Mahomet.

            The first question they asked him was, if he had any loure in his bung. He stared on them, not knowing what they meant; till at last, one informed him it was money in his purse. He told them he had but eighteen pence, which he gave them freely. This, by a general vote, was condemned to be spent in a booze for his initiation. Then they commanded him to kneel down, which being done, one of the chief of them took a gage of booze, which is a quart of drink, and poured the same on his head, saying, "I do, by virtue of this sovereign liquor, install thee in the Roage, and make thee a free denizen of our ragged regiment. So that henceforth it shall be lawful for thee to cant, and to carry a doxy or mort along with thee, only observing these rules; first, that thou art not to wander up and down all countries, but to keep to that quarter that is allotted thee; and, secondly, thou art to give way to any of us that have borne all the offices of the wallet before; and, upon holding up a finger, to avoid any town or country village, where thou seest we are foraging for victuals for our army that march along with us. Observing these two rules, we take thee into our protection, and adopt thee a brother of our numerous society." Having ended his oration, Nevison rose up, and was congratulated by all the company's hanging about him, like so many dogs about a bear, and making such a hideous noise, that the chief, commanding silence, addressed him as follows: "Now that thou art entered into our fraternity, thou must not scruple to act any villainies, whether it be to cut a purse, steal a cloak-bag or portmanteau, convey all manner of things, whether a chicken, sucking pig, duck, goose, hen, or steal a shirt from the hedge; for he that will be a quier cove (a professed rogue) must observe these rules. And because thou art but a novice in begging, and understandest not the mysteries of the canting language, thou shalt have a doxy to be thy companion, by whom thou mayest receive instructions." And thereupon, he singled him out a girl of about fourteen years of age, which tickled his fancy very much; but he must presently be married to her, after the fashion of their patrico, who amongst beggars is their priest. The ceremony was performed after this manner:—

            They took a hen, and, having cut off the head of it, laid the dead body on the ground, placing him on the one side, and his doxy on the other; this being done, the priest standing by, with a loud voice, bid them live together till death did them part; then shaking hands, and kissing each other, the ceremony of the wedding was over, and the whole group appeared intoxicated with joy. Night approaching, and all their money being spent, they betook to a barn not far off, where they broached a hogshead, and went to sleep.

            Nevison, having met with this odd piece of diversion in his journey, slipped out of the barn when all were asleep, took a horse, and posted directly away. But, coming to London, he found there was too much noise about him, to permit him to tarry there; he therefore returned into the country, and fell to his old pranks again. Several who had been formerly robbed by him, happening to meet him, imagined that his ghost walked abroad, having heard the report of his pestilential death in Leicester jail. In short, his crimes became go notorious, that a reward was offered to any that would apprehend him; this made many waylay him, especially two brothers named Fletcher, one of whom Nevison shooting dead, he got off; from thence going into a little village about thirteen miles from York, he was taken by Captain Hardcastle, and sent to York jail, where in a week's time he was tried, condemned, and executed, at the Knavesmire on 4 May 1684, aged forty-five

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