He was the most famous highwayman in England.
Clad in a thick, black cloak and tricorn hat, we usually picture Dick Turpin as a dandy, romantic hero – a Robin Hood of the 1700s.
But there was nothing romantic about Dick Turpin, who was in fact a ruthless and violent highwayman with a far from heroic history.
Over the centuries, Dick Turpin, who was born in Hempstead in Essex in 1705, became something of a legend. He became a character we associate with the movies, leaping out in front of carriages to rob the rich of their goods at gunpoint.
The reality however, is quite different, as author Stephen Basdeo discovered.
“It’s very much the man and the myth kind of situation,” Stephen said.
“We have got the man himself, whose crimes included not just standard highway robbery but was also involved in attempted rape and was known to abandon his fellows.”
The butchers – a gateway into crime
Dick Turpin’s criminal activity actually began at a butchers – a known gateway into crime at the time.
Stephen explained: “He was originally an apprentice to a butcher and then he struck out on his own and formed his own butchers business in Essex and then moved to London.
“It was actually the butchers trade that got him into the life of crime.
“Butchers were known to be quite a criminal lot, one of the main crimes of the time was poaching and recovering stolen goods or game and that’s where his acquaintance starts with all kinds of criminals.
“He became part of a local Essex gang and people started to suspect how he was selling his meat so cheap.
“Some of the neighbours started snooping on him and saw him collecting stolen meat.
“It isn’t the most romantic tale but as the constables were coming for him he upped sticks and ran away.”
Turpin abandoned his wife and ran away with the Essex gang, also known as the Gregory Gang, robbing and stealing from people along the way.
“They certainly did steal from people around Epping Forest but when he was running with the gang, what we know is he rarely robbed people on the road.
“Contrary to popular myth, they rarely stopped stage coaches. They were pretty cowardly and went for lone travellers.
Stephen added: “Apparently they robbed farm houses, which are easy picking because they are remote – and this is where the most notorious crimes come into it.
“He once robbed a farm house and they poured boiling hot water on one of the maids to make her tell where the money was.
“That’s where the accusation of rape came in too that one of the gang raped one of the maids there as well.”
The pressure was quickly mounting for the constables to nail the Essex gang, who were becoming notorious criminals across the county and beyond.
“He was always a person known to abandon his fellows so as the police finally caught up with him and the gang, instead of helping his fellows, he made off,” Stephen said.
“He then struck out on his own as a highwayman and then travelled up to York and took a new identity as John Palmer.”
For a time, Stephen said it looked as if Turpin, now John Palmer, would stick on the straight and narrow.
He started up a business in the meat trade in York, which started to thrive.
“He even made acquaintance and got friendly with the Mayor of York,” Stephen said. He really ingratiated himself with people.”
Caught for stealing a chicken
Things were going well until Turpin slipped into his old ways.
“Unfortunately it is terribly unromantic, he was caught stealing a chicken from farmers and put in jail,” Stephen said.
Turpin was arrested and placed in York Gaol. It was there that he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law asking for help.
Turpin was still known under the alias of John Palmer until his handwriting was recognised as belonging to the notorious thief.
“He wrote a letter to his estranged brother who recognised the handwriting on front of letter because he had taught Dick Turpin to read and write,” Stephen said.
“He reported him and said that the guy you have in jail he is actually a notorious highwayman.
“So not a very heroic life.”
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One of the reasons why Dick Turpin is so famously depicted as a romantic legend was due to the novel Rookward, by William Harrison Ainsworth which was published in 1834.
The Gothic novel was a big hit of its time and crucially set Turpin in a different light.
Stephen explained: “At the time, a Gothic novel is set in Italy and usually had a very old, crumbling estate in middle of nowhere and something supernatural and a bandit.
“He thought I will use this random person [Turpin] and make him the star of the show.”
It was this novel which has cultivated our usually romanticised image of Turpin today.
After he was discovered as the notorious highwayman he was, Turpin was set to be hanged.
Stephen said accounts at the time suggest that his death was far from the show you would expect to have seen.
“There are a few last dying speeches that Dick Turpin allegedly made when mounting the scaffold,” he said.
“But when dealing with accounts of crimes from 1700s, it’s hard to tell where fiction ends or fact begins as journalists in the 1700s didn’t consider it unethical to make things up.
“Apparently he was quite nervous when he mounted the scaffold.
“You were expect to give a good show and mount the scaffold and cheer to the crowd.
“I think it did probably happen as there were a lot of accounts that his leg was trembling. They record that he jumped off himself rather than waiting.”
The death of Turpin would have been welcomed by most due to how hated highwaymen were.
“Around Essex, you would have known his name,” Stephen said.
“Around York, reports would have filtered up to people who would have heard the man Dick Turpin and it would have been fairly big news that you had a famous highwayman about to be hanged.
“Most people think highwaymen are like Robin Hood and well-loved by people, but that wasn’t the case. People liked seeing them die for what they had done.”
Stephen has written a book on Dick Turpin and other famous highwaymen titled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues and Murderers.