Richard (Dick) Turpin (born
September 21, 1705
– executed April
7, 1739) is a
legendary English bandit and the most famous historical
Richard 'Dick' Turpin was born on September 21, 1705, in the Old Post Cottage
of the small village of Hempstead, near the town of
Saffron Walden, in a rural part of
Essex. Folklore tells us that he was a bright and intelligent boy, and he
became best friends with the village postmaster and schoolmaster, James Smith,
who taught Turpin how to ride a horse and how to read and write. Contemporary
records tell us that James Smith was indeed the Hempstead village postmaster and
Turpin's father was a some-time farmer, who also kept The Bell, an inn which
still stands today (although now called The Rose and Crown). Legend has it that
Turpin's father was acquainted with smugglers who worked off the coast of
Anglia, as times were hard and the price of ale had been rising. Although
ales purchased off the smugglers may have been cheaper, it was still highly
illegal to do so. Thus, if true, Dick Turpin may well have been introduced to
criminal activities from an early age.
When he was sixteen, Turpin moved south, and apprenticed to a butcher in the
Whitechapel district of
London - in
those days, only a village on the outskirts of the capital. It was said that
during his apprenticeship, he "conducted himself in a loose and disorderly
manner." Some have argued that perhaps he was simply in the wrong career, or
others that he was simply lazy.
Turpin married his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth Millington at the age of
21, in 1728, and
after he finished his apprenticeship they moved north to
Buckhurst Hill, Essex (on the modern boundary of Northern London). There
Turpin opened his own butcher's shop.
Beginning of criminal activities
Rather than rely on legitimate suppliers for his stock in trade, Turpin
turned to stealing the sheep, lamb and cattle of farmers, which was regarded as
a serious criminal offence in those days; so serious it was punishable by death.
Scholars and historians are divided as to what caused Turpin to delve into such
a serious criminal activity in the first place. Some claim it was out of
financial necessity; whilst others believe, through studying Turpin's later
actions, his notorious deeds were done through a sense of thrill-seeking. Others
believe he was simply too greedy to pay for legitimate stock, and/or too lazy to
earn an honest living, and thus a simple brigand.
The life of a fugitive
Turpin was subsequently discovered in his stealing of cattle when one day he
was caught in the act of stealing two oxen, and was forced to flee the area and
leave his wife and business behind. With customs officers in hot pursuit, Turpin
had the common sense not to stay in a tavern or inn, where he could have been
easily found. Turpin fled into the depths of the Essex countryside to save
himself, lived rough and wild. For a time he lived in caves along the coast of
East Anglia, and supported himself by robbing the smugglers who operated there —
perhaps the same characters he had met earlier in life.
Eventually he moved on again, this time hiding in
Epping Forest (which was larger and far more verdant than it is today, and
often used by royalty to hunt deer).
In with the Gregory Gang
Turpin fell in with the
Gregory Gang (also known as the Essex gang). They were a group of around
twenty bandits, who operated from secret hideouts in Epping Forest (akin to
although not as glamorous or swashbuckling).
The Gregory Gang were notorious around Essex and London. They bravely, or
perhaps foolishly, stole and killed royal game which had been set aside by the
gamekeepers for the King's own hunts (see
If caught doing this, they would surely face the
maybe even face the
Hanging, drawing and quartering method of execution. This is because it was
treason, as poaching the King's own deer was considered as bad as stealing
The three ringleaders of the Gregory Gang were a trio of brothers after whom
the gang was named: Samual, Jasper and Jeremy Gregory. The names of other
gangmembers include Thomas Hadfield, Thomas Barnfield, Thomas Rowden, Mary
Brazier, John Fielder, Herbert Haines, John Jones, James Parkinson, Joseph Rose,
Ned Rust, William Saunders, 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.
The gang was not limited to mere poaching. They attempted an armed robbery at
a gentleman's house at Woodford, Essex, but the inhabitants of the village drove
the rogues off without their being able to accomplish anything. The gang
appeared unphased by this. In March 1735, Turpin, along with the three Gregory
brothers attacked the Earl of Suffolk's servant in Epping Forest and took from
him his horse valued at £80 (this in a time where horses were a more valued
commodity than gold). A few weeks later, Sir Caesar Child was attacked in the
Forest by the gang who fired at the coachman without bidding him to stand, and
shot off the tip of his nose. They robbed him of £25. Allegedly, all these acts
were orchestrated by Turpin, although this is not confirmed.
