Legend meets reality
Dick Turpin is one of those “everybody knows” characters of English folklore. Everybody knows that he was a “gentleman highwayman” who treated his victims with respect and performed a magnificent feat of horsemanship by riding his mare “Black Bess” from London to York in double-quick time in order to escape justice. He ranks alongside Robin Hood and King Arthur as romantic folk heroes.
However, truth and reality are poles apart here. It is true that Dick Turpin did exist, and it is also true that a highwayman did once cover 200 miles on horseback within a day, but they were not the same person. The mistake was made by the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth in a novel published in 1824, but the story became so popular that it entered public consciousness as the truth, and for most people it has stayed that way ever since.
Richard Turpin was the son of an Essex innkeeper. He was born in 1705 and became involved in stealing deer in Epping Forest as part of a gang. He was lucky to escape being caught, which is what happened to the other gang members, but decided that a life of crime suited him. He therefore turned to highway robbery as a means of earning a living.
He was clearly a nasty piece of work. He was not above committing murder if it suited him, and it was to escape the consequences of such a deed that he fled to Yorkshire in 1738, although not during the course of a single day.
Once in Yorkshire he changed his name but not his criminal activities, although he turned his attention to stealing horses rather than holding up stagecoaches. He was eventually caught and convicted, being hanged in York on 7th April 1739.
He attracted public attention because he decided to go out in style. He “held court” in his prison cell by inviting people to visit him and hear of his exploits, then hired five mourners to accompany him to the gallows where he became the master of ceremonies at his own execution by waving to the crowds before leaping to his death.
Dick Turpin therefore made a name for himself, and this is probably what confused William Harrison Ainsworth when he came to write his novel “Rookwood”. Even so, there is no evidence that Turpin had achieved folk hero status in the years following his death. A criminal had paid the price for his crimes and, despite making a show of things in his final days, was largely forgotten until Rookwood was published.
The other “Dick Turpin”
However, during the century before Turpin lived there was another criminal who had attracted public attention and of whom much more complimentary things had been said. This was John Nevison, who was born in 1639 and died on the gallows in 1684.
It was said of Nevison that he only robbed rich people, although there would have been little point in robbing people without any money, and that he was always polite to his victims. These are characteristics that would later be associated with Dick Turpin. However, Nevison was said to be tall, handsome and aristocratic in his bearing, which was certainly not true of Turpin.
The clincher in terms of Ainsworth’s error is that Nevison was reputed to have committed a robbery in Kent early one morning then crossed the Thames and ridden all the way to York where he greeted the Mayor at sunset. As nobody believed that a man could be in Kent in the morning and York in the evening, he had a cast-iron alibi. The story came to the ears of King Charles II, who promptly gave him the nickname of “Swift Nick” – despite his name being John.
The legend of Swift Nick was recorded by Daniel Defoe in his 1724 work “A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain”. It is possible that this is where William Harrison Ainsworth got some of his information from, but he should have checked his sources more carefully before putting pen to paper.
As it was, the publication of Rookwood sparked the Dick Turpin myth and it was not only Ainsworth who was able to cash in on it. In the years that followed many prints were sold showing images of Turpin’s ride, and many landlords of inns along his supposed route were happy to allow customers, for a fee, to drink a pint out of the very tankard that Turpin used when he paused for refreshment!
© John Welford