Highway robbery - Honiton man executed

PUBLISHED: 13:20 06 May 2008 | UPDATED: 21:48 15 June 2010

IT wasn't the small mole or black spot under his right jaw that gave him away. It wasn't even his waistcoat, trimmed with gold lace. Find out what surrendered Honiton highwayman William Jennings to the gallows...

IT wasn't the small mole or black spot under his right jaw that gave him away. It wasn't even his waistcoat, trimmed with gold lace. Something even more eye catching, yet trivial, could have surrendered Honiton's notorious highwayman, William Jennings, to the gallows...HE had just four words to say to "a short gentleman" travelling on the Exeter Stage Coach to London.That's what William Jennings told the landlord of the Exeter Inn, Honiton, as he waited for the coach to depart.Full of himself, he chatted eagerly about "the finest stallion in England", which he told his host was to be sold for 25 guineas by the landlord of The White Horse, in Radcliffe Street, Bristol.William Jennings described the stallion as bay brown in colour and 15 hands high.He seemed to know every part of Somerset, and every gentleman in it, it was later reported. Name -dropping was clearly part of his pretence.It was Monday, January 10 in 1752, and, at a little after lunchtime, William Jennings set out from the Exeter Inn to catch up with the horse-drawn coach to London.He knew he wasn't far behind, telling the landlord he would soon be with it.At about 2pm, William Jennings, highwayman, caught up with his prey - and muttered his four words: "Give me your money."He came straight to the point, avoiding the cliche "Stand and deliver", only three words.On "the great road", near Northcott Lane, he struck about a mile-and-a-half beyond Honiton, towards London.With a pistol in his hand, he must have cut a fearsome image.The single highwayman was well mounted on a bay brown mare of about 15 hands high. The horse had a defect in her near eye. William Jennings' victims later said the horse could have suffered the loss of an eye.The 26-year-old highwayman held his pistol at the coach door.His victims noted a black spot or mole under his right jaw and thought him to be five feet and six inches tall.He wore his own hair, not a wig, but it was considered he could occasionally wear a wig - because of the way his hair appeared. It was described as dark brown, short and curled, "and so ordered as to wear a wig upon it".He wore a "great coat" and a plain cape. They did not conceal what he was wearing underneath - a dark waistcoat, trimmed with narrow gold lace, and a green velvet coat. The close-bodied coat had yellow buttons and buttonholes. Witnesses described three buttons and three buttonholes on each flap - highly distinctive.Coupled with his loose tongue in the pub, did the yellow buttons eventually give him up?When William Jennings confronted the "short gentleman" on the coach, he was offered silver. The highwayman refused it, saying he knew the gentleman had a purse of guineas and that he would have it. The gentleman handed over the purse, which contained about 16 guineas - a small fortune two centuries ago.On Feb-ruary 18, 1752, the London Evening Post described how William Jennings was one of eight criminals "capitally convicted" at Exeter Assizes the Saturday before. His get-away either never materialised or was short-lived. Exactly how William Jennings succumbed to the long arm of the law is not documented.There was a further report of his conviction in the London Evening Post and one in the General Advertiser before it was reported, on April 11, 1752, that William Jennings had been "executed" at Heavitree Gallows "yesterday".The report said that he had been executed for "robbing the stage coach near Honiton".A reporter witnessed his death and wrote: "He was seemingly penitent and behaved with as much decency as could be expected. But he made no confession in relation to his life, only confessed the fact he died for."More than 250 years later, can we take this to mean that William Jennings died for one crime; that he was previously of good character?Or can we assume that he remained dishonest to the end, taking the truth of his crimes to the grave?ALLHALLOWS Museum, Honiton, contains a growing collection of stories about local people, collated by curator Margaret Lewis.

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