Richard (Dick) Turpin
(born September 21, 1705 in Hempstead, Essex died
April 7, 1739 in York) is a legendary English rogue and the most famous
historical highwayman. In life Richard Turpin was a violent man who
progressively went from deer stealing, to burglary, to highway robbery, and even
murder, for which he was executed in York. After his death, as Dick Turpin, he
became the subject of legend, romanticised in English ballads and popular
theatre of the 18th and 19th century, and later in film and television of the
20th century, as the dashing and heroic highwayman. There is considerable
divergence between the history and legend of Turpin.
Turpin's birth is typical of how the legend of Turpin and his actual life
diverge. In the legend of Dick Turpin it is said that he was born at the
Spaniards Inn near Hampstead (parish of Finchley), and that he was a bright and
intelligent boy who was taught by the village postmaster and schoolmaster, James
Smith, to ride a horse and read and write. But parish records and notes made
during Turpin's trial relate that he was baptised 21 September 1705 in Essex
having been born at the Blue Bell inn Hempstead (sometime since the Rose and
Crown) where his father was the licensee. (see Oxford Dictionary of National
Dick Turpin riding on Black Bess, from a Victorian era toy
Legend has it that Turpin's father was acquainted with smugglers who worked
off the coast of East Anglia, as times were hard and the price of ale had been
rising. Although ales purchased from the smugglers may have been cheaper, their
trade was illegal. Thus Dick Turpin may well have been introduced to criminal
activities from an early age.
When he was sixteen, Turpin moved south, and was apprenticed to a butcher in
the Whitechapel district of London in those days, only a village on the
outskirts of the capital. It was said that during his apprenticeship, he
"conducted himself in a loose and disorderly manner." Some have argued that
perhaps he was simply in the wrong career, or others that he was simply lazy.
Turpin married his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth Millington in 1728 (at the
age of 21, by other accounts), and after he finished his apprenticeship they
moved north to Buckhurst Hill, Essex (on the modern boundary of Northern
London). There Turpin opened his own butcher's shop.
Beginning of criminal activities
Comment "it is very useful for our topic on the highwaymen"
Rather than rely on legitimate suppliers for his stock-in-trade, Turpin
turned to stealing the sheep, lamb and cattle, which was so serious a criminal
offence it was punishable by death. Scholars and historians are divided as to
what caused Turpin to engage in crime in the first place. Some claim it was out
of financial necessity; whilst others believe, through studying Turpin's later
actions, that his notorious deeds were done through a sense of thrill-seeking.
Others believe he was simply too greedy to pay for legitimate stock, and/or too
lazy to earn an honest living, and thus a simple brigand.
The life of a fugitive
Turpin was caught stealing two oxen, and was forced to flee the area and
leave his wife and business behind. With customs officers in hot pursuit, Turpin
had the common sense not to stay in a tavern or inn, where he could have been
found easily. Turpin fled into the depths of the Essex countryside and lived
rough and wild. For a time he lived in caves along the coast of East Anglia, and
supported himself by robbing the smugglers who operated there perhaps the same
characters he had met earlier in life.
Eventually he moved on again, this time hiding in Epping Forest (which was
larger and far more verdant than it is today, and often used by royalty to hunt
In with the Gregory Gang
Turpin fell in with the Gregory Gang (also known as the Essex gang). They
were a group of around twenty bandits, who operated from secret hideouts in
The Gregory Gang were notorious around Essex and London. They bravely, or
perhaps foolishly, stole and killed royal game which had been set aside by the
gamekeepers for the King's own hunts (see poaching). If caught doing this, they
would surely face the gallows, or maybe even face the Hanging, drawing and
quartering method of execution. This is because it was considered high treason,
as poaching the King's own deer was considered as bad as stealing the Crown
The three ringleaders of the Gregory Gang were brothers after whom the gang
was named: Samuel, Jasper and Jeremy Gregory. The other gang members include
Thomas Hadfield, Thomas Barnfield, Thomas Rowden, Mary Brazier, John Fielder,
Herbert Haines, John Jones, James Parkinson, Joseph Rose, Ned Rust, William
Saunders, Humphry Walker, and John Wheeler. There may have been other members
who were either not identified or who were only occasional associates of the
The gang was not limited to mere poaching. They attempted an armed robbery at
a gentleman's house at Woodford, Essex, but the inhabitants of the village drove
the rogues off without their being able to accomplish anything. The gang
appeared unfazed by this. In March 1735, Turpin, along with the Gregory brothers
attacked the Earl of Suffolk's servant in Epping Forest and took from him his
horse valued at £80 (this in a time where horses were a more valued commodity
than gold). A few weeks later, Sir Caesar Child was attacked in the Forest by
the gang who fired at the coachman without bidding him to stand, and shot off
the tip of his nose. They robbed him of £25. Allegedly, all these acts were
orchestrated by Turpin, although this is not confirmed.
