Dick Turpin is probably the most famous highwayman of all. Mention the name to most people, and they will tell you he was a daring and dashing highwayman who famously rode from London to York on his faithful mare, Black Bess, in less than 24 hours. However, the popular Turpin legend contains not a grain of truth. In reality, Turpin’s fictitious great ride was made by 17th-century highwayman John ‘Swift Nick’ Nevison, who early one morning in 1676 robbed a homeward-bound sailor on the road outside Gads Hill, Kent. Deciding he needed to establish an alibi, Nevison set off on a ride that took him more than 190 miles in about 15 hours. In addition, it was only at the very end of his life, while waiting to be hanged at York racecourse, that Turpin exhibited any of the swaggering nonchalance, heroism, or derring-do usually attributed to him. Prior to that, both his existence and his criminal ventures had been squalid, to say the least.
THE ESSEX GANG
Dick Turpin was born in 1706 in rural Essex, the son of John Turpin, a small farmer and some-time keeper of the Crown Inn. Some biographers say he was born in Thackstead, others name Hempstead. Young Dick probably served an apprenticeship with a butcher in Whitechapel- in those days, a village on the fringes of the capital. During his apprenticeship he “conducted himself in a loose and disorderly manner.” When his apprenticeship was over, he opened a butcher shop, and began to steal sheep, lamb and cattle. Caught in the act of stealing two oxen, he fled into the depths of the Essex countryside to save himself. After resurfacing, he tried his hand at smuggling, but proved as inept at this venture as he had at cattle rustling. Before long customs agents compelled Turpin and his gang to lay low. Many people think of Dick Turpin as a lone highwayman, however for the majority of his criminal career he was a member of the Essex Gang (also known as the Gregory Gang). Members of Turpin’s gang are known to have included: Thomas Barnfield, Mary Brazier, John Fielder, Jasper Gregory, Jeremy Gregory, Samual Gregory, Herbert Haines, John Jones, James Parkinson, Joseph Rose, Thomas Rowden, Ned Rust, William Saunders, Richard Turpin, Humphry Walker, and John Wheeler. There may have been other members who were either not identified or who were only occasional associates of the Gang.
Turpin and his gang invaded isolated farmhouses, terrorizing and torturing the female occupants into giving up their valuables. A typical attack took place at Loughton, in Essex, where Turpin heard of an old widow woman rumoured to keep at least £700 in the house. When the woman gamely resisted all of Turpin’s efforts to discover the money’s hiding place, he hoisted her into the open fire until she gave up her treasure. Robbing remote farmhouses was the Gang’s speciality, and it was only towards the end of his criminal career that Turpin was actually involved in highway robbery.
Flushed with success-and money-Turpin and his mates proceeded to rob their way around the Home Counties, frequently employing torture as a weapon of persuasion. By 1735, the London Evening Post regularly reported the exploits of Turpin and ‘The Essex Gang’ and the King had offered a reward of £50 for their capture. Eventually, local constables captured two of the gang, Turpin himself narrowly missing capture by bursting out a window.
Turpin headed back into the familiar East Anglian countryside and lived rough for some time., until he began working with ‘Captain’ Tom King, one of the best-known highwaymen of the day and the kind of swashbuckling, devil-may-care character into which legend would later transform Turpin. From a cave in Epping Forest from which they could watch the road without being seen, they robbed virtually anyone who passed their hiding place. Even local peddlers started to carry weapons for protection. By 1737, Turpin had achieved such notoriety that another bounty of £100 was placed on his head- a reward that unwittingly transformed him from a common footpad into a murderer. On 4th May, 1737, a gamekeeper named Morris tracked Turpin to Epping Forest, but when he challenged him at gunpoint, Turpin drew his own gun and shot Morris dead.
The fugitive’s next exploit was nothing less than bizarre. One night, while on the road to London, he took a fancy to a particularly fine horse ridden by a man called Major and forced him to exchange it for his own jaded mount. Mr. Major didn’t take the loss lying down. He issued handbills around the pubs of London, describing the horse and naming Turpin as the thief. The horse was traced to the Red Lion pub in Whitechapel, where Turpin had stabled it. When Tom King came to collect the horse, he was arrested. Turpin, who had been waiting nearby, rode toward the constables holding King and fired at them. Unfortunately, he was a dreadful shot, and the bullets hit King rather than his captors.
THE END OF THE ROAD
Before he died, King provided the constables with sufficient information to force Turpin to again live rough in Epping Forest. Realizing that he could not long escape capture if he remained in the London area, Turpin set off for Yorkshire., where he settled under the name of John Palmer, financing his fancy lifestyle with frequent excursions into Lincolnshire for more horse and cattle rustling and the occasional highway robbery. One day, returning from an unsuccessful hunt he shot his landlord’s rooster. When the landlord complained he threatened to kill the landlord as well. He was taken into custody while local authorities made enquiries as to how exactly ‘Mr. Palmer’ made his money, and inevitably the constables learned of several outstanding complaints made against ‘John Palmer’ for sheep and horse stealing in Lincolnshire. Turpin waited in the dungeons of York Castle while these charges were investigated, but even then things might not have gone too badly for him if he hadn’t written a letter to his brother, requesting him to ‘procure an evidence from London that could give me a character that would go a great way towards my being acquitted.’
Unfortunately for Turpin, his brother was too mean to pay the sixpence postage due and so returned the letter to the Post Office. There, by a great coincidence, Turpin’s former schoolmaster, Mr. Smith, saw it and recognized the handwriting. He took the letter to the local magistrate and, with his permission, opened it. Despite the fact that it was signed John Palmer, Smith identified the writer as Turpin. Smith was subsequently dispatched to York to make positive identification; which he did.
Convicted on two indictments, Turpin was sentenced to death. Pleas from his father to have the sentence commuted to transportation fell on deaf ears. Between his sentence and execution, visitors frequented Turpin’s cell. He bought new clothes and shoes and hired five mourners for 10 shillings each. On 7th April, 1739, Dick Turpin rode through the streets of York in an open cart, bowing to the gawking crowds. At York racecourse he climbed the ladder to the gibbet and then sat for half an hour chatting to the guards and the executioner. An account in the York Courant of Turpin’s execution, notes his brashness even at the end, “with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes.” Thus in death at least, Turpin attained some of the gallantry that had eluded him in life.
“ROOKWOOD”: THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND
The spurious legend of Dick Turpin was established in 1739 with the book Life of Richard Turpin, and sealed with the novel Rookwood (1834) by Harrison Ainsworth in which the highwayman ‘Dauntless Dick Turpin’ with his horse Black Bess is a secondary character. Ainsworth’s description of an epic ride from Westminster to York caught the popular imagination and turned a fairly average pot-boiler into a runaway best-seller. During the next 50 years, replays of the Turpin story, as told by Ainsworth, appeared in magazines, cheap novels, and ballads, not just in Great Britain but around the world. History, romance, and legend rapidly blurred and, eventually, the fictional ride of Ainsworth’s Turpin totally eclipsed the villain’s real exploits. The metamorphosis of Dick Turpin, house-breaker, torturer, murderer, horse-stealer and all-round real nasty piece of work into Dick Turpin, Highwayman and Knight of the Road was complete.
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