Dick Turpin

Dick Turpin (1705-1739) was born in September 1705 at the Blue Bell Inn, Hempstead, in Essex. He had a basic education before becoming a butcher and marrying Betty Mollington, a maid, in 1725. From 1730, they lived at Buckhurst Hill in Essex, but Turpin soon fell in with a gang of deer-rustlers operating in Epping forest.

Turpin acted as a fence for the stolen deer, and the gang’s activities continued quite successfully until a large reward was offered for their capture, and the gang leader, Samuel Gregory, was caught and pilloried in 1734. Gregory was subsequently sprung from gaol by Turpin and the others, and the gang then turned its attention to burglary. For a while they attacked remote farm houses on the outskirts of London, but it wasn’t long before some of the gang were caught, and by the end of 1735, only Dick Turpin and Thomas Rowden, a pewterer, were at large. It was at this point in his career that Turpin turned to highway robbery, hijacking carriages south of the river Thames. A year later, in May 1736, Turpin’s partner Rowden was captured and convicted of counterfeiting, and Turpin disappeared.

In 1737, the authorities learned of Turpin’s whereabouts and set an ambush for him in Hertfordshire. He evaded capture, but his wife and her friends were sent to Hereford gaol on suspicion of highway robbery. They were subsequently released. Turpin then joined forces with a Matthew King in 1737, stealing a racehorse named Whitestockings from a stable behind the Red Lion Inn, Whitechapel. In May of that same year King was shot by the authorities, and Turpin prudently fled to Yorkshire. The following description of him was circulated by the authorities: ‘a brown complexion…his cheek bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.’


 Turpin, based on contemporaneous descriptions, by Adrian Teal


During the following year, Turpin concentrated on horse rustling, and in July, returned to his father’s house in Hempstead with a stolen horse. John Turpin was subsequently charged with receiving stolen goods and spent the winter in Chelmsford gaol. In October, Turpin, using the name John Parmen (recorded as ‘Palmer’) was arrested for disturbing the peace, and he spent the night at a prison in Beverley, Yorkshire. When it eventually emerged he was in fact the wanted Turpin, he was sent to York Castle where he was charged with horse rustling. At the end of March 1739, Turpin was tried and convicted. He was executed on 7th April.


Turpin’s cell in the Castle Museum, York


Little was heard of Turpin’s activities until the 1800s, when his supposedly famous ride from London to York, previously attributed to the highwayman Willian Nevison, began to appear in chapbooks. In 1834, Martin Colnaghi depicted Turpin’s dramatic life in six high-quality prints, and these prints ensured Turpin’s immortalisation as the dashing highwayman.

Turpin is supposedly buried in St George’s churchyard, York. His grave is unusually wide, and there are many local rumours as to why. One tells of how Turpin was buried with his legendary horse, Black Bess. Another more intriguing story reports that after Turpin’s execution and burial, a group of Turpin’s associates dug him up and took him to the Red Lion pub in Merchantgate in order to give him a proper send off.  The authorities, discovering the dead Turpin propped in a corner of the bar, immediately ordered his reburial, pouring quick lime into the grave to prevent him from being re-exhumed.


Source for Turpin’s life: Dereck Barlow, DNB

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One comment

  • July 20, 2011 - 6:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for another great post. What a character, Dick Turpin. Everyone has heard of him. I didn’t know it was through the prints by Martin Colnaghi that made him famous. I’d like to think he is buried with his horse Black Bess. But the other legend of his friends digging him up and taking him for a last booze up. kind of appeals to me. And just maybe the horse is still beside him anyway.

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