Prince of Highwaymen or Brutish Thug?

The Real Dick Turpin

On the 7th April 1739, travellers throughout England slept soundly in their beds safe in the knowledge that the most notorious of highwaymen, Dick Turpin, was hanged today in York. Despite being notorious, almost everything we think we know about him is false.

Born in Hempstead, Essex, Turpin first turned his hand to crime when he was a butcher at Waltham Abbey, supplementing his income by cattle stealing. After being detected, he fled into rural Essex, where he earned a living from robbing smugglers on the East Anglia Coast posing as a Revenue Officer. After a while, he fled again, this time to Epping Forest.

It was here he upped his crimes to burgling houses on outskirts of London. He joined the ‘Gregory Gang’ and their methods were brutal and merciless. During one burglary, it is said Turpin held the landlady of an inn over her fire until she revealed the whereabouts of her savings. With rewards on their heads, three of the gang were eventually caught and hanged, causing the others to disperse.

This is when Turpin turned his hand to the career that would bring him notoriety – highway robbery. One day on the London to Cambridge Road, he spotted a well-dressed individual riding a fine horse, and demanded they “stand and deliver!”. This was met with raucous laughter, as he had unintentionally challenged the infamous Tom King, known as the ‘Gentleman Highwayman’ due to his liking of expensive clothes and fine horses.

The two became partners in crime and would rob as many travellers as they could. As their infamy increased, so did Turpin’s arrogance. In 1737, he held up a man named Mr Major, and robbed him of his horse named ‘White Stocking’ due to its distinctive feet. This meant the horse was instantly recognisable and was quickly spotted at an Inn in Whitechapel.

When the local constable surprised Turpin and King, there was an exchange of gunfire and King was wounded. Turpin made his own escape and four days later shot dead a servant of an inn keeper when he attempted to arrest him. Eventually, he settled in the Yorkshire village of Brough, where he set up as a cattle and horse dealer, calling himself John Palmer.

One day in October 1738, drunkenly returning from a shooting trip, Turpin impulsively shot one of his landlord’s game-cocks and threatened to shoot one of his companions too.After being committed first to Beverley Gaol and then to York Castle Prison, he made the fatal error of writing to his brother-in-law asking 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’ was actually Dick Turpin. On the 22nd March 1739 he was found guilty of horse stealing and sentenced to death. His last weeks were spent entertaining visitors who paid to see him in his prison cell.

On the way to his execution, it is reported that he “bowed repeatedly and with the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity” to the crowds. Mounting the gallows, he chatted good-naturedly with the hangman until he mounted the ladder and hurled himself off with determination to ensure a quick end.

So, how was such a brute glamourised into a figure of legend? The answer lies in W. Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood, published in 1834. It was Ainsworth who painted a picture of Turpin’s none stop 230-mile ride from London to York, astride his faithful mount, Black Bess.

Black Bess was completely made up by Ainsworth, and it was a different highwayman, John Nevison (1639-1685), who actually made the record-breaking ride, more than twenty years before Turpin was even born. Despite this, the success of Rookwood meant his crimes were forgotten and Dick Turpin the ruthless murderer would become Dick Turpin the misunderstood Prince of Highwaymen.