Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Colin's Little Known Facts: Essex Man Turpin Was No Hero

Dick Turpin, England’s most famous highwayman, was an Essex man – and he was anything but a hero.

Turpin was born at the Bell Inn (later the Rose and Crown) in the pretty Essex village of Hempstead, near Finchingfield and Saffron Walden, in 1706.

As a teenager he trained as a butcher, which stood him in good stead later on when he became a sheep and cattle thief. He knew which cuts of meat would sell, and also knew how to cut the animals up.

The popular view of Turpin is of a Robin Hood style hero, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Actually, he robbed from anybody to give to himself. The activity at which he really excelled, for which he could have played for England, as it were, was finding lonely old ladies who lived miles from anywhere and terrorising them before robbing them.

He spent some time living in Epping Forest, where he led a gang which attacked and robbed travellers along the road.

Turpin joined forces with another highwayman named Tom King. They had met when they ambushed each other, each unaware of the other’s prowess. Their partnership came to an end at Whitechapel, when Turpin accidentally killed King while shooting at somebody else.

Changing is name to John Palmer, Turpin moved to Lincolnshire and then on to Yorkshire. Eventually, he was arrested for horse theft, a capital offence at the time.

While awaiting trial at York, he wrote to his family back in Essex, and the letter was intercepted by his old schoolmaster, who told the authorities of his true identity.

Turpin was hanged at the Knavesmire in York in 1739, playing to the crowd by admitting to lots of crimes and jumping off the platform, dying immediately.

Those among you who have been on one of my Coach Trips to York will have been shown his grave.

The man who was responsible for giving this dreadful man his romantic and heroic reputation was W. Harrison Ainsworth, the Victorian author, who made him the hero of his novel “Rookwood”.