Birdwell Village History


The Birdwell Highwayman - 1832


It will be interesting to note that in the seventeenth century, the village of Birdwell had as one of its inhabitants, one John Henshaw, Highwayman.  Harmony and quiet had long reigned undisturbed in the humble and retired village of Birdwell, until the detected villainy of one individual spread amongst its population suspicion and alarm.  Many people will recollect a deep and dark valley, a little on the Barnsley side of Hoodhill, the sombrous aspect of which is well calculated even at the present day, to excite in the breast of the solitary traveller a feeling approaching to terror, and which, at that period, must have been favourable for the accomplishment of the scene which was enacted.  The rivulet which runs through this valley is lined with trees and brushwood, amongst which concealment would be easy, and the chances of not getting caught favourable.

Just as the stage-coach from London to Leeds was crossing this valley, at a late hour of the night in the year 1832, and had reached the bridge crossing the rivulet, an attempt was made to stop it by a single Highwayman who sprang from the brushwood and tried to seize the reins of the leading horses.  Failing, however, in his intention, and seeing that the number of passengers would render a second attempt hopeless, he darted back into the brushwood and was soon out of sight. The attempt was, however, repeated a few days afterwards, and though again unsuccessful was sufficiently alarming to induce the proprietors to take greater precaution and to provide additional means of defence against the daring attacks of the marauder - nor were these preparations unnecessary, for, as the coach was passing the valley a few weeks afterwards, at the usual hour its progress was again arrested by the villain whose violent grasp at the reins, probably rendered more violent by his repeated disappointments, stopped the horses almost instantaneously.  As he was preparing, however, to summon those whom he now considered to be his prey, he saw he was going to be resisted, and saw weapons glitter in the hands of his opponents.  Again, he thought a speedy retreat would be his best policy, but before he could get into the brushwood, the guard fired the blunderbuss, and a shriek announced that the contents has taken effect.  The coachman urged forward the horses, and the alarm was given at the next village, and a pursuit was instituted after the Highwayman.  It was concluded that he would be either dying or dead.  All night long the party of pursuers searched in vain, many of them with palpitating hearts and trembling limbs, for the body of the Highwayman.  In the morning light traces of blood were discovered.  Here and there were small pools where the wounded man had stopped.  These traces were followed and led the pursuers to an outhouse belonging to a farm at Harley, a small village about half a mile from the scene of the attempted robbery.  Here they found the Highwayman stretched, bleeding and exhausted, in the straw. Some of them were surprised when they found the man they dreaded was small, and of middle age.

Previous to the arrival of the search party, he had been found by the people at the farm, and in answer to their questions, had informed them that he had been attacked on his way to Barnsley, by robbers who had rifled his pockets and shot him, and then threw his pistol after him.  Notwithstanding the pain he turned and picked up the pistol.  The pistol was found charged but had not been fired.  They began to doubt his story, and moved him to the inn and the nearest magistrate at Wentworth, where he was at once recognised as John Renshaw of Birdwell.

People who knew him, said of him, to be gentle and good mannered, which during his long career of villainy, kept him even from suspicion.  When he first came into Birdwell from Nottinghamshire, he hired himself to a farmer, in whose service he worked but a short time.  He then commenced on his own account in the neighbouring markets, representing that he had married his former employer’s daughter, and then obtained credit to a considerable extent, until the non-fulfillment of his engagements led to enquiries which at once exposed the falsehood of his own pretensions.  After this exposure he began his 'visits' as he termed them, to a rich relation in Nottinghamshire for several days together, and sometimes for weeks would be absent on these pretended visits, and truly the generosity of his relative was well calculated, for never did Renshaw return without some treasure which his ‘Uncle’ had conferred upon him.

On some occasions, after his return from such excursions he would call upon his neighbours, and ask them 'what news they had heard, and how the rogues were going on', and they replied that ‘no-one was more likely to know such matters than himself'.  Amidst the many petty thefts with which the neighbourhood was alarmed, neither the variety of 'present' which Renshaw brought home, nor his absence, nor the absurdity of his statements, elicited against him the shadow of suspicion, until the circumstances fully exposed his full character, and cast aside the veil of mystery which he had drawn around himself.  When brought to Wentworth, surgical aid was given, the ball extracted - and the wound pronounced not dangerous.  As soon as possible he was sent to York assizes, sentenced to transportation for 7 years.  Many years later several 'inhabitants of Birdwell, observed a person of remarkable appearance' passing through the village, which turned out to be Renshaw.  On perceiving he had been recognised, he commenced a hasty retreat, and never again disturbed the tranquillity of Birdwell with his fearful presence.


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