10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood

Tim Flight - July 28, 2018

Dick Turpin (1705-39) was a dashing highwayman, an 18th-century Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. His life was one of pluck and derring-do, conducted atop his loyal mare, Black Bess. He was also a snappy dresser, never seen without a tricorn hat, frock coat, and riding boots. He once rode 150 miles in a day, from London to York, to give himself a concrete alibi for a robbery, visiting many pubs along the way. Turpin defied corrupt officials, and broke ladies’ hearts whilst holding up their carriages in the most gallant manner imaginable.

Or so the story goes. In fact, almost everything in the preceding paragraph is nonsense of the highest order. This prevailing image of Dick Turpin is principally traceable to the novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-82). Ainsworth, like Sir Walter Scott and others, was a historical novelist, and in his most famous work, Rookwood, he created the version of Turpin imprinted upon the modern consciousness: ‘Rash daring was the main feature of Turpin’s character… with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated so many knights of the road… that high devotion to the fairer sex’. Sadly, Ainsworth was no historian.

The real Dick Turpin was a repulsive, violent criminal, who did not scruple to discriminate between rich and poor. He murdered people, stole livestock, and subjected his victims to inconceivable levels of pain. Turpin died a criminal’s death entirely befitting one guilty of his offenses in the 18th century. In the following biographical sketch, you will find no romance, plucky opposition to the corrupt ruling classes, or good deeds. Instead, this article will present the real highwayman, warts and all: a hardened criminal, guilty of appalling actions, and with absolutely no remorse for his victims. Prepare to be shocked.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
The original parish register showing the record of Dick Turpin’s baptism (fifth entry down), Essex, 1735. Wikimedia Commons

Early Life

Relatively little is known about Turpin’s early life. He was born in the village of Hempstead, Essex, which lies between Saffron Walden and the wonderfully-named Steeple Bumpstead. He was the fifth of six children born to John Turpin and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Parmenter, in 1705. John Turpin was a butcher, and also ran a pub at various points through his life as an extra source of income. Richard ‘Dick’ Turpin was baptised at St Andrew’s Church in the village on 21st September (see above), where William Harvey, the man who discovered the circulation in the blood, is buried.

It is thought that Dick followed his father into the trades of butchery and tavern-keeping. One tradition holds that he was an apprentice butcher in the nearby village of Whitechapel, but there is no corroborative evidence. Another suggests that he had a butcher’s shop in Thaxted, Essex, a few miles from Hempstead. It is uncertain whether he kept an inn, or where that might have been. He also supposedly married Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Millington, a maidservant, in 1725, though there are no parish records for it. Little else is known of Millington, apart from her later involvement in Turpin’s criminal activities.

Though we do not know precisely where, we do know that Turpin was a butcher as a young man. Butchers, of course, rely upon a supply of carcasses, from local farmers and traders, which they then turn into products ready for cooking. Throughout the history of crime in England, there have been butchers stocked by shady suppliers such as poachers and livestock-stealers. Turpin is one of those criminal butchers. In the early 1730s, Turpin began purchasing venison poached from the royal forests of Essex by a group usually known as the Essex Gang. This simple business arrangement changed Turpin’s life.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Epping Forest, one of the places where the Essex Gang poached deer. London Town

The Essex Gang

Essex, being so conveniently near London, was rich in royal forests. These privately owned areas of land and woods were used to hunt deer for sport and provide for the royal kitchens. Ever since private hunting preserves appeared in the Anglo-Saxon period, laws have existed about who was allowed to hunt the animals therein, which some chose to ignore. Thus an amount of stolen venison was expected, but in 1731 the verderers (forest officials) in Essex complained of a sudden increase in depredations. Gun-wielding ‘diverse disorderly and idle persons’ intimidated keepers and stole many deer, day and night.

After several more years of violent confrontations, shootings, and more deer brazenly stolen, an organised gang of poachers were apprehended. The gang’s motivation was simply financial gain, not sport, and they sold their stolen goods to local butchers, including Dick Turpin. The confederacy of thieves, known as the Essex Gang, were as violent as they were audacious: they frequently beat up gamekeepers, shot their dogs, and several people were killed during their raids. Sometimes they simply assaulted anyone who happened to be in the area at the wrong time, whether charged with looking after the king’s deer or not.

