Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Richard Turpin (aka Dick Turpin) 1705 – 1739
(Monarchs: George I and II)
Google Dick Turpin and there is always a mention that he did some of his dastardly deeds around Shooter’s Hill and Blackheath. Rumour often claims that the hill is named after its infamous highwaymen, but in 1226 it was called Shitereshell, and in 1374, it was Shetersselde – both of which allude to the hill or slope of the shooter.
Not a lot of what we’ve read about Dick Turpin is true. So, you may not want to read this if you’d like to keep hold of those wonderful childhood memories and the romantic stories we were told. This blog is a total myth buster!
Richard Turpin – The Butcher
The year was 1705 when Richard Turpin was born at the Blue Bell Inn (now the Rose and Crown) in Hempstead, Essex. He was the son of a butcher (also an innkeeper). Despite being one of six children, Dick’s parents were determined to give them all a good education, and he was put to school with a writing master called Mr Smith.
Remember Mr Smith, for he plays a vital role in Turpin’s undoing.
Like many highwaymen, Turpin wasn’t from the poorest of classes or backgrounds. He took up an apprenticeship as a butcher in Whitechapel and later opened his own shop in Waltham Abbey. At twenty-one, he married Hester (sometimes written about as Rose) Palmer, the daughter of another innkeeper, and they had at least one child together.
Knowing what we know about the 1700s, Turpin’s life was doing okay, but then Farmer Giles of Plaistow (I’m not making this stuff up) made a complaint about Dick to the Butcher’s Guild after tracing two of his stolen Oxen back to Turpin’s slaughterhouse.
Livestock theft seemed to have hit a peak around the time Turpin moved to Waltham Abbey.
As Farmer Giles pounded on Dick’s door, Turpin allegedly jumped out of the window and did a runner. The Butcher’s Guild was strict about where meat came from, and Dick knew his butchery days were over. So, he packed up and moved to Harwich.
The first thing Turpin tried in his new location was smuggling, but he wasn’t happy with his share of the proceeds, so he tried to mug the smugglers on the highway, only they were a tight crew, and Dick became a marked man.
He scarpered again, this time to Epping Forest, and right into a new and rather unpleasant career with the Gregory (Essex) Gang.
The Gregory Gang
The Gregory Gang were deer-thieving nasties and part of the reason the Black Act of 1723 was introduced, which stopped the blackening or disguising of faces while in the forests.
With Dick being a butcher, the partnership was a good match. But attentions were soon turned to more profitable exploits, like housebreaking, which Turpin became a leading party to.
On Saturday night last, about seven o’clock, five rogues entered the house of the Widow Shelley, at Loughton in Essex, having pistols, etc., and threatened to murder the old lady if she did not tell them where her money lay; which she obstinately refusing for some time, they threatened to lay her across the fire if she did not instantly tell them, which she would not do. But her son being in the room, and threatened to be murdered, cried out, he would tell them if they would not murder his mother, and did; whereupon they went upstairs and took near £100, a silver tankard, and other plate, and all manner of household goods. They afterwards went into the cellar, and drank several bottles of ale and wine, ate the relicts of a fillet of veal, etc.
Turpin, being the nice young man that he was, allegedly said: God damn your blood, you old bitch, if you won’t tell us I’ll set your arse on the grate.
So, the lovely stories of Dick Turpin that we heard as children forgot to mention that he was part of a nasty and cruel gang known for its brutish treatment of both men and women – especially women, in ways too unpleasant to mention and give an account of.
It is well documented that the gang poured boiling water onto a farmer’s face until he told them where his money was. It’s hard to understand how history became so twisted that these antics were forgiven, and a romantic legend was created.
A Royal Proclamation was, well, proclaimed. Fifty guineas would be rewarded to anyone with information leading to the apprehension of any member of the gang. That’s around £9,000 in our times, which could have bought someone seven horses or eleven cows back then.
Thinking about it, informers in the 1700’s got seven horses, that’s seven modes of top-quality transport – we wouldn’t even be able to buy a car or even a scooter with today’s equivalent.
Anyway, while his fellow gang members were causing havoc in an alehouse whilst being rounded up, Turpin jumped through yet another window and did his usual scarpering down the alley to his escape. By 1734, quite a few of the gang had either fled or been captured – which meant some wild parties down at Tyburn Tree and many a hangover in the surrounding area.
Dick Turpin – The Highwayman
Turpin gave up the life of housebreaking and turned to carving out his career as the most famous highwayman in history. He didn’t intentionally set out to do this; he just wanted the booty. The commentators of the day and then the historians inflated his reputation and legend status for him – they were like his unpaid social media managers and built him a following that many celebrities and influences would envy today.
He started his proper highwayman career around Wandsworth, but eventually, he’d exhausted all opportunities, and it became a place too hot to plunder. So, lovely Blackheath was next on his list.
