Richard ‘Dick’ Turpin was an early Georgian era highwayman whose life and legend fused to create an enthralling myth.
A remorseless and occasionally brutal criminal, Turpin was subsequently romanticised through literature and film into a dashing, heroic Robin Hood type.
He terrorised the public in life and captivated them after death. Here are 10 facts to demystify Dick Turpin, one of Britain’s most infamous criminals.
1. The man and the myth are entirely different
False perceptions about Dick Turpin can be traced to William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834 novel Rockwood. Ainsworth casts Turpin as a dashing highwayman gallantly outwitting corrupt authorities, performing robberies in a gentlemanly, almost honourable fashion. None of this was true.
Turpin was a selfish, violent career criminal who preyed on innocent people and struck fear into entire communities. One of Harrison’s most repeated claims, that Turpin once rode 150 miles from London to York in one night on his trusted horse Black Bess, was also a fabrication but the myth endured.
2. Turpin began his career as a butcher
Turpin was born in Hempstead, Essex, in 1705. His father’s job as a butcher offered him early direction in his career but also a route into crime. In the early 1730s, Turpin began purchasing venison poached from Epping Forest by criminals known as the Essex Gang.
He then began poaching himself alongside them. Soon the police offered a reward of £50 (equivalent to about £11,500 in 2021) for information leading to their arrest. However, this merely pushed the group towards more violent crimes such as robberies, assaults and murder.
3. He did not discriminate between rich and poor
Turpin is often depicted as a Robin Hood figure stealing from the wealthy, a hero to the downtrodden. This was simply not the case. Turpin and his gangs raided rich and poor alike as the shocking Earlsbury Farm robbery of 4 February 1735 makes clear.
Elderly Joseph Lawrence was bound, dragged, pistol-whipped, beaten and forced to sit on a lit fire. Lawrence’s servant Dorothy was also raped by one of Turpin’s associates.
4. Turpin committed a series of robberies in 1735
Turpin’s career as a highwayman began with a series of robberies between Epping Forest and Mile End starting on 10 April 1735. Further robberies at Barnes Common, Putney, Kingston Hill, Hounslow and Wandsworth followed in quick succession.
Following the robberies, Turpin and former Essex Gang member Thomas Rowden were reportedly spotted between 9-11 October 1735. A new £100 reward (comparable to roughly £23,000 in 2021) was offered for their capture and when it failed, residents raised their own reward. This also failed but the increased notoriety likely contributed to Turpin going into hiding.
5. Turpin may have hidden in the Netherlands
Between the October 1735 sightings and February 1737, nothing is known of Turpin’s movements and activities. Several contemporary press reports suggested he’d been spotted in the Netherlands but this may have been a consequence of his considerable fame.
Turpin was known to have a hideout in a cave in Epping Forest but gamekeepers in the area were aware of this. Nevertheless, in February 1737, he was back robbing people at gunpoint, first in Hertfordshire then Leicestershire and London with new accomplices Matthew King and Stephen Potter.
6. Turpin murdered a gamekeeper’s servant and changed his identity
An altercation at Leytonstone’s Green Man pub led to the fatal shooting of Turpin’s abettor Matthew King, possibly inadvertently by Turpin himself. The aftermath of the shooting changed the course of Turpin’s life irrevocably.
Having escaped to his Epping Forest hideout, Turpin was spotted by Thomas Morris, a gamekeeper’s servant. Morris confronted him alone and was duly shot and killed. Though Turpin continued with a spate of robberies, he soon went into hiding again, emerging not as Dick Turpin but with the false identity of John Palmer. A new £200 reward (roughly worth £46,000 in 2021) was offered for his capture.
7. Turpin’s downfall began with the murder of a chicken
Having adopted the identity of John Palmer and posing as a horse trader in Yorkshire, Turpin instigated his own demise by murdering hunting associate John Robinson’s game-cock on 2 October 1738. When Robinson angrily responded, Turpin threatened to also kill him which brought the incident to the attention of 3 local justices.
Turpin refused to pay the surety demanded and so was committed to the House of Correction at Beverley, a state of imprisonment from which he was never freed.
8. Turpin was caught out by his handwriting
Awaiting trial in York, Turpin wrote to brother-in-law, Pompr Rivernall, in Hampstead. The letter revealed Turpin’s true identity and pled for false character references for John Palmer. Either reluctant to pay the charge for York postage or to associate himself with Turpin, Rivernall refused the letter which was then moved to the Saffron Walden post office.
There, James Smith, a former teacher who incredibly had taught Turpin to write at school, recognised the handwriting immediately. After alerting the authorities and travelling to York Castle to identify Turpin, Smith collected a £200 reward offered by the Duke of Newcastle.
9. The charges against Turpin were technically invalid
Turpin was charged with stealing 3 horses from Thomas Creasy. While there is no doubt Turpin deserved retribution for his extensive crimes, the actual charges brought against him at his trial were invalid.
The charge sheet stated Turpin stole 3 horses in Welton on 1 March 1739. By all accounts, he did commit this crime, but it actually occurred in Heckington in August 1738, rendering the charges invalid.
10. Turpin’s body was stolen after he was hanged
Having been sentenced to death for stealing horses, Turpin was hanged at Knavesmire racetrack. Yet more ironically, Turpin’s hangman, Thomas Hadfield, was a former highwayman. On 7 April 1739, aged 33, Turpin’s life of crime came to an end.
After he was hanged, his body was interred at St George’s Church in York where it was quickly stolen by body-snatchers. This was not uncommon at the time and was occasionally permitted for medical research however it was unpopular with the public. The body-snatchers were soon apprehended and Turpin’s body reburied at St Georges with quicklime.