Like their associate in the meat market, Dick Turpin, several members of the Essex Gang were professionals. Their leader, for example, was Samuel Gregory, a blacksmith acquitted of fatally shooting a man during a confrontation. Others were simply criminals, who had met each other in prison, and presumably concocted a plan to steal from the Essex forests, which were evidently understaffed and thus easy targets for larceny. The gang was so successful that the government offered a £50 reward for information leading to arrests, a considerable sum of money in the 1730s. Unsurprisingly, this induced whistleblowers to contact the authorities.

As with the legend of Dick Turpin the gallant armed-robber, the Essex Gang were involved in a criminal activity which is seen through rose-tinted spectacles by modern observers. After all, it seems silly to claim ownership of wild animals, and downright offensive to own animals for sport when thousands were struggling to put food on the table. This may be so, but what we cannot mitigate are the methods used against the unfortunate gamekeepers tasked with looking after rich folks’ animals. They were often subjected to horrific brutality and life-threatening conditions for which their wages were nothing like adequate compensation.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Dick Turpin threatens to put Widow Shelley on the fire during the Loughton Incident, The Newgate Calendar, London, 1824. Wikimedia Commons

Violent Crime

In late 1734, when the authorities were wise to the Essex Gang’s deer-poaching ruse, and had punished those responsible, the group, including Turpin, turned to other crime. In January 1735, The Political State of Great Britain reported that ‘a large gang of rogues have lately associated themselves together, and have committed some very audacious robberies in Essex and other places’. This is quite the understatement: the Essex Gang had by this time turned to violent robbery. Unlike their poaching exploits, no cockeyed modern observer can mistake their actions for anything but despicable greed and callous disregard for life.

Their first robbery took place in Woodford on 29th October 1734. At the shop of Peter Split, The Political State tells us, ‘one of them pulled out a knife, and then they threatened the master of the house, his wife and daughter, with immediate death, if either of them offered to make the least out-cry: while some of them thus stood centuries [sentries] in the shop, to prevent the family’s making any noise, the rest rifled the shop of everything of value that they could easily carry off’. Two nights later, they committed a similar armed burglary, again in Woodford.

This latter incident saw around £200 worth of goods stolen, but it is clear that the Essex Gang did not care whom they robbed. At Chingford on 14th December, they ransacked the home of John Gladwin, who stood by with another resident, John Shockley, under the careful watch of a gun’s barrel, but the list of plundered goods suggests the men were not at all wealthy. They also robbed the aged. On 19th December, they bound and threatened 73-year-old Ambrose Skinner, forcing him to show them where his valuables were kept. The loot from Skinner’s Barking home amounted to £300.

Though they had given up deer-stealing, the Essex Gang had not forgotten their former enemies. On 21st December, the gang targeted the home of William Mason, a keeper of Epping Forest, who had been involved in the investigation and prosecution of poachers the previous year. Hearing the gang outside, Mason seized his blunderbuss, but his wife prevented him firing, fearing that he would merely provoke further the 15-strong gang by shooting a couple of them. Mason was severely beaten, and once the gang had taken all they could carry, they broke everything else beyond repair out of sheer spite.

The crime spree continued, becoming increasingly violent. At Loughton (above) on 1st February 1735, the gang targeted an aged widow named Shelley. Five men broke into her house, and threatened her at pistol-point to show them where her money was hidden. When she refused, they threatened to ‘lay her across the fire’. She still refused to cooperate, but her son gave in, and the gang made off with £100, not before drinking the house’s wine and preparing themselves a cooked meal. Unbelievably, this was not the worst offence committed by the Essex Gang: for that, you’ll have to see below.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
With deliberate irony, a romanticised picture of Dick Turpin seizing his horse, Black Bess, by Robert Prowse, London, c.1885. Book Palace

Earlsbury Farm

The Essex Gang’s worst atrocity was carried out but three days after the Loughton incident. By now, the gang was chiefly based in London, where it was easy to remain anonymous. On 4th February, Samuel Gregory, Dick Turpin, and three other members gathered at the Black Horse Inn in Westminster to plot their next attack. Gregory had once worked as a blacksmith in the vicinity of Earlsbury Farm, Edgware, and knew that the farmer, Joseph Lawrence, paid his workers very good wages. This act of generosity was fatal: Gregory thus suspected he was a wealthy man, and a worthy target.