We hear that for about six weeks past Blackheath has been so infested by two highwaymen (supposed to be Rowden and Turpin) that ’tis dangerous for travellers to pass. On Thursday Turpin and Rowden had the insolence to ride through the city at noonday, and in Watling Street they were known by two or three porters, who had not the courage to attack them; they were indifferently mounted and went towards the bridge; so ’tis thought are gone the Tonbridge Road.
There are numerous entries in the local and national newspapers of robberies, especially highway ones, in Blackheath during 1720 and 1820. That’s a one-hundred-year crime wave our community had to endure, and as much as highwaymen have been romanticised, most of them were gun-waving muggers. If we think about that for a moment – that’s one hundred years of not being able to safely walk across the heath (or ride in a carriage across it). A bit melodramatic, yes, but even so, Blackheath was experiencing a crimewave.
Mr Mould, the grocer. I do wonder how the poor man made a success of his business.
Across Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, notes were even given out by these rogues and reprobates stating that whoever was found travelling without ten shillings about them would be not only be stripped but ‘cudgelled very heartily.’ So, a naked bludgeoning on the heath then – isn’t there an area still known for this?
Colonel Landmann (who spent some of his childhood in Blackheath and later, after retiring from the Royal Engineers in Canada, became an engineer on the London and Greenwich Railway) wrote in his memoirs:
During the two years that we sojourned at Blackheath, robberies on Shooter’s Hill, along the Charlton Park wall, the Lower Woolwich Road, and on Blackheath, were exceedingly frequent; they were sometimes perpetrated in broad daylight, and even in the midst of a large concourse of people.
Turpin and King
When Turpin moved on from Blackheath, he hooked up with Tom King (aka The Gentleman Highwayman or Captain Tom King) but not before pulling out his pistol and trying to rob him, thinking he was well-mounted and truly a gentleman.
Turpin may not have recognised King, but King recognised Turpin and said:
What! Dog eat dog?” he exclaimed. “Come, come, brother Turpin, if you don’t know me I know you, and should be glad to your company.
There are no sources that I can find to suggest Turpin and King frequented Blackheath together, and although it is quite possible, this is where the relationship between the heath and Turpin must end. However, it is not yet quite the end of Dick!
Turpin and King made a nifty little partnership, and reports suggest they swore loyalty to each other unto their deaths. So, they rode together for a while, robbed together, and Turpin committed his first murder with King, killing one of the keepers in Epping Forest who had tracked them down.
For what appears to be less than a year, the bromance thrived and would have continued thriving (possibly) if Turpin hadn’t shot King by accident.
The story has it that Turpin and King were having a beer in an alehouse on Red Lion Street, in Whitechapel (something must go wrong if they are at an inn!). Constables looking for a horse that Turpin and King had stolen on the way to the inn, hunted the dodgy duo down (thanks to a cowardly informant called Matthew King, Tom’s brother). In the kerfuffle, as the constables tried to wrestle with King, the scene went as follows:
“Dick, shoot him, or we are taken, by God!” shouted Tom.
Dick rode up, took aim, and fired. He missed the constable, and his shot found a billet from which it ricochets into Tom, his bromance.
“Dick, you have killed me!” cried Tom King.
Tom lived for a week before he died of his wound in New Prison.
Turpin later told a friend that losing King was like losing the ‘best fellowman’ he’d ever had in his life. It didn’t stop him from going on a robbing rampage, though! There is a stream of newspaper entries from the moment King was shot of Turpin plundering almost every day for a month across Essex, Holloway, Islington and around London. Maybe he could blame his grief.
Then it all stopped. Turpin went missing.
John Palmer (aka Dick Turpin)
Legend has it that Turpin, on Black Bess, made a high-speed journey in 1735 from London to York (two hundred-ish miles) in under fifteen hours to create an alibi for shooting King, but as mentioned above, there are newspaper entries that he was still active in London at this time. So, I shall come back to this!
What we do know for sure is that Turpin did end up in York, eventually, under the alias of Jack Palmer. A horse dealer by trade, Palmer (Turpin) mixed with the gentlemen of the area, hunting and shooting with them, while never being short of money.
In 1738, walking back from a hunt with his fellow gents, Palmer shot his landlord’s cockerel in the street. No reason. Maybe he was just showing off. The other gentlemen in the group didn’t appreciate his behaviour and told him so. Palmer snapped back that they should shut up and give him time to reload his gun so he could aim it at them.
And he was doing so well! Three years since killing his best buddy, King, and just by shooting a cock in the street, he snowballs his life towards his own execution!
The local magistrate got a complaint from the landlord (owner of the dead cock) and asked for sureties of Palmer’s good character (character witnesses). Palmer couldn’t produce them and was sent to a house of correction for his sins while awaiting trial. During further investigations, it came out that Palmer was wanted in other parts of Yorkshire for sheep stealing (up to his old tricks again), and he was then sent to York Castle, where he was detained for four months.
Palmer wrote to his brother begging for him to be a character witness, but he forgot to put a stamp on the envelope and his brother, not recognising the writing, refused to pay the postage. The letter was sent back to the post office.