It is certain that Turpin learned a lot from the gang.
As Turpin joined them, the Gregory Gang were entering a particularly violent
phase of their criminal career. They had begun to specialise in forced entry
into (usually isolated) houses around the Home Counties, and terrorising the
occupants to make them reveal the whereabouts of hidden valuables.
By 1735, the London Evening Post regularly reported the exploits of Turpin
and 'The Essex Gang' and the King had offered a reward of £50 for their capture.
The Loughton incident
During a soccer match between Scottish clubs Motherwell and Kilmarnock on 25th August 2007, Kilmarnock's Rhian Dodds scored a winning goal in the 90th minute. The stadium announcer, believing the win to be undeserved, credited the goal to 'Dick Turpin'
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 Widow
Shelley at Loughton in Essex, having pistols. 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, if they would not
murder his mother, and did, whereupon they went upstairs, and took near £100, a
silver tankard, and other plate, and all manner of household goods. They
afterwards went into the cellar and drank several bottles of ale and wine, and
broiled some meat, ate the relicts of a filet of veal. While they were doing
this, two of their gang went to Mr Turkles, a farmer, who rents one end of the
widow's house, and robbed him of above £20, and then they all went off, taking
two of the farmer's horses, to carry off their luggage, the horses were found on
Sunday the following morning in Old Street, and stayed about three hours in the
This particular raid took place on 1 February 1735 and widow Shelly's house
was in Traps Hill, Loughton. It was reported the gang had made away with £700, a
huge amount of money in those days. It is the best surviving account of the
Gregory Gang's activities. The Loughton Incident was also their last ever
criminal activity as a gang.
Although the newspaper report does not specifically mention Turpin, it seems
highly likely that he was a member of the gang on this occasion. Turpin often
carried out his robberies in the company of a man named Thomas Rowden (formerly
a metal-worker, now outlawed) and a report at the time states that Rowden was
involved in the robbery at Loughton. A more recent author has written that the
crime was conceived, planned and scouted by Turpin but no evidence is given for
Turpin's joining the gang would prove a bad omen for them.
Shortly after the Loughton incident, constables worked hard to track them
down, and did so not long after. The Gregory Gang were tracked down and
surprised by police officers whilst the criminals were living up the good life
with their spoils in a tavern in Westminster. Turpin managed to escape by
jumping out of a window, but the three ringleaders of the gang were not so lucky
they were caught and hanged at the gallows as common thieves.
Thomas Hadfield, one of Turpin's closest friends within the gang, escaped
with Turpin through the tavern window, but refused to continue with criminal
activity. The other gang members rapidly dispersed also, and didn't bother to
regroup in the forest. They had either had enough, or were too scared of the
hangman. This was the end of the Gregory Gang.
The birth of Dick Turpin the highwayman
Upon the breakup of the Gregory Gang, and the capture and execution of
others, the only gang members left still indulging in criminal behaviour were
Turpin himself and the raucous Thomas Rowden. The duo changed their tactics from
robbing isolated farmhouses to robbing stagecoaches passing through Epping
Forest, which they found to be considerably easier for two men instead of a
gang. At last, Turpin had become what he was destined to become a highwayman.
Soon they had carried out hundreds of highway robberies on the outskirts of
London, and Turpin got lots of experience of this type of crime. Turpin, being
organised, cunning and cautious, was soon operating by himself.
The ultimate fate of Thomas Rowden is unknown, although it is believed that
his lack of subtlety and discretion led him to get caught and subsequently
hanged, but not before he put a curse on his name stating that any child named
Thomas within his family would subsequently die.
Partnership with Tom King
Later Turpin went into partnership with Tom King, "the Gentleman Highwayman",
who at that time was just as famous as Turpin himself, although a less well
known highwayman than Turpin today. "Captain King", as he was sometimes called,
was said to have had better manners, and was said to be more dashing than
Turpin, and being flattering to his victims was a deliberate tactic of his. King
was the kind of swashbuckling, devil-may-care character into which legend would
later transform Turpin.
Turpin and King met on the road one night when the former attempted to rob
the latter. King responded with the words: "What is this; dog eat dog?"
