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The Life and Myth of Dick Turpin

Turpin’s notoriety had placed a significant bounty on his head, and whilst King lay dying, on 4th May 1737, he was tracked to Epping Forest by a gamekeeper named Morris. He challenged Turpin, whereupon Turpin drew his pistol and shot Morris dead, thereby adding murder to his list of callous crimes.

Turpin headed for Long Sutton in Lincolnshire, where he lived for nine months, but was soon arrested for rustling horses, escaping yet again, and heading for Yorkshire where he adopted the name John Palmer and lived the life of a gentleman. His high lifestyle was financed by trips back to Lincolnshire where he would rustle horses and cattle and supplement the proceeds with the occasional highway robbery.

Dick Turpin’s ultimate capture came as the result of an impulsive act in October 1738, of shooting a prized cock whilst returning home from a hunting trip with some local gentry. Consequently, he was hauled up before the local magistrate to explain himself.

Once in custody, questions were asked as to how ‘John Palmer’ afforded his gentrified lifestyle. His frequent trips to Lincolnshire came under scrutiny and when he could offer no evidence of gainful employment, attention switched to Lincolnshire, where investigators discovered that several allegations had been made towards John Palmer in connection with the theft of livestock.

Whilst Turpin was imprisoned at York Castle, awaiting the outcome of investigations, he unwittingly wrote the following letter to his brother-in-law:

Dear Brother,

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 country 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

John Palmer

Bizarrely, upon receipt, his brother declined to pay the sixpence postage due on the letter, choosing instead to return it to the Post Office—an action that would ultimately prove fatal for Dick.

The letter was seen at the Saffron Walden Post Office by a Mr James Smith, who by great coincidence was Turpin's former schoolmaster. Mr. Smith recognised the handwriting on the envelope, and it was taken to the local magistrate who gave permission to open it. For obvious reasons Turpin had signed the letter ‘John Palmer’ but despite this fact, Smith identified the writer as Turpin and journeyed to York soon afterwards where he identified him in person, thereby claiming the reward.

Turpin was convicted on two indictments, and was sentenced to death by hanging. His father John Turpin pleaded to have his son’s sentence commuted to transportation, but his efforts were in vain.

On 7th April 1739, having bought himself a new suit of fine clothes, Dick Turpin was paraded through the streets of York on an open wagon to his place of execution. The evening before, he had paid five men to act as mourners and disposed of his possessions to friends, including a married woman living in Lincolnshire.

Turpin’s place of execution was at a place known as Knavesmire — now the site of York racecourse. Upon arrival, he climbed up onto the gibbet and proceeded to sit down and chat with his executioner. York had no official hangman and it was customary to offer a pardon to prisoners on condition that they act as executioner. The irony as it turned out, was that Turpin’s executioner was fellow highwayman, Thomas Hadfield. When they had apparently finished their conversations, Turpin simply stood up and jumped to his death unaided. Hence it was said of Turpin, that in death he had displayed the kind of valour and dignity of which he had been so lacking in life.

After a life of such skulduggery, it is however difficult to understand how the mists of time have transformed Turpin’s standing from that of ruthless criminal to enchanting hero. Much of the answer lies in a novel published in 1834 called ‘Rookwood’ in which author Harrison Ainsworth makes a fictitious reference to highwayman 'Dick Turpin' making an epic ride from Westminster to York in less than a day. In reality however, this story is almost certainly based on the legend of 17th-century highwayman John 'Nick' Nevison (or Nevins).

In 1676, after robbing a sailor at Gads Hill, Kent, Nevison put in an appearance at a bowling green in York some 15 hours after the event, having travelled nearly 200 miles in a bid to establish an alibi. Word of his achievement spread and Nevison soon had the sobriquet ‘Swift’ added to his name by an admiring public. It was reported that even King Charles II commented on his audacity.

In modern times, the television writer Richard Carpenter paid homage to Nevison in his 1970s TV adaptation of the Dick Turpin legend starring Richard O’Sullivan, by naming the character's fictitious sidekick — played in the series by Michael Deeks — ‘Swift Nick’.

The legend of Dick Turpin as told by Ainsworth has subsequently been replayed countless times in literature and song; and in more recent times, in theatre, film and television too. It totally eclipses the truth, yet for some reason — for the time being at least — it seems that as an audience we still prefer to revel in the myth.

© Paul Pert 2010

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