Along the way to Earlsbury Farm, the gang stopped for alcohol at local taverns and ate a supper of bacon and eggs. Suitably fortified, they captured a shepherd boy, James Emmerton, and entered the farmhouse by force, menacing its inhabitants with pistols. At the time, the house contained Lawrence and two servants, John Pate and Dorothy Street. The servants and shepherd were tied up and bundled into a room, and Lawrence was threatened with death if he did not show the Essex Gang where he kept his money. Once again, the victim was elderly: Lawrence was well into his seventies.

Lawrence’s breeches were forced around his ankles to bind them, and he was dragged through the house to show the gang where he kept his valuables. When he refused to cooperate, Turpin savagely beat his bare backside while other members pistol-whipped his head. Boiling water was emptied over him, and he was made to sit bare-bottomed in the fire (suggesting the threat to Shelley on 1st February was very real). He was then dragged around the house again in search of valuables, this time by his hair and nose. Lawrence still did not comply, but the gang still found plunder.

While all this was going on, Samuel Gregory was upstairs with Dorothy Street. At first, it seemed that he had led her away to scare the girl into telling him where Lawrence stored his money and valuables. Gregory’s motive was far more sinister. Alone with the terrified girl, whose hands were bound, Lawrence raped her at gunpoint, threatening to kill her if she did not give in. After this barbaric act, he led Dorothy downstairs again, where she replied to one gang member asking if she had been injured, ‘no, but one of your men has lain with me’.

There is no mitigation for such brutality, but the sum the gang gained from the armed raid makes the incident even more horrific. The physical harm done to the poor old man and the raped servant girl, to say nothing of the terrible mental trauma they suffered, netted the Essex Gang a mere £30. Remembering Turpin as a dashing highwayman does these innocent victims a shocking disservice. Even after Earlsbury Farm, the gang showed no sign of letting up. Just three days later, the same men were involved of the violent robbery of the Francis family of Marylebone.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Claude Duvall by William Powell Frith, a depiction of another famous highwayman, London, 1860. Wikimedia Commons

Highwayman

After another offer of £50 for information leading to the arrests of the robbers, the law finally caught up with the Essex Gang. On 11th February, three members were apprehended: William Saunders, John Fielder, and John Wheeler. They were caught drinking with a woman, probably Mary Brazier, the gang’s fence, when their horses were recognised or one of Joseph Lawrence’s servants identified the men. Wheeler, possibly no older than 15 at the time, quickly confessed, and gave up the rest of the gang. Walker died in Tyburn prison, and three other gang members were hanged, their bodies left to rot.

Turpin and the rest of the gang were betrayed by Wheeler, and an arrest warrant went out: ‘Richard Turpin, a butcher by trade, is a tall fresh coloured man, very much marked with the small pox, about 26 years of age, about five feet nine inches high, lived some time ago in Whitechapel and did lately lodge somewhere about Millbank, Westminster, wears a blue grey coat and a natural wig’. Around this time, Turpin had parted ways with the Essex Gang, possibly because of the attention their actions were now drawing. Returning to Hempstead, he decided to become a highwayman.

The law caught up with the rest of the Essex Gang, but Turpin remained at large. On 10th April 1735, his highwayman career began. Over the next few nights at Mile End and Epping Forest, three robberies took place for which historians believe Turpin was responsible. On 10th July, the first robbery for which Turpin was specifically named as the perpetrator, along with another former Essex Gang alumnus, Thomas Rowden, took place near Wandsworth. A highway robbery shortly thereafter would have ended in the victim’s murder, had Turpin’s accomplice not dissuaded the errant butcher. £100 was now offered for information.

