Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Untrodden English Ways
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


HAD it not been for the idealizing pen of Harrison Ainsworth it is likely the name of Dick Turpin would have been consigned to oblivion many years ago. The rehabilitation of the novelist was accomplished in the nick of time. Executed in 1739, the fame of that notorious highwayman had been kept alive by numerous chapbooks for three generations, but was on the eve of extinction in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. At that period the old coaching days were becoming little more than a memory, and with their passing all the exciting legends of "the road" were also fading away. In a. few more years the name and fame of Dick Turpin would have suffered no revival save in that unexplored underworld of hair-raising fiction frequented only by the small boy of lawless tastes.

Then came the turn in Dick Turpin's fortunes. The tales of his daring exploits were still fresh in the memory of Bulwer Lytton when, by the writing of "Paul Clifford," he resolved to demonstrate how the prisons and criminal laws of that period fostered "the habit of first corrupting the boy by the very punishment that ought to redeem him, and then hanging the man, at the first occasion, as the easiest way of getting rid of our own blunders." To point this moral and adorn this tale, Lytton conceived the case of an illegitimate son of a prosperous villain deserted in a low London slum and the victim of evil influences. No reader of "Paul Clifford" can fail to recall the squalor of the disreputable ale-house where the young hero of the story is discovered when the story opens. At the age of twelve he has learnt to read, but unfortunately he is applying that accomplishment in an unprofitable manner. "Paul, my ben cull," asked his besotted foster-mother, "what gibberish hast got there?" "Turpin, the great highwayman," answered the lad, without lifting his eyes from the page.

What particular version of Turpin's life was affected by Paul Clifford his creator does not stop to explain, but, obviously it was sufficiently exciting to prompt the use of that adjective usually reserved for such monarchs as Alexander and Alfred. That many another boy beside Paul Clifford has made a similar misapplication of the word "great" has been due, as hinted above, to the zeal with which Harrison Ainsworth, noting the success which attended Lytton's effort, devoted himself to the task of combining romance with roguery.

Probably in extenuation for the glowing colours in which, in the pages of "Rookwood," he painted the character and exploits of Turpin, Ainsworth explained that he was "the hero" of his boyhood. The novelist confessed to a life-long passion for highwaymen; that as a lad he would listen by the hour while his father narrated the doings of "Dauntless Dick," that "chief minion of the moor;" and that he had often lingered in ecstasy by those inns, and roadsides, and rivers traditionally associated with his lawless career.

Naturally, all this enthusiasm ripened to resplendent blossom in the pages of "Rook-wood." Hardly has any other victim of the gallows been so richly garlanded with the flowers of rhetoric. It may be necessary later to destroy both their fragrance and beauty, but in the meantime a few of the choicest examples may be culled for temporary admiration.

"Rash daring was the main feature of Turpin's character. Like our great Nelson he knew fear only by name."

"Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct. Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road; with him died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex, which was first breathed upon the highway by the gay, gallant Claude Du-Val, the Bayard of the Road — le filou sans peur et sans reproche  but which was extinguished at last by the cord that tied the heroic Turpin to the remorseless tree."

"The last of this race (for we must persist in maintaining that he was the last), Turpin, like the setting sun, threw up some parting rays of glory, and tinged the far highways with a lustre that may yet be traced like a cloud of dust raised by his horse's retreating heels."

"Beyond dispute he ruled as master of the road. His hands were, as yet, unstained with blood; he was ever prompt to check the disposition to outrage, and to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the commission of violence by his associates."

"Unequalled in the command of his steed, the most singular feat that the whole race of the annals of horsemanship has to record was achieved by him:"

"Turpin's external man was singularly prepossessing. It was especially so in the eyes of the sex, amongst whom not a single dissentient voice was to be heard. All concurred in thinking him a fine fellow; could plainly read his high courage in his bearing; his good breeding in his débonnaire deportment; and his manly beauty in his extravagant red whiskers."

Truly a gorgeous bouquet! But Ainsworth had still more flowers to adorn his hero. The fourth book of "Rookwood" is devoted to the expansion of the hint given to the effect that Turpin by riding from London to York on his famous Black Bess placed to his credit "the most singular feat" in the annals of horsemanship. Ainsworth was excessively proud of the twelve chapters in which he described that exploit. He put on record the name and locality of the house in which, in the space of less than twenty-four hours, he penned the hundred pages which tell of the ride to York. "Well do I remember," he said, "the fever into which I was thrown during the time of composition. My pen literally scoured over the pages. So thoroughly did I identify myself with the flying highwayman that, once started, I found it impossible to halt. Animated by kindred enthusiasm, I cleared every obstacle in my path with as much facility as Turpin disposed of the impediments that beset his flight. In his company, I mounted the hillside, dashed through the bustling village, swept over the desolate heath, threaded the silent street, plunged into the eddying stream, and kept an onward course, without pause, without hindrance, without fatigue. With him I shouted, sang, laughed, exulted, wept. Nor did I retire to rest till, in imagination, I heard the bell of York Minster toll forth the knell of poor Black Bess."

Perhaps a highwayman did once ride from London to York in fifteen hours. And such a feat, the covering of nearly two hundred miles on one horse in so brief a space of time, deserved to be sung in glowing lines. But there is no evidence to show that it was accomplished by Turpin. On the other hand it seems highly probable that the ride actually was achieved in 1676 by another highwayman, Nevison by name, and that his feat was transferred to Turpin for the purpose of enhancing the glory of that precious hero.

