It is a curious thing, fate. Most people comply with the adage of Master Shakespeare (‘some are born great; some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them’) but then occasionally you get a person who lives a squalid, mean little life, and yet who is immortalised and lionised as a hero while nothing could be further from the truth. An example of the latter person was Dick Turpin. That he lived is not in doubt. That he was ever the derring-do hero who lived a life of passion and swaggering nonchalance is unlikely. That he owned a horse called Black Bess, or rode it from London to York in a day is not only false but a straight lift from the exploits of a much earlier criminal. Why, Turpin was not even a highwayman for most of his life. He was a thief, a sadistic torturer, a murderer and a thoroughly unpleasant guy. So how come he is immortalised as some kind of folk hero?
One suspects that Turpin would be the most amazed of all at the transformation. He had been born in Essex in 1706 the son of a famer John Turpin, who at one time was proprietor of a public house called the Crown Inn. He was apprenticed as a butcher, in Whitechapel, but apparently “conducted himself in a loose and disorderly manner.”
When his apprenticeship finished he reputedly married a local girl called Miss Palmer. He subsequently opened a butcher’s shop in Essex, but gained a reputation for dealing in beef and lamb stolen from local farms, and venison poached from the deer parks and forests of the neighbourhood.
Richard Hall’s version of a deer park.
He also tried his hand at smuggling, but failed miserably. He himself was not averse to a little cattle rustling, being caught in the act of stealing two oxen. He fled the scene and went into hiding and at some stage became a member of the notorious Essex Gang a.k.a. the Gregory Gang.
Their ‘speciality’ was raiding remote farmhouses, often late at night, terrorising the inhabitants before stealing their valuables. He was not averse to torturing his victims to help them remember where they kept their valuables – on one occasion holding his elderly female hostage over the open fire until she revealed the hiding place. On at least one occasion the gang raped a young servant. Hardly the stuff of legend…
According to the Newgate Chronicle ‘they fixed on a spot between the King’s-Oak and the Loughton Road, on Epping Forest, where they made a cave, which was large enough to receive them and their horses. This cave was inclosed within a sort of thicket of bushes and brambles, through which they could look and see passengers on the road, while themselves remained unobserved. From this station they used to issue, and robbed such a number of persons, that at length the very pedlars who travelled the road, carried fire-arms for their defence: and, while they were in this retreat, Turpin’s wife used to supply them with necessaries, and frequently remained in the cave during the night.’
The gang ventured further afield, becoming notorious throughout the Home Counties not least because of their ruthlessness and their willingness to resort to torture. Their offences were regularly reported in the Press and by 1735 the London Evening Post was reporting that the Crown had offered a reward of fifty pounds for the capture of the gang. Two of the gang were caught, but Turpin escaped through a window just as the constables arrived. For a while he lay low in the depths of Epping Forest. Here he met up with Tom King – a far more likely candidate for a person having a reputation as a swash-buckling ne’er-do-well.
The Newgate Calendar is a fascinating publication – albeit one not necessarily too worried about following strict truth. It was a sort of National Enquirer of its day. It started as a monthly bulletin of executions, kept by the Keeper at Newgate Prison, but the name was appropriated by others and became a byword for the sort of chapbook which delighted audiences in the Eighteenth Century, who could not get enough lurid prose listing the heinous exploits of rapists, thieves and murderers, particularly when they got their come-uppance. Who cared that the events described were not always accurate: they were thrilling tales of criminals, and by the middle 1770s it was described as being one of the three books most likely to be found in the average home (the other two being the Bible and Pilgrims Progress).
Meanwhile back in Epping Forest…The exploits of King and Turpin had led to the reward for their capture being increased by one hundred pounds – enough to tempt a gamekeeper in the forest called Thomas Morris to track Turpin down. Turpin was cornered, and shot Morris dead. The murder was reported to the Secretary of State and the Newgate Calendar takes up the story:
“It having been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did, on Wednesday, the 4th of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, servant to Henry Thompson, one of the keepers of Epping Forest, and commit other notorious felonies and robberies, near London, his Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices, and a reward of 200 pounds to any person or persons that shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted. Turpin was born at Thackstead, in Essex, is about thirty, by trade a butcher, about five feet nine inches high, very much marked with the small-pox, his cheek-bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom; his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.”
