On This Day – 7th April 1739

Turpin Pushing Woman into a Fire

On the 7th of April 1739, Dick Turpin, highwayman, was hanged at York.  Some articles on the internet give the date as the 10th or even the 19th of April. However, the account of his trial shows that he was tried on the 22nd of March 1739 and executed on Saturday the 7th of April. No messing around with ‘Appeals’ in those days…

Richard Turpin was baptised on the 21st of September 1705 in Hempstead,  Essex. He was the son of John Turpin, a small farmer and some-time inn-keeper.  Dick was apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel, which then was still a village on the outskirts of London. He completed his apprenticeship, married and opened a butcher’s shop in Buckhurst Hill.  Wiki says that Dick married an Elizabeth Millington, but the Newgate Calendar, published about 1760, gave the lady’s surname as Palmer. I rather think that Wiki is correct.

It seems possible that Turpin, as a butcher, ‘fenced’ some of the stolen goods of a local group of smugglers, cattle rustlers and deer-stealers, known as the ‘Essex Gang’. It is not certain when Dick joined the gang, but he was certainly a fully fledged member by 1735 when the London Evening Post reported the exploits of Turpin and ‘The Essex Gang’  and said that the King had offered a reward of £50 for their capture.

By that time the gang’s skullduggery had changed from poaching to more profitable, more simple and more brutal activities. Turpin and his gang invaded isolated farmhouses, terrorised and tortured the occupants, preferably elderly women, into giving up their valuables. A typical attack occurred at Loughton, in Essex, where Turpin had heard of an old widow rumoured to keep at least £700 in the house. When the woman resisted all Turpin’s efforts to discover where her money was hidden, he hoisted her into the open fire.

Turpin and his gang robbed and tortured their way around the Home Counties, and the sum offered for their capture was doubled in February 1736. The increased reward worked and on the 11th of February 1735 three of the gang were caught. The youngest of these was a lad of fifteen, John Wheeler, who quickly gave information in exchange for his freedom.  Soon after all, but two of the Essex gang, were captured and, with the exception of John Wheeler, were hung. Turpin and one other, who had also escaped, were named on the indictments for burglary.

It was at this point that Turpin turned to what he is famous for: highway robbery. It seems that sometimes he worked alone and sometimes with two others. It is uncertain whether Turpin or his confederate, Matthew King, stole a horse from one Mr Major, who reported the theft to a Richard Bayes.  The horse was tracked to stables in Whitechapel, and Major, Bayes and a constable decided to keep a watch on the stables in order to capture the thief or thieves.  When John King, Matthew’s brother, came to collect the horse, he was apprehended. John told them where his brother was hiding and, during the subsequent arrest, Matthew King was shot and later died. There seems to be some confusion as to whether Bayes or Turpin fired the fatal shot.

Turpin escaped but was later seen by Thomas Morris, who, armed with pistols, tried to capture him. Turpin, however, shot and killed Morris. The  murder was reported in The Gentleman’s Magazine:

It having been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did on Wednesday the 4th of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, Servant to Henry Tomson, one of the Keepers of Epping-Forest, and commit other notorious Felonies and Robberies near London, his Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious Pardon to any of his Accomplices, and a Reward of 200l. to any Person or Persons that shall discover him, so as he may be apprehended and convicted. Turpin was born at Thacksted in Essex, is about Thirty, by Trade a Butcher, about 5 Feet 9 Inches high, brown Complexion, very much mark’d with the Small Pox, his Cheek-bones broad, his Face thinner towards the Bottom, his Visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the Shoulders.

Realizing that he would not escape capture if he stayed in London, Turpin set off for Yorkshire. He is reputed to have made the journey from London to York on his trusty steed, Black Bess, in under 24 hours. In Yorkshire  he adopted the name John Palmer and lived the life of a landed gentleman, financing his lifestyle with trips into Lincolnshire to rustle horses and cattle and to commit highway robbery.

Returning home after a day’s hunting with the local gentry, Turpin impulsively shot a fine cock, and was taken before the local magistrate to explain his actions. While he was in custody, the local authorities began to make enquiries as to exactly how ‘Mr. Palmer’ made his money. Stories began to surface about his frequent trips to Lincolnshire, from which he always returned with money and horses. Since he could offer no proof of employment, the focus of the investigation switched to Lincolnshire, where the constables learned of outstanding complaints against ‘John Palmer’ for sheep and horse stealing. Things might not have gone so badly awry had Turpin not written a letter to his brother-in-law, asking him to ‘procure an evidence from London that could give me a character that would go a great way towards my being acquitted.’

Turpin’s brother-in-law was either too mean to pay the sixpence postage due, or he wanted to distance himself from Dick’s activities. Either way, the letter was returned to the Post Office. There, Turpin’s former schoolmaster, Mr Smith, saw it, and, recognising the handwriting, took the letter to the local magistrate and opened it. Despite the fact that it was signed John Palmer, Smith identified the writer as Turpin. Smith was subsequently sent to York to make positive identification; which he did.

