Dick Turpin: 275 years on

PUBLISHED: 12:37 22 April 2014 | UPDATED: 12:37 22 April 2014




This month marks 275 years since Dick Turpin’s reign of terror came to an end. Stephen Roberts investigates the legend of this Essex icon

For those who recall the late-1970s TV-series Dick Turpin, starring Richard O’Sullivan, you could be forgiven for thinking this icon of Essex history was a loveable rogue, a man of integrity forced into crime by the evil of others and even a charmer of ladies.

But the real Dick Turpin (1705-1739) was nothing like this. The most infamous highwayman of the 18th century, Turpin was born at Hempstead in Essex, making his way through life as a cattle-rustler, smuggler, housebreaker, highwayman and horse-thief. Not much integrity there.

The TV series took advantage of the schizophrenia regarding Turpin, by setting its characterisation from 1739, immediately following his execution in York claiming that their hero was the real Turpin and that the evil-doer who had died on York racecourse was an imposter.

The facts are that Turpin, fleeing north, was apprehended, then hanged 275 years ago on April 10, 1739, for murder. Even the famous ride to York atop Black Bess, a horse which probably belonged to Swift John Nevison who, in 1676, is said to have robbed a sailor at Gadshill at 4am, engineering an alibi by riding pell-mell to York by 7.45pm. Nothing in Turpin’s life was that romantic. The connection was reinforced though when writer of historical fiction, Harrison Ainsworth, had Turpin in the saddle and gallant Black Bess expiring in York after the record-breaking ride.

So, what was the truth about Turpin? Born in Essex, he became a member of the violent Gregory Gang, before going his own way when the gang split up, his chosen path being that of a highwayman. He was a murderer too, shooting and killing a man who’d attempted to capture him, causing him to flee to Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, making money selling stolen horses.

Instead of keeping a low-profile, Turpin drew attention, shooting his landlord’s cockerel− perhaps the constant crowing annoyed him. Calling himself John Palmer, his true identity was revealed when a pleading letter sent to his brother was seen by Turpin’s old schoolmaster, who recognised his handwriting. Palmer, or Turpin, was now in York awaiting trial. The schoolmaster attended York and picked out Turpin in an early form of identity parade. The rest we know. The simple grave in York, which describes Turpin as, ‘notorious highwayman and horse stealer’ has both names, confirmation of the split-personality surrounding this enigmatic figure.

And what of Essex? Well, Turpin was the son of John Turpin, a Hempstead farmer, and was apprenticed to a Whitechapel butcher, although even then he was already known as something of a yob. He married a young girl of East Ham named Palmer (hence John Palmer), but this didn’t settle him down, for he was soon stealing cattle, which he killed and cut up for profit. Mr Giles of Plaistow found himself deficient by two oxen, their hides being tracked to Waltham Abbey where Turpin was seeking to flog them. Turpin, pursued by the authorities, made his escape, leaping through the back window of his house, as a Georgian hitsquad forced its way in at the front.

Turpin’s next scheme saw him join a gang of Essex smugglers, with whom he was successful until customs officers caught up with him. Next up was deer theft around Epping Forest, but as this was insufficiently lucrative, Turpin moved to housebreaking. One raid at Loughton saw Turpin and company place an elderly lady on a fire until she revealed her hidden valuables. The violent methods were becoming increasingly ruthless and another successful raid followed on a farmer’s house in Barking.

Turpin missed one lucrative raid on the house of an Epping Forest keeper, being inebriated, yet still received his share of the spoils. The gang attacked far and wide. Not only Essex fell victim to the gang, but also Kent, Surrey and Middlesex. It was in the latter county that a maidservant was raped by one of the gang, resulting in a £50 reward being offered for the apprehension of the offenders.

Turpin was described as 5’ 9”, broad-shouldered, but with a face marked by smallpox. Two of the gang were captured and executed, resulting in the scattering of the remnant. Turpin’s descent into highway robbery began, it is alleged, when he tried to hold up Tom King, not realising that he was a practiced highwayman himself. The two men were soon in cahoots. Their base became a cave in Epping Forest, large enough for men and horses. Turpin became a murderer when he resisted an attempt to arrest him by a servant of an Epping Forest keeper, shooting him dead. Turpin allegedly also did for associate King, accidentally shooting him during an attempt to capture the men in the fallout from a botched horse robbery.

Fact and fiction diverge then as Ainsworth’s Turpin gallops romantically off to York in one night, whereas the real Turpin took a year or so to get there. For this son of Essex, the outcome was still the same. n

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