The destination for history

The myth of highwayman Dick Turpin outlives the facts


Georgian highwayman Dick Turpin, like America’s Jessie James or Australia’s Ned Kelly, lives on in our collective imagination more as a myth than as a man. Nearly everything we know about him – or think we know about him – is false. He didn’t make a midnight ride to York, his faithful horse wasn’t named Black Bess, and he certainly wasn’t a Robin Hood-like figure.

Turpin was executed for stealing horses in 1739 at York and he would have been forgotten to history had it not been for Harrison Ainsworth’s popular 1834 novel Rookwood. In it he describes Turpin galloping north in the dark: “His blood spins through his veins; winds round his heart; mounts to his brain. Away! Away! He is wild with joy.” The highwayman character etched in Rookwood, as well as local narratives, poems, and ballads that sprung from it, granted Turpin a notorious posthumous status.

The real life of Dick Turpin is far from the one romanticised in the gothic novel. According to Stephen Wade in Hanged at York:

The basic facts are simple: He was born in 1705 and became an apprentice butcher; he began stealing and then joined a gang in Essex. He went into burglary as well, and when he was with the Gregory Gang in Essex, the outfit began to strike terror into areas of the county. He had started out as a man whose knowledge of butchery made him useful in cattle stealing, and then he progressed to some nasty criminal acts. With Gregory, the leader of the gang, he robbed a farmhouse and poured boiling water over the owner (an old man) and raped a woman there. His image in contemporary terms was rarely glamourised: he was once depicted in a woodcut throwing an old lady onto a fire. His first murder was of a man named Tom Morris, a servant who recognised him as a robber.

Matters stepped up a gear in terms of his infamy and sheer brutality when he joined Tom King, another highway robber; but it seems that Turpin killed his accomplice during a botched robbery. He then fled north. After that, he began to make a living from horse-stealing, and to do this, he stole horses in South Lincolnshire and took them up the Great North Road to sell in East Yorkshire. It was when the Yorkshire connection occurred that he assumed the name of John Palmer.

John Palmer was charged for shooting a chicken in the street and threatening to shoot its owner as well. On 23 February 1737 Palmer was identified as outlaw Dick Turpin at York Castle by his former teacher James Smith. Smith recognised Turpin’s handwriting on a letter sent from his cell to his brother-in-law, Pompr Rivernall, in Hempstead. Smith collected a £200 reward for identifying Palmer as Turpin.

Turpin was feared and reviled while he was alive. The only mourners at his execution on 7 April 1739 were paid ten shillings each by Turpin. He was nearly forgotten after stepping off the hangman’s ladder. Now many years on we are far removed from his evil deeds, and so choose to gloss over them in favour of a more palatable version of historic events – for tourism’s and legend’s sake. Skirting around the historic facts of Turpin’s cruel actions and violent ways, we instead choose to dwell on his outsider personality, romanticise his exploits and admire his rebellious nature.

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books