This reward failed, and as more robberies continued around the Wandsworth area, locals raised their own reward for information leading to Turpin’s arrest. This also proved unsuccessful, and the considerable fear that the men inspired as well as their growing recklessness was demonstrated by reports of Turpin and Rowden riding through the streets of London in broad daylight on 9th-11th October 1735. However, they were not entirely stupid, and both seem to have decided to cease their operations shortly after the newspaper report. Rowden assumed the name Daniel Crisp, and went to Gloucestershire to counterfeit coins, his former profession.

Turpin, on the other hand, disappears entirely from the history books for a while. A rumour spread that he was in Holland for the next year or so, with several sightings reported in the London press. As we shall see later in this article, Turpin was adept at disappearing under a pseudonym when required, and so he may well have headed across the North Sea. Turpin reappears as a highwayman in England in early 1737, when he escaped capture after a robbery in Puckeridge, Hertfordshire. His accomplices however were apprehended: his wife, Elizabeth, her maid, and one Robert Nott.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Dick Turpin and his mare, Black Bess, London, c.1850. British Museum

The Death of Matthew King

A month after his near-escape at Puckeridge, Turpin had found two new accomplices: Matthew King and Stephen Potter. After initially operating in Leicestershire, the trio began to rob travellers around London. On 29th April, Turpin or King stole a horse named Whitestockings from near the Green Man Inn at Leytonstone. Whitestockings’s owner, Joseph Major, reported his loss to the landlord of the Green Man, one of Turpin’s earliest biographers, Richard Bayes. Bayes made enquiries amongst his contacts in the hostelry industry, and found out that a horse matching Whitestockings’s description had been stabled at the Red Lion Inn, Whitechapel.

Turpin, King, and Potter had made the foolish decision to stable the horse not 10 miles from Leytonstone. Arriving with assistants, Bayes confronted the horse’s purported owner, John King, brother of Matthew, who insisted that he had purchased it legally. When Bayes informed a local constable, King panicked, and said that a man was waiting outside for the horse. Bayes investigated, and recognised the man waiting for the horse as Matthew King. King drew his pistol and pushed it into Bayes’s breast, which fortunately misfired, but Bayes was unable to get his own firearm out of his pocket.

Enter Turpin. What happened next was disputed even at the time, but this is Richard Bayes’s version. ‘Turpin, who was waiting not far off on horseback, hearing a skirmish, came up, when King cried out, “Dick, shoot him, or we are taken by God”, at which instant Turpin fir’d his pistol, and it mist Mr. Bayes, and shot King in two places, who cried out, “Dick, you have killed me”, which Turpin hearing, he rode away as fast as he could’. Turpin’s flight was scorned by King, who lived a while longer and ‘gave Turpin the character of a coward’.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Dick Turpin shoots a man (presumably Thomas Morris) outside his cave in Epping Forest, from The Newgate Calendar, London, late 18th century. Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Thomas Morris

After the death of his friend, Turpin next hid in Epping Forest, having been identified by his own ally in front of a witness he had failed to kill. Bayes claimed that Turpin felt remorse for the killing, riding away with the cry, ‘I have lost the best fellow-man I ever had in my life; I shot poor King in endeavoring to kill that dog’. Whether he was responsible or not, Turpin had to save his own skin, and Epping Forest was a frequently-used hiding place for Turpin and his new gang, if not an especially safe one.

Contemporary sources report that Turpin had a secret cave in Epping Forest, in which he had a bed, clothing, food, and a small amount of wine. Unfortunately, the area was patrolled by forest keepers, and Turpin was known to them. In another incident in which the precise events are disputed, Turpin was confronted by a keeper’s servant, Thomas Morris, who had recognized Turpin and knew of the warrant for his capture. In some versions, Morris went to arrest Turpin alone, but even if reports that he went with a single accomplice are correct, he vastly underestimated the danger Turpin posed.

Quite simply, on 4th May 1737 Turpin shot Morris with his carbine. Morris died instantly, near to Turpin’s secret cave. Though it was debated whether Turpin or Bayes had shot King, this time he had definitely murdered an innocent man, and a cry went up for his arrest. The people of Epping reportedly said that ‘he will never be taken until a proclamation is published offering a reward for apprehending of him and give the reason… as he had declared that he will never be taken alive but he will kill, or be killed, and it will be dangerous’.

