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H I S T O R Y   I N   F O C U S

This article first appeared in British Heritage magazine in the February 1998 issue.

There is something distinctly quirky about the English. They applaud good losers with more relish than ostentatious winners, and celebrate momentous defeats like the charge of the Light Brigade with as much honour as any great victory. So it is hardly surprising that larger-than-life, unsavoury characters capture the popular imagination more than William Pitt the Younger, Charles Darwin, or John and Charles Wesley.

Dick Turpin provides a good example. Most people think of him as a daring highwayman who made a dashing ride from London to York on his faithful mare, Black Bess, in less than 24 hours. But in countless towns along the A1 motorway-still known as the Great North Road-you will come across pubs where Turpin allegedly spent the night, watered his horse, or ate lunch. So much for the non-stop ride!

In the area around Epping Forest, east of London; in Hounslow to the west; Enfield, Finchley, and Watford to the north, you will still find pubs called 'The Black Horse' in honour of Turpin's legendary mount. One Victorian writer recalled being shown a five-bar gate where Black Bess' hoof prints remained clearly visible more than a century after the apocryphal ride.

All of which would be very impressive if accurate, but, unfortunately, the Turpin legend contains not a grain of truth. Only at the very end of his life, while waiting to be hanged at York racecourse, did Turpin exhibit 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.

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.

Turpin's first illegal venture bordered on the mundane. 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. He eventually hit on a criminal business that he could manage. He 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.

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.

This figure doubled in February 1736 after the gang committed one of its more heinous acts. They invaded the house of a wealthy farmer called Francis at Mary-Le-Bone (now Marylebone) and beat his wife and daughter until he surrendered the family's valuables.

Eventually, local constables captured two of the gang. Turpin himself narrowly missed capture by bursting out a window.

Turpin headed back into the familiar East Anglian countryside and lived rough for some time. One day, on the road to Cambridge, he came across a dandified individual, riding a fine horse. On a whim, Turpin drew down on him with his pistol and demanded that he hand over his money. To his surprise the man laughed and, so legend has it, said 'What, dog eat dog? Come, Brother Turpin. If you don't know me, I know you and shall be glad of your company.'

The dandy was '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.

The two criminals teamed up. They holed up in a cave in Epping Forest from which they could watch the road without being seen, and robbed virtually anyone who passed their hiding place. Even local peddlers started to carry weapons for protection.

Although they worked together, the two rogues' characters and styles vastly differed. King, unlike the unscrupulous Turpin, seemed to observe some semblance of a code of honour. Once, while they were close to Bungay, in Suffolk, the robbers came across two young women who had just made 14 from the sale of some livestock at the town market. The gallant King thought them too pretty to rob. Turpin disagreed and relieved them of their hard-earned cash.

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.

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.

Along the way, he rustled horses in Long Sutton in Lincolnshire and was arrested anyway. He escaped into Yorkshire, where he adopted the name John Palmer and lived the life of a landed gentleman, financing his fancy lifestyle with frequent excursions into Lincolnshire for more horse and cattle rustling and the occasional highway robbery.

His demise came about in almost comical fashion. Returning home one evening after a day's hunting with some of the local gentry, he impulsively blasted a particularly fine cock belonging to his landlord, and was subsequently hauled up before the local magistrate to explain his actions.

While he was in custody, local authorities made enquiries as to how exactly 'Mr. Palmer' made his money. Stories began to surface about his frequent excursions into Lincolnshire, from which he always returned with plenty of money and horses. Since he could offer no proof of employment, gainful or otherwise, the focus of the investigation switched to Lincolnshire, where the constables learned of several outstanding complaints made against John Palmer for sheep and horse stealing. 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. Before his execution, Turpin bought himself a new outfit of fustian cloth and a pair of pumps. On the eve of his death, he hired five men for 10 shillings each to act as his mourners. He disposed of his belongings to friends and acquaintances, one of whom was a married woman in Lincolnshire.

On 19th 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. At last, seemingly bored with the proceedings, he stood up and, without help, threw himself off the ladder and was dead in a few minutes. In death, Turpin attained some of the gallantry that had eluded him in life.

Despite the bravery of his demise, the question remains: How did history transform Turpin from a ruffian into such a glamorous character? The answer lies in the pages of the 1834 novel Rookwood by Harrison Ainsworth in which the highwayman 'Dick Turpin' 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.

In reality, Turpin's fictitious great ride was made by 17th-century highwayman John 'Nick' Nevison (or Nevins). Early one morning in 1676, Nevison 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.

He put in an appearance at the bowling green in York at around 8 pm and played a few ends with the Mayor and some other local worthies to establish his alibi before retiring for the night. Rumours of Nevison's epic excursion soon circulated and before long his admiring public had added the sobriquet, 'Swift' to his name in acknowledgement of the daring ride. Even King Charles II commented favourably on Swift Nick's boldness.

All that was forgotten once Rookwood became a 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, sheep and horse-stealer into Dick Turpin, Highwayman and Knight of the Road was complete.