That was the end for Dick Turpin. Convicted on two indictments of theft, he was sentenced to death. Before his execution, Turpin bought himself a new outfit, and hired five men for 3 pounds 10 shillings to act as his mourners. On 7th of April, 1739, Turpin rode through the streets of York in an open cart, bowing to the crowds. At the place of execution, now York racecourse, he climbed the ladder to the gibbet and then sat for a while talking to the executioner. At last he stood up, threw himself off the ladder and was dead in a few minutes.

Turpin’s criminal activities were squalid. Only at the very end of his life, while waiting to be hanged, did he exhibit any of the swaggering gallantry usually attributed to him.  So, how did history transform Turpin from a ruffian into such a glamorous character?

The answer lies in the pages of the 1834 novel ‘Rookwood’ by Harrison Ainsworth in which the highwayman ‘Dick Turpin’ is a secondary character. Ainsworth’s description of an epic ride from Westminster to York caught the popular imagination.

In reality, Turpin’s fictitious ride was made by a 17th-century highwayman John ‘Nick’ Nevison (or Nevins). Early one morning in 1676, Nevison robbed a homeward-bound sailor on the road outside Gads Hill, Kent. Deciding he needed to establish an alibi, Nevison set off on a ride that took him more than 190 miles in about 15 hours. He put in an appearance at the bowling green in York at around 8 pm and played a few ends with the Mayor and some other local worthies to establish his alibi before retiring for the night.

All that was forgotten once Rookwood became a best-seller. During the next 50 years, replays of the Turpin story, as told by Ainsworth, appeared in magazines, cheap novels, and ballads, not just in Great Britain but around the world. History, romance, and legend rapidly blurred and, eventually, the fictional ride of Ainsworth’s Turpin totally eclipsed the villain’s real exploits. The metamorphosis of Dick Turpin, house-breaker, torturer, murderer, sheep and horse-stealer into Dick Turpin, Highwayman and Knight of the Road was complete.

33 thoughts on “On This Day – 7th April 1739”

  1. I am reminded of our own famous Dick, Dick King who rode from Durban to Grahamstown (a distance of 600 miles) in 10 days, no roads or tracks just the African bushveld, (and the inconvenience of having to cross 120 rivers!)

  2. As you say, Bravo, many folk ‘heroes’ were rather less than heroic – in fact this one behaved abysmally.

    Now, Dick King sounds as though he would warrant the title ‘hero’.

  3. “On the 7th of April 1739, Dick Turpin, highwayman, was hung at York.”
    Bet you are pleased that Amicus is not here to point out that Dick Turpin was not a picture. 😉

    I had never grasped that the significance of the ride to York was to establish an alibi. I wonder if Robin Hood was as glamarous a character as legend has it. I think some of the glamour was also added to Turpin by the likes of Alfred Noyes

    and even Walter de La mare

  4. Sipu – I’d better change that quickly before he looks in! Thanks!

    It wasn’t Dick Turpin who did the ride – it was an earlier highwayman: John ‘Nick’ Nevison (or Nevins).

    I agree, poets seem to have turned a fair number of villains into heroes.

  5. Bit off topic, Boa – and a bit of a tease. Do you, perchance know when the first ‘British’ (actually, English, of course,) ‘Embassy,’ was established in Moscow? I have just found out, pictures to follow at the weekend, and here’s the teaser 🙂

    Hosted by imgur.com

  6. Boadicea, was it not once suggested that Elizabeth marry Ivan? I am sure I read that somewhere.

  7. Sipu – I have no idea! It wouldn’t surprise me. Her ministers tried just about everything they could to get her marry someone – anyone!

  8. Ah, I was, just for a moment, and very timourously, going to disagree, but I did say ‘Embassy,’ so I’m glad i didn’t 🙂 The info I found said that the ‘English Court’ was given to English merchants who arrived in Murmansk in 1553 from the court of Edward IV, led by one Richard Chancellor. They had been sent to search for a northern passage to India.

    Anyway, it has been restored and I’m mounting an expedition to find it at the wekend – pretty easy, actually, it’s right next to GUM 🙂 Pics to follow at the weekend. fascinating little bit of history – a little slice of Tudor history in Moscow! (Well, Tudor inside, Russian outside.)

  9. I enjoyed this. It’s true that the real exploits of glamorous outlaws (one thinks of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, etc.) were generally quite squalid.

    The cult of the highwayman, so to speak, may have had something to do with the success of the autobiography of the Irish highwayman James Freney, published in 1754. Thackeray was very taken with it. Freney was arrested in 1749 but pardoned on giving evidence against associates.


    Philip Twisden, Bishop of Raphoe, died in bizarre circumstances in 1752 – he was shot while allegedly masquerading as a highwayman.