Whether Turpin was such a model as the novelist and schoolboy would have him to be is open to grave question. There can be no question, however, that he was a choice scoundrel. In the proclamation issued for his arrest in 1737, he is described as a native of Thaxted, in Essex, but that assertion is wrong. He was an Essexman, it is true, but it was at Hempstead, and not at Thaxted, he first saw the light. Some years ago, the Crown Inn at Hempstead was adorned with a board recording the fact that Dick Turpin was born within its walls, and although the board is gone the fact remains as one indisputable item in the highwayman's history. The exact date of his birth will probably never be known, but the parish register attests that Richard Turpin, the son of John and Mary Turpin, was baptized in the village church on Sept. 21st, 1705. On the coffin in which he received a felon's burial at York in 1739 his age was given as twenty-eight, but the Hempstead record proves that he must have escaped the gallows for thirty-four years at least.

And he might have escaped for many more years than that if he had resisted the temptation to shoot a game-cock. It happened in this manner: Turpin was hiding in Yorkshire, under the assumed name of John Palmer, and, by cleverly stealing horses and then selling them to gentlemen with whom he used to hunt, he managed both to provide himself with daily bread and maintain a considerable position in the world. His horse-thefts, the latest of which had yielded a harvest of a mare and her foal, were not found out, but the charge brought home to him of shooting a game-cock led to a train of evidence which brought the appropriation of the mare and her foal to his door. Arrest and trial followed, and then there gathered such a cloud of witnesses around Turpin, including several Hempstead natives who had known him from birth, that it was no difficult matter to hang the noose round his throat.

Whoso would disentangle the real Dick Turpin from the mythical article must rely largely upon the evidence given at his trial in York, reported by one who described himself as a "possessor of shorthand." The Hempstead witnesses were almost indecently loquacious, and appear to have bent their best energies toward securing the conviction of their fellow-villager. Whether they were jealous of the fair fame of their native hamlet, or were merely taking a belated revenge for some of Dick's boyish escapades, does not appear. They told, however, how Dick's father was both an innkeeper and a butcher, how Dick was a wild spirit from his earliest years, how his parents tried to sober him by marriage, and how, by the appearance of a rejected letter at the post-office, they had been able to identify the John Palmer in prison at York with the Richard Turpin too well known by them all.


That proclamation of 1737 already alluded to ignores the "manly beauty" and "extravagant red whiskers" of Ainsworth, and tersely describes Turpin as "about thirty, five feet nine inches high, brown complexion, very much marked with the smallpox, his cheek-bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders." Other evidence goes to show that instead of being that paragon of chivalry described by the novelist, Turpin's turn of mind led him more "towards seating old women on their fires, than meeting men in open fight."

Of the actual bearing of the man in the presence of reliable witnesses there is no record more explicit than the account of his execution, which took place at York on April 7th, 1739. "The notorious Richard Turpin and Jack Stead," says the chronicler, "were executed at York for horse-stealing. Turpin behaved in an undaunted manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble, he stamped it down, and, looking round about him with an unconcerned air, he spoke a few words to the Topsman, then threw himself off and expired in five minutes." With the natural conceit of his kind, he had provided that he should be lamented in some fashion, for he left three pounds ten shillings to five men who were to follow his cart as mourners, in addition to hat-bands and gloves for them and several others. The body, enclosed in a "neat coffin," and bearing the inscription, "J. P. 1739. R. T. aged 28," was buried in St. George's churchyard. Early the next morning, however, it was "snatched," and carried off to the garden of one of the surgeons of the city. But the news soon spread, a mob quickly gathered, and, set upon saving the body from dissection, they placed it on a board and carried it back to the grave, this time taking the precaution to fill the coffin with lime, and so render any subsequent "snatching" a useless enterprise.



Opposite the Crown Inn at Hempstead there is a clump of trees planted in a circle, and known as Turpin's Ring. How the highwayman's name came to be associated with this curious cluster of trees is a mystery. It is also puzzling to account satisfactorily for their having been planted in this unusual shape. The local tradition has it that this was the village cock-pit, or even the scene of Hempstead bear-baiting in the good old times.

Another Turpin relic may be seen at Dawkin's Farm, a mile or so from the village. This is merely the decaying trunk of the famous Hempstead oak, in the boughs of which Dick is reputed to have hidden from his pursuers. It would furnish but a meagre hiding-place to-day, but in Turpin's time it was a living forest-giant, with a girth of more than fifty feet, and branches spreading over a circumference of a hundred and five yards.

For all his shortcomings, at this distance of time we can afford to be charitable to the memory of Dick Turpin. He may not deserve the plea of Schiller, which discerns a spirit of genius beneath the guise of every robber; but, though his body hung in no gibbet, he may be included among those outcasts for whom Villon wrote the immortal epitaph:

"The water of heaven has washed us clean,
     The sun has scorched us black and bare,
Ravens and rooks they have pecked at our een,
     And lined their nests with our beards and hair;
Round are we tossed, and here and there,
     This way and that at the wild wind's will,
Not for a moment our bodies are still  
     Birds they are busy about my face.
Be not as we, nor fare as we fare 
      Pray God pardon us out of His grace."

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.