The people were heard, and in June 1737 a reward was offered. ‘His Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious Pardon to any of his Accomplices, and a Reward of £200 to any Person or Persons that shall discover him, so as he may be apprehended and convicted… [he] is about Thirty, by Trade a Butcher, about 5 Feet 9 Inches high, brown Complexion, very much mark’d with the Small Pox, his Cheek-bones broad, his Face thinner towards the Bottom, his Visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the Shoulders.’ By this time, Turpin had wisely headed north.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Cover of a Penny Dreadful about the life of Dick Turpin, London, 1866-68. Wikimedia Commons

‘John Palmer’

By the time that this £200 information-bounty over his head was announced, Turpin had based himself in Lincolnshire, a largely rural county in the north of England. The Artist Formerly Known As Dick Turpin, Violent Highwayman and Robber Extraordinaire, was now simply John Palmer, ‘horse-dealer’. We know of Turpin’s activities as John Palmer from evidence given at his trial (see below). One of the chief witnesses was William Harris, innkeeper of the Ferry Inn at Brough and Turpin’s occasional landlord, on the Yorkshire side of the Humber Estuary, who gave the following account of Turpin’s time in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

‘One John Palmer came to this informant’s house in Brough aforesaid and boarded with this informant at Brough four or five months and during this time went from this examinant’s house over the water into the county of Lincoln at divers times and the said times returned to this informant’s house att Brough aforesaid with severall horses at a time which he sold and disposed of to divers persons in the county of York… the said John Palmer told this informant that he lived at Long Sutton with his father and that his sister kept his father’s house there’.

As you’ve probably guessed, Turpin/ Palmer was stealing the horses to sell in Yorkshire. Although it is tempting to see Harris as incredibly gullible, given the circulation of physical descriptions of Turpin and his notoriety, it seems that information from the South East had not reached Yorkshire. Dealing in horses meant that he rubbed shoulders with the gentry and Turpin, apparently, ‘often went out a hunting and shooting with several gentlemen of the neighbourhood’. This is perhaps the only humorous side to Turpin’s real story: a criminal hobnobbing with the gentry shows the absurdity of the 18th-century’s rigid class distinctions.

We know of several horse thefts Turpin committed in Lincolnshire. In July 1737, Turpin stole a horse, rode it to Hempstead to visit his family, and left it there, leading to his father’s arrest for horse theft. He then stole a mare, foal, and gelding in August from one Thomas Creasy, selling the former two and keeping the gelding for himself. Legal records also suggest that Turpin was arrested for sheep-stealing around this time, but escaped, possibly with the aid of Creasy’s horses. It was for the theft of Creasy’s livestock that John Palmer was eventually tried and convicted.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Richard Turpin Surprised at the Sight of a Gibbet on his Road to York, London, 1836. Rare Old Prints

Capture

It was after one of his aforementioned hunting trips that Turpin’s downfall began. On 2nd October 1738, ‘Abraham Green saith that John Palmer of Welton… with a gun kill[ed] a tame fowl which did belong to Francis Hall of Brough… and did throw the fowl into the fields of Elloughton… [John Robinson] reprimanding the said John Palmer concerning the same, he the said John Palmer did threaten to shoot this informant’. Several witnesses complained to local magistrates, who committed Turpin to keep the peace and provide sureties whilst they conducted an investigation. Turpin refused, and was imprisoned at Beverley, Yorkshire.

Things now gathered momentum. Turpin rode the horse he had stolen from Thomas Creasy, and stabled it at a nearby tavern. Meanwhile, the magistrates’ investigations led them to become suspicious of John Palmer. Although Palmer ‘lived like a gentleman’, no one knew how he made a living, and his movements followed a regular, determined pattern. Whenever he returned from Lincolnshire, he always brought back several horses and large sums of money, which led to suspicions that he was either a highwayman or horse-stealer. Turpin responded to the allegations by claiming he was a butcher from Long Sutton, Lincolnshire.

