(Thumbnail image: Credit Chris Allen)

This month marks the 285th anniversary of the end of Dick Turpin’s reign of terror, so to celebrate we thought we would take a look at the life and crimes of Britain’s most famous highwayman and some of his contemporaries.

It might have been 285  years since Turpin’s execution but myths and stories about his exploits  live on, sadly, in reality, Dick Turpin wasn’t quite the romantic hero we remember him to be. Here’s everything you need to know about the Dandy Highway Man that you’re too scared to mention!

Dick (born Richard Turpin) was born in 1705 at his father’s pub, the former Blue Bell Inn in Hempstead, Essex. He was the fifth of six children born to John Turpin, a butcher and innkeeper and Mary Parmenter. For some time in his early teens and into his young adulthood, he was an apprentice to a butcher. When he was 20, he married Elizabeth Millington and the pair opened their own butcher shop in the Brockhurst Hill area of Essex. Just five years after opening his shop and getting married, Turpin became involved in the Essex Gang, a group of deer thieves who operated around Essex. Also known as the Gregory Gang because it included three members of the Gregory family, the gang initially involved Turpin as a way to dispose of the deer they poached.

Though he left butchery for innkeeping, becoming the landlord of his own pub, he remained involved with the gang. By the early 1730s, the gang had moved away from poaching and had begun burgling houses. How many of these burglaries Turpin actively took part in is unknown, however, it is confirmed that he was present during a break in on 19th December 1734, robbing a 73 year old man and getting away with £300, which would be over £50,000 in today’s money. He was also known to have been at a robbery in Croydon the following month, in which the gang broke int the home of a reverend. Turpin turned up wearing a mask and armed with pistols and supervised the assault of one of the house’s servants. This sparked a series of violent burglaries around London until one of the younger members of the gang, John Wheeler was arrested and betrayed his colleagues, warrants went out for the gang’s arrest.

Once most of.the gang had been arrested or executed, Turpin turned to highway robbery, which is what he is best known for. He was first known as Turpin the Butcher and would strike travellers around the Epping Forest area. He didn’t always work alone, often working with Thomas Rowden. They became so notorious, that sightings of them were often reported to the police, leading Turpin to move around frequently.

In 1937, he all but disappeared from public, with only a few sightings of him being reported. His string of robberies ended after an incident in Whitechapel, where a horse was stolen. The horse was tracked to the Red Lion pub in Whitechapel, Turpin’s accomplices were all apprehended and during the melee, one was wounded and later died. Some claim that Turpin fired the fatal shot, while others claim he escaped in the chaos. We do know that he took cover in one of his hideaways in Epping Forest, where he was seen by Thomas Morris, who worked for the Forest Keepers. Turpin shot and killed him, leading to a £200 reward being offered for his capture.

To avoid detection, Turpin took on an alias, travelling to Yorkshire under the name John Palmer, posing as a horse trader. In October 1738, he shot another man’s fighting bird in the street and threatened violence on those that apprehended him. Turpin ended up being committed to the House of Correction at Beverley and made no attempt to escape. As well as the shooting incident, he was also accused of being a horse thief and evidence found that he had stolen several horses while under the name Palmer. As such he was transferred to York Castle, while incarcerated, Turpin wrote a letter to his sister and brother in law, however, they refused to pay the delivery charge, claiming that they knew no one in York. The letter ended up at the post office at Saffron Walden, where the handwriting was recognised as being Dick Turpin’s. Following this, Turpin was correctly identified and was tried at York Assizes and sentenced to death

Unfortunately, the legends that involve riding overnight from London to York on Black Bess, his so called horse were all fabrications. Also, despite being a highway man and committing murder, he was sentenced for the more boring crime of horse theft, which at the time was a capital punishment.

Prior to his execution, Turpin frequently received visitors, with his jailer earning money from selling drinks to the crowd. He also received several letters from his parents and refused to see a priest. In the few days leading up to the event, he bought a new coat and shoes and hired five mourners, paying them three pounds and ten shillings to be present at his death.

On 7th April 1739, followed by his mourners, Turpin along with another horse thief were taken through York in an open cart to Knavesmire, where the city’s gallows were held. York had no permanent hangman and it was custom to pardon a prisoner if they acted as executioner, so a fellow highway man, Thomas Hadfield acted as hangman. It is claimed that Turpin had an air of confidence to him, when approaching the gallows. At Knavesmire, they used a short drop method of hanging, which meant that Turpin was hanging until late afternoon before being taken to a tavern in Castlegate. The next morning, he was buried at St George’s Church, Fishergate, opposite what is now a catholic church.

The following day, his body was stolen by body-snatchers for medical research, however they and the body were apprehended and was reburied. It is said that he remains in St George’s church yard, where you can see a head stone to this day, however, there is some debate over whether this is his true resting place.

Dick Turpin might be Britain’s most well known highwaymen but he wasn’t the only one terrorising the roads.

Wild Humphrey

Humphrey Kynaston, known as Wild Humphrey was born into a noble family and was raised in a castle which gave him the air of a Robin Hood like character. He was said to have been a bit of hellraiser and was outlawed in 1491 when he was accused of murder. Humphrey left the nobility behind and set up a home for himself in a cave in deep, dark Shropshire where he spent the next three years robbing rich travellers who passed by. Allegedly, he rode a horse called Beelzebub, but despite the name, the pair were known to leave his victims alive and with adequate transport to return to civilisation, he also supposedly donated his ill gotten gains to the poor around Shopshire. He was eventually pardoned by the king in 1518.

The Wicked Lady

Katherine Ferrers was also born into a wealthy family. She was known as the Wicked Lady and supposedly fell on hard times after her marriage which led her to take up highway robbery. According to legend, she held up travellers around Nomansland Common in Hertfordshire, her final robbery took place in June 1660 where the stick up when wrong and she was shot. Her servants found her died the following morning.

William Spiggot

William Spiggot led a gang of highway men for around 12 years, robbing travellers at gun point. He was apprehended in a pub and a shoot out resulted in the pub’s landlord being shot in the shoulder. Spiggot was sent to Newgate Prison, where he confessed to committing around 100 robberies during a court ordered round of torture. Known as being “pressed to plead”, he was tied to the hard prison floor and then had 183kg of weight placed on his chest. He made his confession and was subsequently hung at Tyburn.

The Laughing Highwayman

Jerry Abershawe got his name because it is said he was laughing while being driven to his execution. He was described as being handsome and dashing, much like the dandy highway men of the songs but was known for being particularly violent. He was eventually sentenced for murder after killing one of his arresting officers and was executed on Kennington Common before being hung in chains on gallows on Putney Common as a warning to other criminals.

And just to end on... 




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