Thursday, 17 June 2010

Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman by James Sharpe

One of the more colourful and easily recognised characters in history, Dick Turpin is portrayed as the greatest of the highwaymen, the gentlemen thieves of the road who preyed on the rich of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The reality, as James Sharpe illustrates in this excellent history of the man and his attendant phenomenon, is that Turpin was little more than a pock-marked thug, a common criminal who committed some pretty nasty crimes.


We meet him in the days running up to his execution in York on a chilly Saturday in April 1739. John Palmer is in York Castle, kept in a strong room awaiting trial at the assizes for horse stealing. Word is out, however, that Palmer is, in fact, the wanted outlaw Dick Turpin:

‘Since he was suspected to be Turpin’, ran another ’Letter from York’, in this instance dated 23 March, ‘the whole countrey have flock’d here to see him, and have been very liberal to him, insomuch as he has had wine constantly before him.’ The same source noted that the gaoler at York Castle ‘had made £100 by selling liquors to him and his visitors’.

It would appear from accounts of the time that drinking in prison was hardly discouraged, and although Turpin was hanged at York, things got pretty bibulous down in London as well. Bernard de Mandeville’s contemporary account of execution day shows the condemned drinking copiously before being loaded onto the tumbrel:

The prisoners themselves, on Mandeville’s account, usually took care to be as drunk as possible before leaving Newgate, but, on their way to the gallows, ‘the courage that strong liquors can give, wears off’, and the condemned find themselves in danger of becoming sober again.

Before his demise on the end of a rope, Turpin started his career as a butcher in Essex. At some point in his twenties he got mixed up with bad company and was soon running with a gang of men who would break into peoples’ houses and rob them at gunpoint. The crimes that this gang committed included rape and violent abuse of the elderly; one victim being burned on the fire in an effort to make him tell them where the loot was hidden. Hardly the actions of gentlemen thieves.

After the gang was broken by the law, Turpin escaped and turned to highway robbery. Even so, things got hot for him again and he made himself scarce, reinventing himself in Yorkshire as John Palmer. It was there that he was arrested for horse stealing in 1738. During his incarceration he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law. The letter got into the hands of someone who recognised his handwriting and the game was up.

So how come the legend? A century later, Gothic novelist William Harrison Ainsworth recreated Turpin as a dashing highwayman in his novel Rookwood, describing him as a man who:

...could sing a good song, was a choice companion, and could drink three bottles without feeling the worse for them.

He also created Turpin’s supposed flight to York in one night on Black Bess, and the legend was born. Strangely enough, the subsequent enthusiasm for highwayman coincided with the end of the practice in the country...

Nearly three hundred years after he was hanged, Turpin is ubiquitous, especially in the pub:

...there are, indeed, so many pubs alleging Turpin associations that if all their claims were true, the career of England’s most famous highwayman would have been passed in a combination of perpetual motion and a permanent alcoholic haze.

On the evidence provided in this fascinating book, we are asked in conclusion whether he really deserves his fame.

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