Mystery of the Honiton highwayman

There are very few villains in East Devon’s history who captivate the imagination quite like William Jennings, the Honiton highwayman. He is, after all, a legend.

In April 1752, a little over 267 years ago, the bandit was hanged at Heavitree Gallows in Exeter. His single known crime was unremarkable other than it highlighted his sheer stupidity.

While highwayman had been operating across England for more than a century, such crimes were relatively rare in Honiton. Often romanticised by the popular press of the day, highwayman were both feared and revered.

History has likened them to Robin Hood but, in truth, there was nothing benevolent about these horse-riding thieves. William Jennings was no exception. He wore a “great coat” and a plain cape. He rode a horse. He carried a pistol.

At lunchtime on January 10 in 1752 Jennings was a patron at the Exeter Inn, Honiton. Where he came from nobody knows. He wasn’t a local, that is certain. The stranger openly bragged about knowing prominent people in Somerset and also spoke candidly about a pub in Bristol. Can we take from that he was at least from the West Country? Probably.

Honiton highwayman targeted victim

There is no question about Jennings’ motive for being at the Exeter Inn. He was planning a targeted attack on a stagecoach bound for London. He was poised to become the Honiton highwayman. His intended victim was “a short gentleman”. We know that because, not only do the words accurately describe the robbed man, they were uttered by Jennings himself. In fact, he told the inn’s landlord that he had “four words to say to a short gentleman”.

Those words turned out to be: “Give me your money.”

That wasn’t all Jennings imparted before he set out to hold up the stagecoach. He boasted about “the finest stallion in England”, saying it was to be sold by a pub landlord in Bristol for the princely sum of 25 guineas. He went so far as to say the stallion was bay brown and stood at 15 hands.

Given that the horse he was later seen riding may only have had one eye, Jennings could have planned the robbery with the sole intention of raising the proceeds to buy himself the stallion. Stealing the horse would probably have been a better bet than staging an armed robbery in the vicinity of Northcote Lane. But he banked on the prize being more than enough to pay for the horse.

Strangely enough, William Jennings knew exactly how much the “short gentleman” had in his purse – 16 guineas, to be precise. And, when he pointed his pistol at the stagecoach door and uttered “Give me your money”, he wasn’t prepared to accept anything less. An offer of silver was quickly rebuffed with a demand for the “guineas”. Either he had spied the man with the money in Honiton or he had been furnished with very accurate information.

Loose tongue and fancy clothes

Nobody knows if the Honiton highwayman, William Jennings, bought the stallion he so desired. What we do know is that he was quickly apprehended. His loose tongue at the pub and his striking appearance were dead giveaways. His victim noticed a mole under his right jaw and told lawmen he wore a waistcoat decorated with gold lace. Over it, his “great coat” comprised green velvet and highly distinctive yellow buttons.

Racing towards the pub in Bristol, he would not have been hard to miss. Noted by the victim was his short, dark brown, curly hair. It was said to be styled “as to wear a wig upon it”. The cost of a powdered wig at that time was around a week’s wages for the average man in the street.

And there lies the question: was William Jennings someone who had previously passed himself off as a nobleman? Was he, perhaps, from a well-to-do family who had fallen on hard times? Or, less likely, was he a true nobleman who robbed strictly for fun?

The truth is, we don’t know and never will. Apart from confess to his crime, William Jennings said nothing. He no doubt wished he had been able to exercise the same level of silence at the Exeter Inn.

William Jennings’ conviction at Exeter Assizes was reported in the London Evening Post on February 18. A later report, published in April, announced his execution.

He was 26.

 

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