It is for sure that Turpin learned a lot from the gang.
As Turpin joined them, the Gregory Gang were entering a particularly violent
phase of their criminal career. They had begun to specialise in forced entry
into (usually isolated) houses around the
Counties, and terrorising the occupants to make them reveal the whereabouts
of hidden valuables.
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.
The Loughton incident
Read's Weekly Journal reported one such attack: 'On Saturday night last,
about seven o'clock, five rogues entered the house of Widow Shelley at Loughton
in Essex, having pistols. And threatened to murder the old lady, if she would
not tell them where her money lay, which she obstinately refusing for some time,
they threatened to lay her across the fire, if she did not instantly tell them,
which she would not do. But her son being in the room, and threatened to be
murdered, cried out, he would tell them, if they would not murder his mother,
and did, whereupon they went upstairs, and took near £100, a silver tankard, and
other plate, and all manner of household goods. They afterwards went into the
cellar and drank several bottles of ale and wine, and broiled some meat, ate the
relicts of a filet of veal. While they were doing this, two of their gang went
to Mr Turkles, a farmer, who rents one end of the widow's house, and robbed him
of above £20, and then they all went off, taking two of the farmer's horses, to
carry off their luggage, the horses were found on Sunday the following morning
in Old Street, and stayed about three hours in the house.'
This particular raid took place on
1 February 1735 and widow
Shelly's house was in
Loughton. It was reported the gang had made away with £700, a huge amount of
money in those days. It is the best surviving account of the Gregory Gang's
activities. The Loughton Incident was also their last ever criminal activity as
Although the newspaper report does not specifically mention Turpin, it seems
highly likely that he was a member of the gang on this occasion. Turpin often
carried out his robberies in the company of a man named Thomas Rowden (formally
a metal-worker, now outlawed) and a report at the time states that Rowden was
involved in the robbery at Loughton. A more recent author has written that the
crime was conceived, planned and scouted by Turpin but no evidence is given for
Turpin's joining the gang would prove a bad omen for them.
Shortly after the Loughton incident, constables worked hard to track them
down, and did so not long after. The Gregory Gang were tracked down and
surprised by peace officers whilst the criminals were living up the good life
with their spoils in a tavern in
Westminster. Turpin managed to escape by jumping out of a window, but the
three ringleaders of the gang were not so lucky — they were caught and hanged at
the gallows as common thieves.
Thomas Hadfield, one of Turpin's closest friends within the gang, escaped
with Turpin through the tavern window, but refused to continue with criminal
activity. The other gang members rapidly dispersed also, and didn't bother to
regroup in the forest. They had either had enough, or were too scared of the
hangman. This was the end of the Gregory Gang.
The birth of Dick Turpin the highwayman
Upon the breakup of the Gregory Gang, and the capture and execution of
others, the only gang members left still indulging in criminal behaviour were
Turpin himself and the raucous Thomas Rowden. The duo changed their tactics from
robbing isolated farmhouses to robbing stagecoaches passing through Epping
Forest, which they found to be considerably easier for two men instead of a
gang. At last, Turpin had become what he was destined to become — a highwayman.
Soon they had carried out hundreds of highway robberies on the outskirts of
London, and Turpin got lots of experience of this type of crime. Turpin, being
organised, cunning and cautious, was soon operating by himself.
The ultimate fate of Thomas Rowden is unknown, although it is believed that
his lack of subtlety and discretion led him to get caught and subsequently
Partnership with Tom King
Later Turpin went into partnership with
"the Gentleman Highwayman", who at that time was just as infamous as Turpin
himself, although a less well known highwayman than Turpin today. "Captain
King", as he was sometimes called, was said to have had better manners, and was
said to be more dashing than Turpin, and being flattering to his victims was a
deliberate tactic of his. King was the kind of swashbuckling, devil-may-care
character into which legend would later transform Turpin.
Turpin and King met on the road one night when the former attempted to rob
the latter. King responded with the words: "What is this; dog eat dog?"