  10. Boa, it should be an interesting afternoon, the colleague who told me about the place tells me that the Curator is very knowledgeable and is keen to share his knowledge with his visitors, at length, while plying them with tea.

    The book looks fascinating.

  11. Thanks for that link, Boadicea. Some of the entries look oddly familiar … I think I may have written them!

    I used to have a website that contained a detailed chronology of Ireland.

  12. Bravo – the book does look interesting. If it’s still there in May, I’ll probably be tempted… 🙂

    Brendano – the web-site sounds interesting. I was looking up something earlier today and I found a host of web-entries, all of which said exactly the same thing in exactly the same words. There’s a lot of cut and paste goes on… 🙂

  13. Thanks for another great blog, Boadicea. I thought of you the other day as we were driving past The National Archives in Kew. I can never think of it as that. It’s always been the Public Record Office for me, but then I go back to Chancery Lane days. It’s quite amazing to think of the difficulties in communication that must have made checking up on villains as they moved round the country a real problem.

  14. I remember as a child seeing the cell where Dick Turpin was held in York. Part of a museum now.
    They had a very full history of him on the wall, so I never had any illusions about that one or any other psychopathic killers!

    America has had far more than their fair share of such. I do think the generally unstructured nature of the West and the fact there was really no/or vestigial State mechanism for apprehension aided and abetted lawlessness and psychotic behaviour to a great degree.

    Perhaps the myths of ‘noble villains’ grew up as more of a wish fulfilment for the lower classes. They wanted heroes who ‘won’ against the ruling classes and the rich. They did things that the poor were too cowed and frightened to do. Their lives provided the vicarious thrills that celebrities do today for certain sections of society.
    What normal middle class person reads ‘Hello’ today? None I know of!
    I suspect it was the same yesterday, reference villains.
    I don’t think humanity changes one little bit.

  15. Bravo a quote for you.

    ‘The prize, however, must surely go to lady Carlisle who, when her husband made his public entry into Moscow in 1663, accompanied him in her own carriage trimmed with crimson velvet, followed by no fewer than 200 sledges loaded with baggage,’

    ‘Daughters of Britannia’ Katie Hickman 1999.

    All this was shipped at her own expense as considered household necessities as the wife of the new English ambassador to Moscow! So they must have had a building by then of considerable size to get it all in, PLUS the staff she took with her.
    (People frequently took 20-30 servants with them.) Explains why early permanent Ambassadorships were the sinecure of the rich nobility!
    (Still are in the USA, it costs a fortune, personally!)

    You might ask the curator what he knows about her.

  16. Another excellent blog Bo, thank you.
    Very thought provoking why ‘popular heroes’ exist and what function they fulfil in society throughout the ages.

  17. I think there’s a lot of truth in Christina’s #24. Outlaw heroes often emerged where there was a perceived sense of injustice … for example, Jesse James was first involved with the notorious Quantrill’s guerrillas in the aftermath of the Civil War.

    ‘Legends, ballads and chapbooks portraying the outlaw are the products of hard-pressed people representing themselves to themselves, reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and contemplating issues of morality and justice.’


  18. A fascinating blog again, BOa, thank you.
    The man said to have been England’s last highway man, George Lyon, is buried in the churchyard of St Thomas the Martyr in Upholland where I grew up near Wigan. As a child, I always felt pretty scared of that church and the White Lion pub opposite, because everyone said they were linked by old underground passages where ghosts of highway men and robbers ran amok.
    Load of superstitious nonsense, obviously. But you still wouldn’t catch me there in the middle of the night!


  19. Many thanks for the comments and the links. I’ve learnt from the input – and that’s great! 🙂

    Sheona, the NLA is and always will be the PRO to me, too. I go back to the Chancery Lane days – when I had to take a coat in because the chairs were too low, and everyone took in their bags, and all the other rubbish they needed. How things have changed!

    Christina, I think you are right #24. People have always seemed to need ‘heroes’ who operate outside the norms of their own limited lives. As far as I can tell many of the so-called law-enforcement agents of the US West were little more than villains themselves – and fairly colourful villains at that!

  20. Quite right BO, I suspect higher IQ and saw it was more profitable long term to be on the side of law and order at least superficially!
    Some of the poor hapless felons were really too stupid for words in what they did, a wonder they lasted as long as they did, sheer sparsity of population and the enormous distances were their only advantages from being apprehended PDQ.

  21. Christina, I read somewhere that it was the stupidity of people like Turpin that led to their capture. When he was first taken into custody for shooting the cock, he refused to pay surety to appear in court. Apparently he did that twice. Had he done so he would have been free to disappear again…

  22. Wasn’t it traditional for the villain to give some sort of statement on the gallows, with “journalists” all round to record his last words? The crowds liked a spirited speech rather than an admission that “it’s a fair cop, guv”. Perhaps the folk heroes grew out of this – a boastful account of deeds real or imaginary. They could only hang him once, after all. And then word of mouth took over and things got exaggerated.

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