Dick Turpin

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A 19th century illustration of Dick Turpin

Richard (Dick) Turpin (1705 - April 7, 1739), English robber and highwayman, was born in 1705 at Hempstead, near Saffron Walden, Essex, where his father kept The Bell, an inn which still stands today, renamed The Crown. He was taught to read and write by local schoolmaster James Smith.

Turpin was apprenticed to a butcher and at the age of 21 he married Elizabeth Millington and opened his own butcher's shop in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. However, rather than rely on legitimate suppliers for his stock in trade, Turpin turned to cattle stealing, was subsequently discovered and forced to flee the area. For a while he supported himself by robbing smugglers on the coast of East Anglia but when things became too hot for him he fled once again, this time to Epping Forest where he fell in with the Gregory Gang, a notorious gang of deer-stealers and housebreakers. This gang specialised in forcing entry to isolated houses and terrorising the occupants to make them reveal the whereabouts of hidden valuables.

On 8 February 1735 Read's Weekly Journal reported one such attack: "On Saturday night last, about seven o'clock, five rogues entered the house of the Widow Shelly at Loughton in Essex, having pistols etc., and threatened to murder the old lady if she would not tell them where her money lay, which she obstinately refusing for some time, they threatened to lay her across the fire if she did not instantly tell them , which she would not do...But her son being in the room, and threatened to be murdered, cried out he would tell them...and did".

The Gregory Gang were surprised by peace officers in a tavern in Westminster. Turpin escaped by jumping out of a window but three of the gang were caught and hanged. The others dispersed. Upon the breakup of the gang Turpin turned to highway robbery in company with Thomas Rowden, a pewterer and also a former member of the Gregory Gang, carrying out a large number of robberies on the outskirts of London. Later Turpin went into partnership with Matthew King and the pair established a base in a cave in Epping Forest, located amongst the ancient earthworks now known as 'Loughton Camp'. The cave was discovered by one of the keepers of the forest who attempted to apprehend Turpin - and was shot dead on the spot.

Turpin and King took to their heels. Turpin was almost captured when he met with his wife in Hertford and in Whitechapel the pair were involved in a shoot-out over a stolen horse that resulted in Turpin accidentally killing his comrade.

To avoid arrest Turpin finally left Essex for Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where he set up under an assumed name - 'John Palmer' - as a horse dealer.

In 1739 'Palmer' was bound over to keep the peace after he took the fancy to shoot his landlord's gamecock in the street and then threatened to shoot a bystander who took exception to the act. 'Palmer' was unable to provide sureties so that he would be released and was committed to the House of Correction.

From his cell 'Palmer' wrote to his brother in law at Hempstead for help but his brother in law refused to pay the sixpence postage demanded and the letter fell into the hands of John Smith, the schoolmaster who had taught Turpin to read and write. Smith recognised the handwriting and traveled to York to identify Palmer as Turpin.

On 22 March 1739 'John Palmer alias Richard Turpin' was convicted at York assizes of horse-stealing and hanged at the Knavesmire on April 7, 1739. The hangman was Thomas Hadfield, a pardoned highwayman. His father was cleared a few days earlier at the Essex assizes of horse-stealing, one of Turpin's stolen horses having been found at his alehouse. Turpin was said to have been buried, after securing his body from anatomists, in St George's churchyard, York.

Harrison Ainsworth, in his romance Rookwood, gives a spirited account of a wonderful ride by Dick Turpin on his mare, Black Bess, from London to York, and it is in this connection that Turpin's name has been generally remembered. But as far as Turpin is concerned the incident is pure fiction. A somewhat similar story was told about a certain John Nevison, known as "Swift Nicks," a well-known highwayman in the time of Charles II, who to establish an alibi rode from Gad's Hill (near Rochester, Kent) to York (some 190 miles) in about 15 hours. Both stories are possibly only different versions of an old north road myth.

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