The two joined forces and it proved to be a highly successful partnership
(unlike Turpin's previous short-lived partnership with Thomas Rowden). The pair
established a hide-out at the remains of an Iron Age fort, now known as Loughton
From one particular cave in Epping Forest, they could watch a road without
being seen, and robbed virtually anyone who passed along it. Even local peddlers
started to carry weapons for protection. By late 1737, Turpin had achieved such
notoriety that another bounty of £100 was placed on his head - a reward which
was to transform him from a common footpad into a murderer.
Turpin becomes a murderer
Numerous acts of murder are attributed to Dick Turpin, although it is not
clear which ones were actually committed by him and which weren't, due to
centuries of embellishment. There is of course no doubt he did commit murder,
but the questions are; how many times did he commit murder; who were his
victims; and where did Turpin's murders take place? Historians have debated
these questions for centuries.
Turpin's first kill was probably a man named Thomas Morris
whom he killed on 4 May 1735. Morris was a servant of Henry Thomson, one of the
keepers of Epping Forest, and during a routine walkabout of the forest Morris
accidentally came across Turpin at Fairmead Bottom, near Loughton. Morris tried
to apprehend him (there was a big reward for Turpin's capture at the time) but
was immediately shot by Turpin.
Once again Turpin took to his heels, only this time with a far greater crime
on his hands than theft. Despite the high risk of capture, Turpin visited his
estranged wife who was now living in Hertford, possibly suspecting (accurately,
as it turned out) that he would never see her again. Turpin was indeed nearly
caught and only very narrowly avoided capture at this point.
Turpin's next exploit was nothing less than bizarre. One night, while on the
road to London (on the way to meet with King), he took a fancy to a particularly
fine and splendid black horse ridden by a man called Major and forced him to
exchange it for his own jaded mount. Mr. Major didn't really have a choice, as
he had a musket pointed at him.
Turpin named his new pride 'Black Bess'. Mr. Major didn't take the loss lying
down. His horse was a rare thoroughbred and one of the finest, quickest and most
magnificent beasts in all the land. Dick Turpin had now a very fine horse and a
The death of the "gentleman highwayman"
A furious Mr. Major issued handbills around the pubs of London, describing
his magnificent black steed and naming Turpin as the thief. The horse was traced
to the Red Lion pub in Whitechapel, where Turpin had stabled it. When Tom King
came to collect the horse for his companion, he was recognised and arrested.
Turpin, who had been waiting nearby, rode toward the constables holding King
and fired at them. King broke free, and he joined his friend. By all accounts
the ensuing gun fight was hellish and chaotic. At one point, it appeared as
though the pair of highwaymen were winning the gunfight against the constables.
However, ironically, in a heated moment of extreme panic and confusion, Turpin
shot King not realising it was him. Shocked at what he had done, and believing
his companion dead, Turpin fled the scene on Black Bess.
It is known that King, as he lay dying from his gunshot wound, informed the
surviving constables of the locations of his hideouts in Epping forest. Exactly
why he did we will never know, and so this is open to interpretation perhaps
he was not in control of what he was saying due to his mortal injury, or perhaps
he was deliberately trying to trap Turpin so that he would get caught in revenge
for inflicting his injury. Luckily for Turpin, he was wise, intelligent and
savvy enough not to return to the Epping forest hideouts, where constables were
in wait. Turpin's highwayman days were over.
The legendary ride to York
Dick Turpin is probably the most legendary highwayman of all time, and his
rapid flight from London to York is perhaps the most famous part of this legend.
Mention the name of Turpin to most people, and they will tell you he was a
daring and dashing rogue who famously rode this trip of two hundred miles on his
faithful mare, Black Bess, in less than fifteen hours. In so doing, Turpin
actually got to York before news of his misdemeanours in London. Tests on horses
that specialise in endurance events have shown that this would have been totally
Various inns that still stand along the A1 (at the time called the Great
North Road, the main road connecting the north of England to the south), such as
the Roebuck Inn, Stevenage, claim that Turpin ate his lunch there that night, or
stopped off there for a brief respite for his horse. If he had really stopped at
every inn that claims this then he wouldn't have had time to ride anywhere.
Harrison Ainsworth, in his famous 1834 romance
this with a spirited account of this wonderful ride by Dick Turpin on his mare,
and it is in this connection that Turpin's name has been generally remembered.
