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.