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An illustration of Dick Turpin.


By Richard Jones

Dick Turpin (1705 –1739) is one of those larger than life figures whose legend contains little resemblance to the actual facts of his, often sordid, life.

Born in the Essex village of Hempstead in September 1705, he grew up in a relatively well-to-do household and received a modest education from the village Schoolmaster, James Smith.

At the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel, then a pleasant village on the outskirts of London, where he spent five years learning his trade before setting up in business for himself at Waltham Abbey.

Here, he married an innkeeper's daughter named Hester Palmer.

When business was slow, he attempted to supplement his income by cattle stealing, was detected and, to avoid capture, fled into the wilds of rural Essex, where he earned a living from robbing the smugglers on the East Anglia Coast, sometimes posing as a Revenue Officer - an ingenuity that was appreciated by neither the smugglers nor the Customs Officers, and he was soon forced to flee again, this time to Epping Forest.

Here, he joined forces with a gang of poachers and with them graduated from smuggling venison into London beneath wagonloads of vegetables, to burgling houses on the north-eastern outskirts of London. Known as the "Gregory Gang", their methods were singularly ruthless and, on one occasion, Turpin is said to have held the landlady of an inn over her fire until she revealed the whereabouts of her savings.

But, with an ever expanding list of charges against them, the gang found rewards of anything between fifty and a hundred pounds upon their heads and, when three of them were caught and hanged, the others decided to disperse.

Turpin now turned his hand to the career that was to bring him notoriety, highway robbery.

One day, in February 1736, on the London to Cambridge Road, he spotted a well-dressed individual, riding a fine horse, and duly attempted to rob him. His demand to, "stand and deliver", was, however, met with raucous laughter. "What, dog eat dog?" guffawed the stranger, "Come, come brother Turpin, if you don't know me, I know you and I shall be glad of your company". Turpin had inadvertently challenged Tom King, known as the "Gentleman Highwayman" due to his liking for expensive clothes and fine horses.

Thereafter, the two became partners in crime and from a cave in Epping Forest would ride out to rob almost every traveller, rich or poor, that had the misfortune to pass their hideout.

However, as their infamy increased, so too did Turpin’s arrogance. In 1737 he held up a horse-dealer, Mr Major and robbed him of his mount, a renowned steeple-chaser named "White Stocking", due to its distinctive feet. It was an act of gross stupidity, since the horse was instantly recognisable and was later spotted at the Red Lion Inn at Whitechapel where Turpin had stabled it.

When Mr Major identified it as his, the local constable suggested that they should keep watch to see who came to collect the horse.

When King's brother arrived to pay the Ostler and retrieve the beast, he was arrested and offered to take them to where he had agreed to meet his brother and Turpin.

When the constable and his men surprised the two outlaws, there was an exchange of gunfire and King was wounded. "Damn you, shoot or we are taken, Dick!" he cried, whereupon Turpin fired, but accidently shot King's brother.

Realising that his accomplices were beyond help, Turpin abandoned them to their fates and made good his own escape.

Four days later on 7th May 1737, Thomas Morris a servant of one of the keepers of Epping Forest spotted Turpin by the entrance to the cave and, borrowing a gun, attempted to arrest him.

According to the Newgate Calendar, "Turpin spoke to him in a friendly manner and gradually retreated at the same time, till, having seized his own gun, he shot him dead on the spot".

Thereafter, Dick Turpin was forced to lead a wandering existence until, eventually, he settled in the Yorkshire village of Brough, where he set up as a cattle and horse dealer, calling himself John Palmer.

Here he was apparently accepted into the ranks of the local gentry and frequently joined their hunting expeditions.

One day in October 1738, as he and some friends were returning from a shooting trip a little the worse for drink, Turpin impulsively shot one of his landlord's game-cocks and, when told by a companion that he had done a foolish thing, drunkenly replied:- "Wait until I have recharged my piece and I will shoot you too".

Hauled before the local magistrate, he was ordered to find sureties for his good behaviour and, unable to do so, was committed first to Beverley gaol and then to York Castle Prison.

It was then that he made the fatal error of writing to his brother-in law, who was keeping the Bell Inn at Hempstead and asked if he would "procure an evidence from London, to give me a character that would go a great way towards my being acquitted."

By chance Turpin's former schoolmaster, James Smith, saw the letter and, recognising the handwriting, alerted the authorities to the fact that "John Palmer" and Dick Turpin were one and the same.

Realising that the game was up, Turpin admitted everything and on 22nd March 1739 he was found guilty of horse stealing and sentenced to death.

His last weeks were spent in entertaining the visitors, who paid to see the celebrated highwayman in his prison cell, ordering a fine suit in which to be hanged, and arranging for mourners to attend his burial.

On the way to his execution he "bowed repeatedly and with the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity" to the crowds that had turned out to watch.

Mounting the gallows, he chatted amiably with the hangman until, with the crowd growing impatient, he mounted the ladder and hurled himself off with steadfast determination to ensure a quick end.

So how was this psychopathic, thoroughly unpleasant character, transformed into the glamorous figure of popular legend?

The answer lies in W.Harrison Ainsworth’s immensely popular novel Rookwood, published in 1834. It was Ainsworth’s description of what is now perhaps the most famous part of the Turpin legend, his none stop 230-mile ride from London to York, astride his faithful mount, Black Bess, that caught the public imagination and turned an average historic novel into a national bestseller.

Black Bess was infact a fiction created by Ainsworth, and it was another highwayman, John Nevison (1639-1685), who actually made the record-breaking ride, more than twenty years before Turpin was even born.

But with the success of Rookwood all this was forgotten and, over the next fifty years, Dick Turpin the housebreaker, torturer, murderer, would metamorphose into Dick Turpin "Gentleman of the Road", the Prince of Highwaymen.