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
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.