In a weird twist of fate, Mr Smith, the man who taught Turpin to write, saw the envelope at the post office and immediately recognised his former student’s writing. He informed the police and provided a written statement.
In 1739, Dick Turpin was found guilty of horse stealing and sentenced to death. It seems odd that of all his crimes, he was convicted and sentenced for the theft of a horse.
Dick Turpin – The Return
Now back under his proper name, banged up and caged for all to see, Turpin spent his last few weeks entertaining many visitors, who paid to see the most notorious highwayman of them all. Those prison guards certainly knew how to reap the benefits of their job.
Turpin hired a fine suit to be hung in and paid to have professional mourners walk behind the cart and to follow him up the scaffold so he could go out with some carefully planned dramatics that his public would adore. And they did. In death, Turpin showed the bravery and ‘dash’ befitting his public image.
He bought a new frock and shoes for the April 6, 1739, public hanging at Knavesmire, near York, and waved and bowed to the crowd as he was led to the gallows.
The Gentleman’s Magazine reported: As he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble, he spoke a few words to the topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five minutes.
Often, the doomed would have to be ‘turned off’ by either being pushed or the cart being moved, but one thing Turpin had in his last moments was courage. He controlled his own death and did so with some degree of grace.
But don’t let that warm your cockles because Turpin wasn’t a pleasant man.
The Myth Buster
The handsome highwayman – In June 1737, the Gentleman’s Magazine described the murderer of Thomas Morris as ‘about 5ft 9ins high, brown complexion, very much mark’d with the smallpox, his cheek bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright and pretty broad about the shoulders.’
The Castle Museum in York, where Turpin spent his last days before the execution, commissioned an e-fit of Turpin with the help of the North Yorkshire Police. The results were considered historically correct.
Black Bess never belonged to Dick Turpin, and he never made a two-hundred-mile journey from London to York in under fifteen hours to provide himself with an alibi for shooting Tom King. Without overcomplicating matters, this myth, according to more recent historians, is based on a very embellished account written by Harrison Ainsworth in 1834 in his novel called Rookwood.
Ainsworth’s telling of Turpin is very similar to Daniel Defoe’s 1727 account of a highwayman called William Nevison. There are many (many) suggestions of plagiarisms and even more suggestions and claims of artistic embellishment.
Thanks to Ainsworth’s creative fabrications, Turpin, the housebreaker, torturer, rapist, and murderer, morphed into Turpin the Prince of Highwaymen.
For more than a century, Dick Turpin has appeared not so much the greatest of highwaymen as the Highwaymen Incarnate. His prowess has been extolled in novels and upon the stage; his ride to York is still bepraised for a feat of miraculous courage and endurance; the death of Black Bess has drawn floods of tears down the most callous cheeks. And the truth is that Turpin was never a gentleman of the road at all! Black Bess is as pure an invention as the famous ride to York.
The Gravestone is not real, and Turpin is not buried beneath it. Although his body was originally taken to St George’s graveyard, body snatchers attempted to steal it, so his coffin was filled with lime to make it unusable and moved to an unmarked location.
The headstone below was erected in 1918, possibly to commemorate Turpin’s life, or possibly as a tourist attraction – maybe both. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t really deserve such adoration.
James Sharpe from York University suggested that most of Turpin’s gentlemanly flourishes, trimmings and dandy ways were based on Claude Duval. I’m going with that for no other reason than Claude is the highwayman that should have become the archetype of all highwaymen.
Long live Claude!
In the next blog (Tuesday 12th October), we look at Charles Peace, the most notorious burglar ever caught in Blackheath.
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The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.
 Jonathon Green. "Shooter's Hill." Green's Dictionary of Slang (2010): Green's Dictionary of Slang, 2010-01-01  London Evening Post, of February 6, 1735.  Pringle, Patrick. Stand and Deliver: The Story of The Highwaymen, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016  https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result  Grub Street Journal report dated October 16  Caledonian Mercury - Tuesday 20 January 1730  Landmann, George Thomas. Adventures and Recollections of Colonel Landmann. England: Colburn and, 1852  Pringle, Patrick. Stand and Deliver: The Story of The Highwaymen, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016  Thomas Kyll, Professor of Shorthand, The Whole Life and Trial At Large of the Notorious Highwayman Richard Turpin, 1739 at York Assizes  Dick Turpin: The man & the myth – Brutal robberies of the Dandy Highwayman Sunday Mercury April 17, 2016, Edition 1, National Edition  Defoe, D. A Tour Thro The Whole Island of Great Britain, 1727  Charles Whibley, A Book of Scoundrels. London: W. Heinemann, 1897.
Pringle, Patrick. Stand and Deliver: The Story of The Highwaymen, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016
Landmann, George Thomas. Adventures and Recollections of Colonel Landmann. England: Colburn and, 1852
Grub Street Journal
London Evening Post
Whibley, Charles. A Book of Scoundrels. London: W. Heinemann, 1897.
Herbert, Ian. “Dick Turpin Loses His Fresh-faced Image as a Dashing Highwayman.” Independent (London, England: 1986) 2000