However, historians have frequently argued that Turpin never actually made
this speedy journey, and that, as far as Turpin is concerned, the incident is
pure fiction. They argue that such a ride was really made by John Nevison, known
as "Swift Nick", born and raised at Wortley village near Sheffield and a
well-known highwayman in the time of Charles II some 50 years before Turpin, who
to establish an alibi rode from Gad's Hill (near Rochester, Kent) to York (some
190 miles) in about 15 hours.
A popular TV series, Dick Turpin, starred Richard O'Sullivan as a
fictionalised Turpin and Michael Deeks as his sidekick Swiftnick despite the
large variation in time.
Besides, it is well known that Turpin first rode into Lincolnshire following
the Whitechapel skirmish, and that he then subsequently moved over the Humber
into the Yorkshire town of Brough near Hull, before eventually making his first
visit to York.
Life as 'John Palmer'
Turpin took up a new life in the North of England, setting up bases in
Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where he would be largely, or indeed wholly,
unknown. He bought a large set of barns and stables just outside Corby with his
ill-gotten gains and going under the assumed identity 'John Palmer' posed as
a large-scale yet legitimate horse dealer. Outwardly, he was a wealthy and
respectable member of the community.
Turpin didn't know anything about horse breeding, or selling on the horse
market. Accordingly, Turpin was resolved once again to theft. Little did his
customers know that the horses he was selling were actually stolen from other
horse owners in the two very counties he was operating in (mostly acquired
during raiding incursions into Lincolnshire, as he was residing in Yorkshire).
In some cases, Turpin would steal the horses from farms or enclosures or
stables, wait a few months, and then sell them back onto the victim without
their knowing. A risky business, but Turpin got away with it for a while, and
made a small fortune too.
At some point in early 1739, 'Palmer' returned from a hunt to his lodgings in
the Green Dragon Inn, at Welton, a small Yorkshire village, near Brough, 12
miles (20 km) from Hull, about 37 miles (60 km) from York. He was frustrated due
to the fact he was empty-handed, and probably drunk.
He 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' had no money on his person and accordingly
was unable to provide sureties so that he would be released, and was committed
to the House of Correction.
As he was taken into custody, local authorities made enquiries as to how
exactly 'Mr. Palmer' made his money, and inevitably the constables learned of
several outstanding complaints made against 'John Palmer' for sheep and horse
stealing in Lincolnshire.
Turpin was transferred to the dungeons of York's Debtors' Prison (now part of
the York Castle Museum). From his cell, Turpin wrote to the sibling of his
estranged wife (his brother-in-law) who still resided at Hempstead in Essex,
Turpin's real birthplace. The letter was a plea for help; requesting his
brother-in-law to 'procure an evidence from London that could give me a
character that would go a great way towards my being acquitted' i.e. provide him
with an alibi.
The plan might have worked, but it backfired. In those days, postage was
payable by the recipient of a letter, not the poster. Turpin's brother-in-law
refused to pay the sixpence postage demanded, for what (he reckoned) was
probably the 18th century equivalent of spam junk mail, and as such the letter
was not delivered to him. This unpaid sixpence would prove the price of Turpin's
The unread letter then naturally fell into the hands of John Smith, as the
village postmaster (Smith was also the village schoolmaster, who had taught
Turpin to read and write). Smith recognised the handwriting of his former pupil
immediately and travelled to York to consult with the magistrate and identify
Palmer as Turpin. Smith, his former friend and mentor, collected a £200 reward
for identifying the notorious highwayman to the authorities.
Execution and burial
Ironically, Turpin was never convicted of being a highwayman or a murderer.
He was convicted of being a horse-rustler, something which we may today consider
far less serious. However, unfortunately for Turpin, in those days
horse-rustling was considered a crime so serious it was punishable by death. On
22 March 1739, 'John Palmer alias Richard Turpin' was convicted at the Grand
Jury House in York of two indictments of horse-rustling.
Pleas from his father to have the sentence commuted to transportation fell on
deaf ears. His father had been cleared a few days earlier at the Essex assizes
of horse-stealing, one of Turpin's stolen horses having been found at his
Between his sentence and execution, visitors frequented Turpin's cell as
though he were something of a celebrity. He was resolved to meet his death with
dignity and calm. He spent the last of his money, in which he bought new clothes
and shoes and hired five mourners for 10 shillings each.
On 7 April 1739, Dick Turpin rode through the streets of York in an open
cart, being theatrical and bowing to the gawking crowds. At York Knavesmire (now
the racecourse) he climbed the ladder to the gibbet and then sat for half an
hour addressing the crowd in the manner of an entertainer, chatting to the
guards and the executioner.
