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Dick Turpin

Dick Turpin riding on Black Bess, from a Victorian era toy theatre.


Dick Turpin riding on Black Bess, from a Victorian era toy theatre.

Richard (Dick) Turpin (born September 21, 1705 executed April 7, 1739) is a legendary English bandit and the most famous historical highwayman.

Early life

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 schoolmaster.

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 East 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 Robin Hood, 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 poaching). If caught doing this, they would surely face the gallows, or maybe even face the Hanging, drawing and quartering method of execution. This is because it was considered high treason, as poaching the King's own deer was considered as bad as stealing the Crown Jewels.

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 Home 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

On 8 February 1735 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 Traps Hill, 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 a gang.

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 this.

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 hanged.

Partnership with Tom King

Later Turpin went into partnership with Tom King, "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 Iron Age 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 it).

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 Hertford (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 point.

Black Bess

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 to the 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 1834 romance Rookwood, 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 remembered.

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 John Nevison, known as "Swift Nick," born and raised at Wortley village near 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 Yorkshire 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 Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, 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 legitimate horse dealer. Outwardly, he was a wealthy and respectable member of the community.

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.

Final capture

At some point in early 1739, 'Palmer' 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 York Castle. From his cell, Turpin wrote to the sibling of his estranged wife (his brother-in-law) who still resided at Hempstead 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 junk mail, 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 alehouse.

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 Knavesmire (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.

Ironically, the hangman was 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 undiscovered.


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