The Real Dick Turpin I Oxford Open Learning

    Dick Turpin

    The Real Dick Turpin

    Dick Turpin is known as a gentleman thief, a Robin Hood-like character who steals from the rich to give to the poor, and has found fame on both television and film, such as that advertised above. But this description, which is largely down to William Harrison Ainsworth’s portrayal of him in his 1834 novel, Rookwood, is far from the truth. So, who was the real Dick Turpin?

    The Background Of Dick Turpin

    Dick Turpin was born c.1705 and grew up in Essex. He was a butcher’s apprentice, later becoming a butcher himself, and from the 1730s began purchasing venison that had been poached from the royal forests in Essex by a notorious and violent group of thieves known as The Essex Gang. Turpin soon joined the group and from 1734 the gang, forced to abandon poaching due to the increased surveillance of the local police, turned to violent robbery.

    A Violent Criminal

    In January 1735, the government set out a reward of £50 for information about the gang and this led to the arrest, and eventual hanging, of several gang members. Turpin, however, escaped apprehension and decided to part ways with The Essex Gang. By April 1735, he had begun a new career as a highwayman with a number of Epping Forest armed robberies being attributed to him. The government offered a new reward of £100 for information leading to his arrest but Turpin simply moved his operations closer to London. It was at this time that he found two new accomplices, Matthew King and Stephen Potter. During one incident involving a stolen horse which Turpin and his crew foolishly stabled a mere 10 miles from where they’d stolen it, Turpin accidentally shot King dead during a skirmish. After this, he fled back to Epping Forest to hide – some sources claim he had a secret cave in the woods there.

    A King’s Ransom

    In June 1737, a new reward for Turpin was offered along with a description of the man: “His Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious Pardon to any of his Accomplices, and a Reward of £200 to any Person or Persons that shall discover him, so as he may be apprehended and convicted… [he] 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.”

    By this time Turpin had, perhaps wisely, retreated north to Lincolnshire. Working as a “horse dealer” under the name of John Palmer, Turpin began stealing horses to sell in Yorkshire. Selling horses meant that he associated with high society, often going on hunting trips with the local gentry, and this is perhaps where the idea of the dashing, gentleman highwayman come from.

    The End

    However, his exploits in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire didn’t last long. In July 1737, Turpin/Palmer stole horses and sheep from landowner Thomas Creasy and witness testimony led the man known as Turpin to be arrested for the robbery and imprisoned in Yorkshire. At the same time, people began to grow suspicious of Palmer, wondering how it was that whenever he returned home, he had several horses and large sums of money with him. It wasn’t until March 1739 that the true identity of Palmer was revealed, and on 7th April that year Turpin was hung in York. Far from being gentlemen thieves, Turpin and his associates were violent criminals who committed armed robbery, assault, rape and murder. Whilst Ainsworth’s Rookwood portrayal of him may be fun, it is important to remember the dangerous man that Dick Turpin really was.

    For more information on Turpin’s story read 10 Facts in the Appalling True Story of Dick Turpin, the 18th Century Robin Hood at

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