Dick Turpin (1705-1739) is perhaps the most famous highwayman in English history after Robin Hood (fl. 12th-13th centuries). He is remembered today as a heavily romanticised noble, gallant figure, having allegedly rode his horse from London to York in one day upon his trusty horse, Black Bess, the real Dick Turpin, as you would expect, was a wholly different man. This post gives a brief overview of his life and the legend which grew around him.
Dick Turpin was born in East Ham, in Essex, and received quite a good education, learning how to read and write. It was this good education which, as we will see, proved to be his ultimate downfall. At a young age he was apprenticed to a butcher, and having learnt a trade, established his own business after completing his term as an apprentice. It was when he set up his own business that he began to act as a receiver of stolen livestock for a gang of poachers called the Essex Gang. Although the exact details of Turpin’s involvement with the Essex Gang are unclear, it seems he became ever more deeply involved with them, and some historians have implicated him in the robbery of William Mason’s house – a farmer who lived in Essex – during which his daughters were raped.
In time, most of the members of the Essex Gang had been captured and executed, or sent for Transportation. It was after this, in 1735, that he turned to crime. He spent a brief career upon the road with two other highwaymen called Matthew King and Stephen Potter, and with them he committed several robberies, and, it is rumoured, even a murder.
King died, and Potter was later arrested, and so Turpin fled north (but not, as the legend would have you believe, in one day). Arriving in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he posed for a time as a horse trader under the assumed name of John Palmer. However, it is almost as though he could not help himself but engage in criminal activities; despite having a fresh start, he got caught stealing chickens from a farm, was arrested and placed in York Gaol. Whilst in Gaol, he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law in Hempstead asking for assistance. His brother-in-law did not collect the letter, and the letter remained at the post office, and the handwriting on the envelope and the letter was recognised as being none other than that of the wanted highwayman, Dick Turpin.
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven’s sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,
Turpin was sentenced to death at York Tyburn, but he apparently gave a good show to spectators in his last few moments, bowing to them in the cart as he passed by. When he climbed the scaffold the York Courant reported that: ‘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’.
It is only later that legends began to build up around him, and the construction of the legend, and its longevity, is surprising. In his own time, not much was written about him. He had a couple of entries in various editions of The Newgate Calendar, and none of those seem to have portrayed him in a good light. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the real criminal heroes were highwaymen like Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard, and James MacLean.
It was only in the next century when a novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) that Turpin’s legend really took off. Ainsworth wrote the novel Rookwood (1834). It was in this novel that the conventions of gothic romance and criminal biography converged; Ainsworth’s preface explained that he:
Resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe [who wrote the Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho]…substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle and brigand.
The novel begins with the death of Sir Piers Rookwood who has two sons. The firstborn, Luke, is supposedly illegitimate and has no right to the estate. The other son, and hitherto legitimate, heir is Ranulph Rookwood. It is revealed that Luke is actually legitimate by way of a clandestine first marriage of Sir Piers and a Catholic woman and stands to inherit the Rookwood estate. The novel becomes a battle between the two brothers and their respective families to inherit the estate. Moving the plot forward is a jovial character that goes by the name of Jack Palmer, who is Luke’s friend, and it turns out that this character is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin.
In this novel Turpin is a true gentleman; a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome, in contrast to the real Turpin, whom, says Gillian Spraggs, was a ‘pock-marked thug’. In fact, one of the reasons why the reading public may have warmed to Turpin in this novel is because throughout the whole novel, we never actually see Turpin robbing anybody at all. Instead the members of the aristocratic Rookwood are the real criminals because they continue their murderous ways until they each fall victim to their own schemes.
Ainsworth’s novel, moreover, was an exciting scene, and Turpin gets all of the best scenes, such as the now infamous ride from London to York in one day upon his loyal horse, Black Bess:
It was then, for the first time, that the thoughts of executing his extraordinary ride to York flashed across him…his pursuers were now within a hundred yards, and shouted him to stand…the whole of the neighbourhood was alarmed by the cries, and the tramp of horses…suddenly three horsemen appear in the road; they hear the uproar and din. “A highwayman! A highwayman” cry the voices: “Stop him! Stop him!” But it is no such easy matter. With a pistol in each hand, and his bridle in his teeth, Turpin passed boldly on. His fierce looks – his furious steed – the impetus with which he pressed forward, bore down all around him.
The ride to York is simply a legend, and was attributed to at least two other highwaymen before it settled upon Turpin; Daniel Defoe in A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1727-1727) attributes the feat to the highwayman William Nevison.
Ainsworth led readers to believe that the mounted highway robber was a special figure. A song which Ainsworth wrote and inserts into the novel entitled Nobody Can Deny celebrates the exploits of historical highwaymen, and ends with Turpin:
Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny…
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.
The placing of Turpin at the end of this list of illustrious highwaymen is significant; towards the end of the novel, Ainsworth calls Turpin the Great Highwayman:
Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.
After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin began to appear frequently on broadside ballads such as The Life and Death of Dick Turpin (c.1838), My Bonny Black Bess (c.1838), O Rare Turpin (c.1844), The Death of Black Bess (printed after c.1850), One Foot in the Stirrrup (c.1850), Poor Black Bess (c.1860).
It seems, however, that Ainsworth’s novel was the only foray into ‘high’ culture that the Turpin would make. After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin appears in penny dreadfuls such as Henry Downs Miles’ The Life and Death of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin (1845). He also appears in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1863-1866), as well as the mammoth 254-part penny serial Black Bess, or, the Knight of the Road (1867-1868). He is also the subject of a number of comics in the early 1930s such as The Dick Turpin Library. Most of these penny serials were denounced as pernicious trash by commentators in the press, and indeed their literary quality is low compared to Ainsworth’s novel.
It appears in the twentieth century, however, that his popularity has died down a little. He has been the subject of the eponymous TV series Dick Turpin which ran for a few season back in the late 1970s, but has not featured in a major way on television or on film. His name survives in the adage (peculiar, as far as I can ascertain, to Yorkshire) “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask”, which is used to express astonishment at the high cost of goods when buying something. Although York city centre makes much of Turpin’s legend to attract tourism (you can visit the cell where he was held at York Castle Museum), and they do have a grave there which is said to be that of Turpin’s, it seems that there is really only one criminal who bears a special place in the hearts and minds of English people: Robin Hood.