Enquiries were made at Long Sutton, but it transpired that Palmer, though a resident, was not a butcher, and was actually suspected of sheep- and horse-theft. Thus what had started as a trivial matter was now a major investigation: horse-theft had been a capital offence since 1545, and was punishable by death. Turpin was moved from the prison for petty-criminals at Beverley to York Castle. Meanwhile, Thomas Creasy by chance found out that a horse-dealer had been arrested, and had stabled a gelding matching the description of his missing horse. He found his missing horses in the vicinity of Beverley.

In addition to the suspicions of Palmer at Long Sutton, the justices now had a specific charge against him for horse-theft. Additional evidence was taken from the man to whom Turpin sold the mare and foal, Captain George Dawson. He revealed how Palmer had sold him the animals on the street during a chance encounter, claiming that they were bred in Lincolnshire. Crucially, the horse-dealer also explicitly stated that the animals belonged to him. Although it was unlikely that a horse-stealer would be executed for a first offence, one with charges of murder, robbery, and assault was a different matter.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Title page from an account of Dick Turpin’s trial, London, 1739. Wikimedia Commons

Trial and Discovery

Awaiting trial at the York assizes, Turpin wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, ‘Pompr’ Rivenell, at Hempstead. The letter does not survive, but is thought to have been an update on Turpin’s whereabouts and a request for false character witnesses for John Palmer. When Rivenell went to collect his letters from the local post office, he refused Turpin’s, having seen the York postmark and remarking that he had no contacts there. Unfortunately, one of Turpin’s old school friends, James Smith, was there at the same time, and recognised the handwriting. Smith informed a local magistrate, and the secret was out.

Four days later, on 23rd February, Smith was in York, having been sent by several Essex magistrates. He was taken to see the prisoner, John Palmer, and swore to the York authorities that he was ‘Richard Turpin, and no other person’. The matter was raised from a local to a national level. The failure to apprehend Turpin in the London area had caused the government to be rebuked: ‘a fellow, who is known to be a thief by the whole kingdom, shall for a long time rob us… make a jest of us, shall defy laws, and laugh at justice’.

On 22nd March 1739, Turpin, as he was now known, was charged with two counts of stealing horses, all from Thomas Creasy. To be tried for highway robbery and murder would have required Turpin to be moved down to London, and it seems that the government wished to act expediently. Thus statements were heard from Thomas Creasy and Captain Dawson, and James Smith and another Hempstead man, Edward Saward, swore that John Palmer was Richard Turpin. The latter testimony ensured that Turpin could still be held, even if he defeated the horse-stealing charges. Turpin denied stealing any horses.

Although he admitted that he was Dick Turpin, the defendant claimed that he adopted his mother’s maiden name because he was in debt. He claimed to have purchased the horses legitimately, but produced no witnesses as evidence. On this basis, he asked the judge to defer the trial to a later date, since he had assumed that he would be tried in Essex and had thus not summoned anyone for his defence. The judge, however, was unimpressed: ‘as your country has found you guilty of a crime worthy of death, it is my office to pronounce sentence against you’.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Dick Turpin’s alleged grave (NB ‘Tyburn’ was a nickname for the gallows at Knavesmire), Fishergate,York. York Mix

Execution

In a slight nod to the later tradition of Turpin the dapper highwayman, Turpin purchased himself a new frock coat and shoes for his execution. He also hired five professional mourners to follow his procession to the scaffold and to oversee his body’s interment. After giving a range of other gifts to people, including a gold ring and several pairs of shoes to a married woman with whom he had had an affair whilst in Brough, Turpin was transported by a cart from York Castle to be hanged on 7th April 1739. The vehicle was strongly guarded to prevent escape.

Appropriately, given his conviction for horse-stealing, the site of the execution, Knavesmire, was the York racecourse, and it still used for the purpose today. A small stone marks the spot where the gallows once stood. As he passed spectators, Turpin nodded politely to them. Astride the ‘Three-Legged-Mare’, as the gallows was nicknamed, Turpin looked out at the assembled crowd with ‘undaunted courage’. Ironically, the hangman for the day was Thomas Hadfield, a highwayman himself who had been sentenced to death but pardoned. Turpin then ‘spoke a few words to the topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five minutes’.

