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John Barnes, Taverner and Highwayman

John Barnes, Taverner and Highwayman

The “Black Horse” was an old inn near Southgate, Exeter. The south gate was perhaps the strongest of all the gates. It was defended by two massive drums of towers, and there was a double access to the town through it, the first gate leading into a yard with a second gate behind. Holy Trinity Church, with a red tower and pinnacles, was close to the inner gate, and nigh by that swung the sign of the “Black Horse.” The whole group was eminently picturesque. All was effaced in 1819; the gabled houses have been destroyed, not a stone left upon another of the noble gateway; even Trinity Church was pulled down, and a despicable cardboard edifice erected in its room as a specimen of the utter degradation to which art had fallen at that period.

John Barnes was taverner at the “Black Horse” in and about the years 1670–5, during which he had three children christened in Trinity Church. He kept his tavern well. His wife was reputed to be a quiet, tidy, and respectable woman, and John Barnes professed to be a hot and strong Presbyterian, and he made of his house a rallying-place of the godly who were in a low way after the Restoration and the ejection from their benefices of the ministers who had been intruded intothem during the days of the Commonwealth, when the Church pastors were ejected. It was turn and turn about. These latter had been thrown out of their nest by Independent and Presbyterian cuckoos, and now the cuckoos had to go and the original owners of the nests were reinstated. But the cuckoos did not like it, and the Puritans were very sore afflicted, and liked to meet and grumble and testify, over ale and cyder, in John Barnes' tavern. And when a private prayer meeting was held, mine host of the “Black Horse” was sure to be there, and to give evidence of his piety by sighs and groans. But he testified against prelacy more efficaciously than by upturned eyes and nasal whines, for he refused to have his children baptized by the Church clergy, and was accordingly prosecuted in the Exeter Consistory.

About 1677 Barnes abandoned the “Black Horse” in Exeter, and took an inn at Collumpton, where he threw off the “religious mask” and ran into debt and evil courses. One of his creditors was a smith, “a stout fellow of good natural courage.”

Barnes could not or would not discharge the debt, and he suggested to the blacksmith that there was an opening for doing a fine stroke of business that would at once liquidate the little bill and make him a man for ever. The plan was to waylay and rob the Exeter carrier on his way up to London, charged with a considerable amount of money sent to town by the merchants for the purchase of sundry goods. The blacksmith agreed, but it was deemed prudent to have another confederate, so a woolcomber was prevailed on to join.

The old Exeter road, after leaving Honiton, ascends a barrier of hill now pierced by the South Western Railway that there passes through a tunnel. This ridge stands between the stream bottoms of the Otter and the Corry, and is bleak, with habitations very wide apart along it. The distance from Collumpton to Honiton was so considerable and intercommunication so infrequent that the confederates hoped to escape recognition and detection by making their attempt far from home.

We are not informed at what hour the carrier's van was waylaid, but there can be little doubt that it was early in the morning. One day out of Exeter was the stage to Honiton, and there the carriers had put up.

Upon a cold and stormy night, when wetted to the skin,
I bear it with contented heart, until I reach the inn;
And there I sit a-drinking, boys, with the landlord and his kin.
Say wo! my lads, say wo! Drive on, my lads, I-ho!
Who would not lead the stirring life we jolly waggoners do?
When Michaelmas is coming on, we'll pleasure also find,
We'll make the red gold fly, my boys, as chaff before the wind;
And every lad shall take his lass, so merry, buck and hind.
Say wo! my lads, say wo! Drive on, my lads, I-ho!
Who would not lead the stirring life we jolly waggoners do?

The highwaymen heard the tinkle of the horse-bells, as the team of four drew the carrier's van up the long hill, and listened to the shout of the walking driver to the horses to put a good breast to it, as the top of the ascent was not far off. It would have been still dusk, when the three men leaped from behind some thorn bushes upon the carriers, and presented loaded pistols at their heads. It was customary for carriers to start before daybreak, as we know from the scene on the way to Gadshill in Henry IV , Part I.

Whilst two of the ruffians held the carriers and passengers quiet, with their pistols presented at full cock, Barnes ransacked the van, and secured six hundred pounds. Then the three men disappeared, mounted their horses, and galloped back to Collumpton.

But Barnes had left out of count that he was well known by voice and face in Exeter, and that a change of domicile and the space of one year would not have eradicated from the memory of carriers and such as frequented taverns the canting publican of the “Black Horse.”

The carrier's men at once gave information, and before long both Barnes and his confederates were apprehended and conveyed to Exeter Gaol, but not before the blacksmith had managed to secrete a file about his person. There they were fettered, but during the night by means of the file the blacksmith relieved himself and the other two of their chains, and all three broke out of prison.

One of them escaped, but the other two, including the taverner, were retaken next morning, and both were sentenced to die. The narrative proceeds to state that “there were many Women of Quality in Exeter that made great intercession for the said innkeeper to get him a Reprieve, not so much for his sake, as out of charity to his poor innocent Wife and Children; for she was generally reputed a very good, careful, industrious and pious Woman, and hath no less than nine very hopeful children; but the nature of the Crime excluded him from mercy in this World, so that he and his Comrade were on Tuesday, the 13th of this instant August (1678), conveyed to the usual place of Execution, where there were two that presently suffered; but the Innkeeper, desiring two hours' time the better to prepare himself, had it granted, which he spent in prayer and godly conference with several Ministers; then, coming upon the ladder, he made a long Speech, wherein he confessed not only the Crime for which at present he suffered, but likewise divers other sins, and particularly lamented that his Hypocrisie, earnestly begging the Spectators' prayers, and exhorting them not to despair in any condition ... and so with all the outward marks of a sincere Penitent, submitted to his sentence, and was executed.”

Dr. Lake, whose Diary  has been published by the Camden Society, happened to be visiting a prisoner in the gaol when Barnes and his accomplice were brought in. The doctor says that he was “a notorious Presbyterian,” and that “the evening before hee went forth to execute his design”—of robbing the carrier—“hee pray'd with his family two hours.”

The authority for this story is a unique tract in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, of which the late Robert Dymond, of Exeter, made a copy, and to which he refers in his paper on “The Old Inns and Taverns of Exeter,” in the Transactions  of the Devonshire Association for 1880.