The two joined forces and it proved to be a highly successful partnership
(unlike Turpin's previous short-lived partnership with Thomas Rowden). The pair
established a base located amongst some ancient earthworks within Epping Forest,
the remains of an
fort, now known as
Loughton Camp. They also set up another base in an extensive cave system
within in Epping Forest (alas, a housing development has now been built over
From one particular cave in Epping Forest, they could watch a road without
being seen, and robbed virtually anyone who passed along it. Even local peddlers
started to carry weapons for protection. By late 1737, Turpin had achieved such
notoriety that another bounty of £100 was placed on his head - a reward which
was to transform him from a common footpad into a murderer.
Turpin becomes a murderer
Numerous acts of murder are attributed to Dick Turpin, although it is not
clear which ones were actually commited by him and which weren't, due to
centuries of embellishment. There is of course no doubt he did commit homicide,
but the questions are; how many times did he commit murder; who were his
victims; and where did Turpin's murders take place? Historians have debated
these questions for centuries.
Turpin's first kill was surely a man named Thomas Morris, whom he killed on
the 4th of May, in 1735. Morris was a servant of Henry Thomson, one of the
keepers of Epping Forest, and during a routine walkabout of the forest Morris
accidentally came across Turpin at
Fairmead Bottom, near Loughton. Morris tried to apprehend him (there was a
big reward for Turpin's capture at the time) but was immediately shot by Turpin.
Once again Turpin took to his heels, only this time with a far greater crime
on his hands than theft. Despite the high risk of capture, Turpin visited his
estranged wife who was now living in
(after all, he would probably never see her again. He didn't, for the record.)
Turpin was indeed nearly caught and only very narrowly avoided capture at this
Turpin's next exploit was nothing less than bizarre. One night, while on the
road to London (on the way to meet with his friend and fellow highwayman, Tom
King), he took a fancy to a particularly fine and spendid black horse ridden by
a man called Major and forced him to exchange it for his own jaded mount. Mr.
Major didn't really have a choice, seeing as he a musket pointed at his face.
Turpin named his new prize charge 'Black Bess'. Mr. Major didn't take the
loss lying down. His horse was a rare
thoroughbred and one of the finest, quickest and most magnificent beasts in
all the land, so it was said.
The death of the "gentleman highwayman"
A furious Mr. Major issued handbills around the pubs of London, describing
his magnificent black steed and naming Turpin as the thief. The horse was traced
Red Lion pub in
Whitechapel, where Turpin had stabled it. When Tom King came to collect the
horse for his companion, he was recognised and arrested.
Turpin, who had been waiting nearby, rode toward the constables holding King
and fired at them. King broke free, and he joined his friend. By all accounts
the ensuing gun fight was hellish and chaotic. At one point, it appeared as
though the pair of highwaymen were winning the gunfight against the constables.
However, ironically, in a heated moment of extreme panic and confusion, Turpin
shot King — not realising it was him. Shocked at what he had done, and believing
his companion dead, Turpin fled the scene on Black Bess.
It is known that King, as he lay dying from his gunshot wound, informed the
surviving constables of the locations of his hideouts in Epping forest. Exactly
why he did we will never know, and so this is open to interpretation -perhaps he
was not in control of what he was saying due to his mortal injury, or perhaps he
was deliberately trying to trap Turpin so that he would get caught in revenge
for inflicting his injury. Luckily for Turpin, he was wise, intelligent and
savvy enough not to return to the Epping forest hideouts, where constables were
in wait. Turpin's highwayman days were over.
The legendary ride to York
Dick Turpin is probably the most legendary highwayman of time, and his rapid
flight from London to
York is perhaps the most famous part of this legend. Mention the name of
Turpin to most people, and they will tell you he was a daring and dashing rogue
who famously rode this trip of one hundred and fifty miles on his faithful mare,
Black Bess, in less than fifteen hours. In so doing, Turpin actually got to York
before news of his misdemeanors in London.
Various inns that still stand along the
A1 (then the
Great North Road, the main road connecting the north of England to the
south) claim that Turpin ate his lunch there that night, or stopped off there
for a brief respite for his horse.
Harrison Ainsworth, in his famous
immortalised this with a spirited account of this wonderful ride by Dick Turpin
on his mare, and it is in this connection that Turpin's name has been generally
However, historians have frequently argued that Turpin never actually made
this speedy journey, and that, as far as Turpin is concerned, the incident is
pure fiction. They argue that such a ride was really made by
Nevison, known as "Swift
Nick," born and raised at
Sheffield and a well-known highwayman in the time of
Charles II some 50 years before Turpin, who to establish an alibi rode from
Gad's Hill (near
Rochester, Kent) to
York (some 190 miles) in about 15 hours.