Ironically, the hangman was Thomas Hadfield, once Turpin's friend and a
former Gregory Gang member (he had been pardoned because he had agreed to be the
An account in the York Courant 7 April 1739 of Turpin's execution, notes his
brashness even at the end, "with undaunted courage looked about him, and after
speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired
in about five minutes." Thus in death at least, Turpin attained some of the
gallantry that had eluded him in life.
And so, despite the fame of his hanging, Turpin's death was technically a
suicide. He was said to have been buried in the churchyard of St George's
Church, York. However, a short time after the burial his body was dug up and
stolen by body-snatchers working for anatomists, but it appears to have been
subsequently recovered and reburied in the same place, this time with the
addition of quicklime to destroy the remains rapidly. A headstone in the
churchyard commemorates him, but is not at the precise location, which remains
In popular culture
- Turpin appears in Harrison Ainsworth's romantic novel
published in 1834. It describes Turpin making the ride to York. Historians argue
that such a ride was really made by John Nevison, known as "Swift Nick" some 50
years before Turpin.
- In 1964, Walt Disney made a Technicolor feature film in England entitled
"The Legend of Young Dick Turpin", starring David Weston as Dick Turpin and
William Franklyn as Tom King, with Bernard Lee as the leader of a den of thieves
and Maurice Denham as a stable owner who betrays Turpin to the authorities. The
film, made to be shown on the Disney programme on US television, but given
cinema release in Europe during 1965, was a fast-paced and entertaining
interpretation of the legend and bore little resemblance to the actual
historical facts. Ron Grainer; Norman Newell and Robert Westerby wrote a theme
song for it entitled "The Ballad of Dick Turpin", sung over the opening and end
titles by Val Doonican and the lyrics of which explained the legend rather than
the facts of the Turpin story. In this version of the tale, Turpin is a young
farmer in Essex who falls foul of the local squire (played by Roger Booth), who,
because Turpin is unable to pay a heavy fine unjustly imposed on him, seizes
Turpin's farm and land and horse (Black Bess), causing Turpin to steal back his
horse and go on the run as an outlaw with a price on his head, eventually
meeting up with Tom King and becoming a highwayman. At the end of the film,
having been helped to escape from Newgate Prison in London by two friends
(played by George Cole and a young Leonard Whiting) who have also arranged for
him a passage to America on a ship, Turpin narrowly misses his rendevouz with
the ship, which sails without him and, with the law hot on his heels, he sets
out on his famous ride to York on Black Bess. British cinema audiences got to
see this film before the Americans, as it wasn't shown on US television until
- A popular 1970s British children's television series,
starred Richard O'Sullivan as a fictionalised Turpin and Michael Deeks as his
sidekick Swiftnick. The show was made by London Weekend Television for the
ITV network (It is also noted for a memorable error in one scene where Turpin is
riding his horse down a lane only for telegraph poles and wires to be clearly
visible in the background)
- The story of Turpin is the basis of the 1974 Carry On film
Carry On Dick.
The role of Turpin was played by Sid James with other roles played by Barbara
Windsor, Hattie Jacques, Peter Butterworth, Kenneth Williams and Bernard
Bresslaw. It was one of the last Carry On films and with the exception of
Williams was the last to feature any of those listed stars. In this version,
Turpin hides behind the alter-ego of a church rector, giving it a connection to
another churchman-outlaw Doctor Syn.
- In Terry Pratchett's and Neil Gaiman's comedy novel,
Good Omens, one
of the characters names his car "Dick Turpin" because, he says, "wherever I go,
I hold up traffic".
- The story is told in the English ballad turned folk-song "Turpin Hero", most
recently recorded by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists on the album Colin Meloy
Sings Shirley Collins.
- Another folk-ballad on Turpin was written by Woody Guthrie, entitled
"Unwelcome Guest", which depicts him in the vein of Robin Hood. It was recorded
by Billy Bragg and Wilco on the album Mermaid Avenue.
- In the video game Armed and Dangerous there is a village called Dick
- Turpin is mentioned in the folk song "What I Want is a Proper Cup of
Coffee", as popularised by the band, Trout Fishing in America.
- In the book Swan Song, by Brian Stableford (part of the Hooded Swan
series of books) the character Sam Parks was nicknamed Turpin because he'd
always had a desire to be a space pirate. Over the course of the book they make
a few other references to the story of Dick Turpin.
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