Highwaymen of the Peak

...your money or your life!

The Peak District today is a beautiful and very safe part of the world, but it hasn’t always been the case.


Highwaymen were once a very real threat to anyone travelling our green and pleasant land, and so commuting through the Peak District in the 16th and 17th centuries was a particularly risky business.

Peak Panic

On the eastern edge of the Peak District, somewhere between Baslow and Wigley, there’s a family pub called The Highwayman. Going there as a child, as we did fairly regularly as a family, used to frighten me.

Its location on the long and winding road now known as the A619 used to trigger some horrific images in my ten year old mind. Visions of masked horsemen holding up innocent civilians before butchering them were all too prevalent.

Difficult to believe now, but three hundred or so years ago the Peak District resembled the wild west.

With no such thing as maps until the mid 1700s and signposts also notable by their absence, navigating the roads – or highways – was a nightmare, and the likelihood of getting lost was all too high.

The roads linking Chesterfield with both Manchester and Derby represented veritable goldmines for the outlaws of yesteryear.

Stand and Deliver!

An old road north-west of Buxton was once the lair of a gang of bandits fronted by a man named Pym. He is reputed to have kept watch over the road from a stone chair on top of a hill, all set to send down his men to hold up packhorse trains.

The actual stone chair was broken up many years ago but the hill is still known as Pym Chair.

From 1772 the death penalty was introduced for being armed and disguised in high roads and open moors.

Gibbeting – a punishment imposed in addition to execution whereby the assassinated criminal was hung on public display in a bid to deter existing or potential criminals - was popular up until the mid 19th century.

Gibbeting regularly took place at Wardlow with executions being held in Derby.

Your Money or Your Life

A highwayman by the name of Black Harry plagued the packhorse trains between Tideswell and Bakewell and crossing the moors around Wardlow and Longstone.

Black Harry had a fruitful career until he was arrested and hung, drawn and quartered – and duly gibbeted - on the Gallows Tree at Wardlow Mires. Black Harry Gate and Black Harry House near Stoney Middleton ensure his name endures.

Another very (in)famous highwayman brought terror to travellers in the Hope Valley during the mid-1600s. He was given the monikers ‘Bold Nevison’ or ‘Swift Nick Nevison’.

Nevison was once said to have met an impoverished Padley farmer, who had just sold his cattle at Bakewell market so he could pay his rent. They had a drink together when it transpired, as if by magic, they were headed in the same direction.

They rode as far as Stoke where Bold Nevison drew his pistol and demanded the loot. The farmer pleaded poverty and that if he didn’t pay the rent his family would be made homeless – but the ruthless Nevison took it anyway.

At around midnight on the eve of the dreaded rent day, the still-despairing farmer heard two gunshots emanating from Grindleford Bridge, followed by the sound of shattered glass and galloping hooves.

He rushed to the scene where he found a bag lying in the glass from his shattered window, which contained his stolen gold and an extra guinea for good measure. 

Nevison was later captured and executed in York on 4th May 1684.

Wanted!

The threat posed by highwaymen remained into the 19th century, but became significantly reduced after around 1815.

Although well on their way to being obsolete, Highwaymen were still occasionally in operation. Wirksworth Heritage Centre has among its many artefacts a copy of an 1820 reward poster offering the princely sum of ten guineas after a highway robbery in which a butcher, from Kirk Ireton in Ashbourne, was robbed of his takings.

The last mounted robbery in England is believed to have taken place in 1831, and all that remains of this murky business is a mere nod to a darker past in the shape of that Eastmoor pub, The Highwayman.

So, next time you’re cruising through the Peak in the comfort of your car, spare a thought for our ancestors who weren’t so fortunate. Getting stuck behind a tractor doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?



Sean Cummins

July 2010







Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015