Turpin was left hanging for most of the afternoon, then interred at St George’s Church, Fishergate, in the city of York. His body was swiftly stolen by body-snatchers, but they were apprehended and Turpin was laid to rest for a second time. Thus ended the appalling life of England’s most famous highwayman. Perhaps the only person in York sad to see him go was his jailer, who allegedly made over £1000 selling tickets to visit Turpin at York Castle as he awaited execution. Even before his death, the foundations were laid for the modern myth of Turpin the celebrity highwayman.

10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood
Dick Turpin jumping Hornsey Tollgate, illustration to William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel, Rookwood, London, 1849. Wikimedia Commons

Cultural Legacy

So, what do we make of the real Dick Turpin? From the above, it is clear that he was a violent and unscrupulous criminal, who cared not how old or how wealthy his victims were, and was willing to use vicious methods to get his loot, and even murder to avoid discovery. Far from the dashing figure of myth, Turpin must rank as one of history’s most odious thugs. However, the reality behind the legend did not even stop his contemporaries from becoming fascinated with him, and so perhaps we are not entirely to blame for his unwarranted reputation.

As mentioned in the previous section, Turpin enjoyed a grisly celebrity after being sentenced to execution. Capitalising on this craze in the immediate aftermath of the execution, Richard Bayes, the man whose attempts to arrest King resulted in the latter’s death, rushed to complete his biography, The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin. The document contains a hearty mixture of details from Turpin’s trial and wild speculation where no definitive evidence was forthcoming. Despite its factual inaccuracies, Bayes’s narrative was a popular work, and is important for giving the fullest contemporary account of Turpin’s execution at Knavesmire.

Turpin was far from the only highwayman of his day, and by no means the most popular in his lifetime. Chapbooks and pamphlets appeared in honour of several others – James Hind, Claude Duval, Jack Ovet – to whom many of the romantic features later associated with Turpin were ascribed in the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular, Claude Duval (see picture above) was the closest thing to a real version of the mythical Dick Turpin in contemporary sources. He had a reputation as a gentleman, and once refused to rob a coach after being granted a dance with a beautiful lady.

Turpin had no such reputation in his day, and his story was primarily of interest because of his barbarity and long evasion of capture by the authorities. However, the main features of the Dick Turpin myth were taken from accounts of other highwaymen, and combined into Turpin by William Harrison Ainsworth in his aforementioned-novel, Rookwood, in 1834. It is unclear why Ainsworth chose Turpin of all highwaymen to include in his novel, but the image he portrayed has been a lasting one, and it is to Ainsworth that we are indebted for our prevailing impression of Dick Turpin.

As well as essentially reimagining Turpin as Claude Duval, Ainsworth is also the source of two important features of the modern Turpin legend: naming Turpin’s horse as Black Bess, and the legend of the heroic day’s ride to York. The latter, in fact, was actually a feat ascribed to another highwayman altogether, ‘Swift Nicks’, by Daniel Defoe. Ainsworth was also instrumental, more generally, in securing the romantic reputation of highwaymen, as his Turpin proclaims: ‘it is as necessary for a man to be a gentleman before he can turn highwayman as it is for a doctor to have his diploma’.

Rookwood was an overnight sensation. Ainsworth’s image of Turpin, via scores of plagiarised Penny Dreadfuls, has since prevailed through fiction and alleged fact. In 1906, Turpin’s relationship with the silver screen began with the silent film, Dick Turpin’s Last Ride to York. Many other films, plays, and novels have since appeared. Based on the narrative of Turpin’s life in Rookwood, literally thousands of pubs in the UK claim to have hosted Dick Turpin during his lifetime, without realising they are involved in an elaborate game of charades in which hardly anyone knows the truth. But at least you do now.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Rookwood. London: J.M. Dent, 1931.

Ash, Russell. Discovering Highwaymen. Tring: Shire Publications, 1970.

Barlow, Derek. Dick Turpin and the Gregory Gang. London: Phillimore, 1973.

Brandon, David. Stand and Deliver: A History of Highway Robbery. Stroud: Sutton, 2002.

Moore, Lucy. Con Men and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin, 2004.

Sharpe, James. Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman. London: Profile Books, 2005.

Advertisement