Besides, it is well known that Turpin first rode into
Lincolnshire following the Whitechapel skirmish, and that he then
subsequently moved over the
Humber into the
town of Brough
near Hull, before
eventually making his first visit to York.
Life as 'John Palmer'
Turpin took up a new life in the North of England, setting up bases in
where he would be largely, or indeed wholely, unknown. He bought a large set of
barns and stables just outside York with his ill-gotten gains and — going under
the assumed identity 'John Palmer' — posed as a large-scale yet
horse dealer. Outwardly, he was a wealthy and respectable member of the
Turpin didn't know anything about horse breeding, or selling on the horse
market. Accordingly, Turpin was resolved once again to theft. Little did his
customers know that the horses he was selling were actually stolen from other
horse owners in the two very counties he was operating in (mostly acquired
during raiding incursions into Lincolnshire, as he was residing in Yorkshire).
In some cases, Turpin would steal the horses from farms or enclosures or
stables, wait a few months, and then sell them back onto the victim without
their knowing. A risky business, but Turpin got away with it for a while, and
made a small fortune too.
At some point in early
returned to the Green Dragon Inn near York from a hunt, where he was lodging. He
was frustrated due to the fact he was empty-handed, and probably drunk.
He was bound over to keep the peace after he took the fancy to shoot his
landlord's gamecock in the street and then threatened to shoot a bystander who
took exception to the act. 'Palmer' had no money on his person and accordingly
was unable to provide sureties so that he would be released, and was committed
to the House of Correction.
As he was taken into custody, 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 was transferred to the dungeons in
Castle. From his cell, Turpin wrote to the sibling of his estranged wife
(his brother-in-law) who still resided at
in Essex, Turpin's real birthplace. The letter was a plea for help; requesting
his brother-in-law to 'procure an evidence from London that could give me a
character that would go a great way towards my being acquitted' i.e. provide him
with an alibi.
The plan might have worked, but it backfired. Turpin's brother-in-law refused
to pay the sixpence postage demanded, for what (he reckoned) was probably the
18th century equivalent of spam
and as such the letter was not delivered to him. This unpaid sixpence would
prove the price of Turpin's life.
The unread letter then naturally fell into the hands of John Smith, as the
village postmaster (Smith was also the village schoolmaster, whom had taught
Turpin to read and write). Smith recognised the handwriting of his former pupil
immediately and travelled to York to consult with the magistrate and identify
Palmer as Turpin. Smith, his former friend and mentor, collected a £200 reward
for identifying the notorious highwayman to the authorities.
Execution and burial
Ironically, Turpin was never convicted of being a highwayman or a murderer.
He was convicted of being a horse-rustler, something which we may today consider
far less serious. However, unfortunately for Turpin, in those days
horse-rustling was considered a crime so serious it was punishable by death. On
22 March 1739, 'John Palmer
alias Richard Turpin' was convicted at
York assizes of
two indictments of horse-rustling.
Pleas from his father to have the sentence commuted to transportation fell on
deaf ears. His father had been cleared a few days earlier at the Essex assizes
of horse-stealing, one of Turpin's stolen horses having been found at his
Between his sentence and execution, visitors frequented Turpin's cell as
though he were something of a celebrity. He was resolved to meet his death with
dignity and calm. He spent the last of his money, in which 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, being theatrical and bowing to the gawking crowds. At York
(now the racecourse) he climbed the ladder to the gibbet and then sat for half
an hour addressing the crowd in the manner of an entertainer, chatting to the
guards and the executioner.
Thomas Hadfield, once Turpin's friend and a former Gregory Gang member (he had
been pardoned because he had agreed to be the hangman).
An account in the York Courant 7 April 1739 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.
And so, despite the fame of his hanging, Turpin's death was technically a
suicide. He was said to have been buried in St George's churchyard, York.
However a short time after the burial his body was dug up and stolen by
body-snatchers working for anatomists, but it appears to have been subsequently
recovered and reburied in the same place, this time with the addition of
quicklime to destroy the remains rapidly. A headstone in the churchyard
commemorates him, but is not at the precise location, which remains