Shortly after this, Turpin decided that he wanted to get rid of his own nag, and took a fancy to a fine horse belonging to a Mr Major. He stole the new horse at gunpoint (horse-stealing being a hanging offence, ranked as high as murder on the scale of felonies). Mr Major would not take the loss lying down: he had handbills printed and circulated around pubs in the London area; he described the horse and named Turpin as the perpetrator. In fact Turpin had stabled the horse at the Red Lion in Whitechapel, but it was Tom King who came to collect it and who was faced by two constables lying in wait. To follow the Newgate Calendar:
King … drew a pistol (and) attempted to fire it, but it flashed in the pan; he then endeavoured to draw out another pistol, but he could not, as it got entangled in his pocket. At this time Turpin was watching at a small distance and riding towards the spot, King cried out, “Shoot him, or we are taken;” on which Turpin fired, and shot his companion, who called out, “Dick, you have killed me;” which the other hearing, rode off at full speed.
King lived a week after this affair, and gave information that Turpin might be found at a house near Hackney-marsh; and, on inquiry, it was discovered that Turpin had been there on the night that he rode off, lamenting that he had killed King, who was his most faithful associate.”
Turpin fled North and settled near York under the identity of ‘John Palmer’. He continued to rustle cattle in neighbouring Lincolnshire and in 1738 became involved in an incident when he shot a rooster belonging to his landlord. When the landlord (named Mr Hall, but as far as I know no relation) remonstrated with Turpin, our hero replied that if he would give him long enough to reload his gun he would shoot him also. The constables were called, and people started asking questions about how Mr Palmer was able to finance his lifestyle. People had noticed that when he disappeared to Lincolnshire he invariably returned with a different horse and was flush with funds. The magistrates had him locked up on suspicion of horse stealing. And here the tale takes a curious turn. The Newgate Calendar reports:
“After (Turpin) had been about four month in prison, he wrote the following letter to his brother in Essex:
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,
Apparently the brother declined to pay sixpence for the letter, since he knew nobody of the name Palmer in York, and the letter was returned unopened to the local Post Office in Essex. Here fate intervened: the letter was seen by a school-master by the name of Mr Smith. He had taught Turpin and amazingly claimed to reconize the handwriting, and he rushed off to tell the local magistrate. The letter was opened and the true identity of John Palmer was revealed. The Newgate Calendar continues:
“Hereupon the magistrates of Essex dispatched Mr. Smith to York, who immediately selected him from all the other prisoners in the castle. This Mr. Smith, and another gentle man, afterwards proved his identity on his trial.
On the rumour that the noted Turpin was a prisoner in York Castle, persons flocked from all parts of the country to take a view of him, and debates ran very high whether he was the real person or not. Among others who visited him, was a young fellow who pretended to know the famous Turpin, and having regarded him a considerable time with looks of great attention, he told the keeper he would bet him half a guinea that he was not Turpin; on which the prisoner, whispering the keeper, said, ‘Lay him the wager, and I’ll go your halves.’
When this notorious malefactor was brought to trial, he was convicted on two indictments, and received sentence of death.”
Only at this stage did Turpin begin to show the flamboyance and style for which he is now remembered. He reportedly bought himself a new fustian frock and a pair of pumps (so that he could look his best on the way to his execution) and paid ten shillings to each of five men to act as mourners. They accompanied him as he waved gaily to the crowds when he was placed in a cart and wheeled off to York racecourse on 7th April 1739. Or, as the Newgate Calendar put it:
“On the morning of his death he was put into a cart, and being followed by his mourners … he was drawn to the place of execution, in his way to which he bowed to the spectators with an air of the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity.When he came to the fatal tree, he ascended the ladder; when his right leg trembling, he stamped it down with an air of assumed courage, as if he was ashamed of discovering any signs of fear, Having conversed with the executioner about half an hour, he threw himself off the ladder, and expired in a few minutes.”
It wasn’t quite the end for Dick Turpin. He was buried six feet down but that first night body-snatchers exhumed the corpse and absconded with it. It was apparently found the next day in the garden of a local doctor, whereupon it was coated with quick lime and re-interred.
And the fables? They started immediately after his death with the publication of a book entitled ‘Life of Richard Turpin’ but only really gained credence when Harrison Ainsworth published his novel ‘Rockwood’ in 1834. He was the one who introduced Black Bess, and who attributed to Turpin a ride to York which was actually made thirty years before Turpin’s birth, by one John (‘Swift Nick’) Nevison. The tale was told and re-told, becoming more and more embellished in the re-telling, and slowly a charmless, cruel and murderous young man who killed his own partner was turned into ‘dandy highwayman, folk hero of his day’. But whoever said that life was fair?
The papercuts are all made by my ancestor Richard Hall, mostly dating from the 1780s (lots more are to be found in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman).