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John Nevison, the Highwayman

For years 4, 5 and 6 and older

Having a Highwayman arrive unexpectedly to hide in your school makes for a very exciting day. The children are drawn into his predicament, and fascinated by tales of his exploits. This character not only fits in very well with work based on Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwayman, but also suits a creative curriculum approach to all sorts of topics (from journalistic writing to adventure stories, from historical fiction to persuasive writing). It also has a cross-curricular link with the KS2 history study of ‘an aspect or theme in British history … beyond 1066’, specifically their example: ‘crime and punishment from the Anglo-Saxons to the present’.

The session is a great way to start work on the Highwayman poem as it very effectively introduces the ‘historical context of the poem and the characters and setting’,* leaving the children brimming with background knowledge. It is also great for ending the unit, very effectively stimulating ‘class discussions and additional research’*.


Nevison Telling TalesThe session addresses all sorts of other elements, like exploring language for comic and dramatic effects; understanding different points of view; comparing themes in poetry, prose and other media; and experimenting with narrative forms and styles. It is also great for narrative units concerning traditional stories, fables, myths, legends (especially oral storytelling). Nevison claims to be like ‘Robin Goodfellow’ (AKA Hood), and a descendent of all the ‘Goodfellows’ through time, from Hereward the Wake to FitzWarren to Captain Hind. He himself became a Yorkshire Legend – nicknamed ‘Swift Nicks’ he was the legendary gentleman Highwayman who rode from London to York in one day. The children in effect become involved with the writing of the legend, putting down on paper Nevison’s tales, correcting the stories that (according to Nevison) have lied and made him appear to be a villain!

*Quotes from the DfES standards web site

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A day with a Highwayman!

I have done many different versions of this visit. It works well either as a whole day session with one class or as a half day session, so that I can work with two classes in one day. I have also worked with three classes by using a timetable format similar to my pirate day. The various component parts are optional, as there may be too much to do here in one day, and I can discuss specifically what you want in advance of the visit or on the morning itself. All timings are flexible, allowing individual classes to work at a pace that suits their learning.

Session Format for Key Stage 2


NevisonChildDrawingDAfter I burst into the classroom, we discuss who and what I am, why I need to hide, as well as my possessions and clothes. I explain any strange words I use and answer questions. Eventually I ask the children if they have ever read stories about me, which leads me on to …

Journalistic and/or letter writing exercise

The main task of the day. I use up to four differentiated texts. Two need correcting (re-writing), another must be responded to with a letter, and another I want changing.

Volunteer pupils (or teacher chosen) read the stories aloud. After each reading I claim the stories were wrong, and then recount my own versions, explaining how things were quite different: I am not the villain described in the pamphlets, but more like Robin Hood, a proper hero! This part of the session can take 30 minutes or so.

I then ask the children if they would put these things right. This involves …

Highwayman Pamphlets

(a) Re-writing parts of a news-sheet – a higher ability task. There are several different stories for individual children to choose from, as well as a ballad/poem that needs changing. Nevison wants tales he would be proud of, and is very worried that people will remember these lies about him. I have two different forms of this news-sheet, in different font sizes. The more difficult of the two, with some archaic English spelling, is accessible to the highest ability Year 6 children.

(b) Writing a letter to the London Gazette to complain about a recent article in which Nevison was described as a coward and a murderer! Nevison wants the children to tell them what they think he is like, having met him and heard his own account of his adventures.

(c) Re-writing a ballad about me make me sound heroic and generous.

(d) Creating a false description of Nevison to be passed around the local watchmen, in the form of a wanted poster. Hopefully this would buy him time to escape! This is the lowest ability task, and involves the labelling of a picture.

I give careful instructions, and ask the teacher which groups could do what. The tasks are distributed according to ability. The children then do this written work as differentiated groups at their tables. Task (c), which all the children tend to want to do, can be an extension task for the more able children should they finish their own task.

As they work I visit the groups in turn to spend 10 minutes or so with each – perhaps playing a game of cards, dice or nine men’s morris with them, or looking at maps and coins, etc. Different groups get to something unique with me, and they have another chance to ask me things. While I sit with one group, the others get on with their tasks. This written session can takes about one hour.

Finally the chosen children then read their work aloud, or present their posters to me and the class. This little plenary session allows me to comment on and approve of their work. This takes perhaps 20 minutes or so.

The Big Story

I tell the very famous story of my ride from London to York. This takes about 25 minutes. I usually round off the day with this. If I have worked with two classes that day, we can get the two together in the Hall for this, rounding off the day nicely for all concerned. You will, if you choose to do so, hear a pin drop!

This video is extracted from a shorter version of the story I usually tell.

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A day with a Highwayman!

The following optional activities are usually for days where I can work with one class all day…

Option: Children’s Own Stories

I wonder whether the children, being scholars, have something to teach me, and so I ask them to invent their own highwaymen stories. They work in pairs to plan the little stories in note form (or whatever planning style they are used to). I suggest they create tales of escapes, rescues, clever tricks or chases – coming up with ideas I myself might be able to use in future! While they work, I move around offering ideas and suggestions. Finally, the children tell (or act out) their tales in turn for me and the rest of the class. This takes from 60 to 90 minutes.

Option: Sketching (art-work)

Having written corrected stories and ballads, I might want a good likeness drawn to go with them. I can thus pose for the children while they all do a bit of portrait sketching, using whatever medium you think is best. Perhaps they might simply sketch in pencil then ‘work up’ the picture another time? This art-work might take 20 or more minutes.

Highwayman Pencil Portrait

Option: Question and answer

Nevison Cheers!

The pupils and teacher can do the questioning here, asking whatever they want … about my life, childhood, life in the 17th century, whatever. This can go in many directions – from food to school to houses to London. If they’ve been studying highwaymen, I can ask them if know about the law: officers of the law, courts, prisons, punishments, etc., which could lead to some gory tales about the triple gallows at Tyburn or the traitors’ heads over London bridge!

Option: A little Numeracy

Historic CoinsWe count my money – seventeenth century coins … from sovereigns down to farthings. The children work out how many pennies each coin is worth, and I ask how many pints of ale I could buy with each.


For Key Stage 3 children the sessions involve question and answer about late seventeenth century crime and punishment, woven amongst Nevison’s humorously exaggerated tales. This way I can work in succession with several smaller groups.

“Your final story was amazing, I couldn’t believe it! Literally. No man (plus horse) could go from Kent to York (over two hundred miles) in less than a day. Not even Nutmeg! I would like to say thank you again for a phenomenal day. I really enjoyed it! Hope you come again … “

— Year 5 boy, Alverthorpe St Paul’s J&I School

“A fabulous visit once again. Paul has been coming to Airedale for six years now. We plan our journalistic writing topic to fit in with John Nevison! All the children enjoy the visits and produce excellent follow up work. It is a highlight of Year 6. Thank you Paul.”

— Claire Feather, Teacher, Airedale Junior School

“We have enjoyed an inspirational day. We will be able to go on and do some wonderful work.”

— Pauline Humble, Teacher, Carlton Park School, Pontefract

“Had an excellent day today. The children really enjoyed all the activities and their faces when you walked in to the assembly were excellent! Thanks for all the ideas, we’ll be using loads of them in Literacy.”

— Mrs Gorman, Teacher, St Helens C of E Primary School, Warrington

“The children were engaged as soon as he walked through the door and remained so well after he left. A great day which really helped the children’s historical understanding.”

— Julie Edwards, Teacher, Kimberworth Primary School

… the amazing day you spent at our school … Thought I must tell you that the children(and adults too) thoroughly enjoyed your visit. The children said that it had been the best day in year 5 this year! You were very entertaining and the children learnt SO much about highwaymen in the past. They are keen to finish what they started in class today – it’s great when they enjoy writing so much! We will definitely book you again in the future and recommend you to other classes and schools.

— Anita Sampson, Teacher, St Joseph’s Primary, Keighley

Just want to say a big thank you for a brilliant day, yet again. A lot of the children said how much they enjoyed it and that it’s the best topic they had done this year. A number of them asked me if I’d had chance to see your horse, Nutmeg!

— Phil Ebbage, Teacher, Low Ash Primary School

I just wanted to send a huge thank you for a truly brilliant day, on behalf of us all. The children were so engaged and you had them all enthralled with your entertaining stories! They all left hoping you would come back tomorrow, and are so excited by the topic so thanks again. It was a pleasure to have you in class. Thanks again, I will definitely be recommending you to all my teacher friends!

— Rachel Bonner, Dixons Manningham Primary

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A day with a Highwayman!