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

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


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.