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Dick Turpin, Highwayman & Butcher

January 23, 2022
by the gentle author

Dick Turpin upon Black Bess

There is a story that Dick Turpin was apprenticed as a butcher in Whitechapel, and – whatever the truth of it – he returned consistently to this area of East London. There are further stories connecting him to the Red Lion in Whitechapel and the Nag’s Head in the Hackney Rd. Yet, as one who led an elusive transitory criminal existence and who achieved fame only after his death, the actuality of Dick Turpin’s life remains uncertain, overshadowed by the vivid fictions that were contrived later.

Richard Bayes, landlord of the Green Man in Leytonstone, was author of one of the earliest accounts, published in 1739 shortly after Turpin’s execution in York.“He was placed apprentice to a Butcher in White-chaple, where he served his Time, he was frequently guilty of Misdemeanours, and behaved in a loose disorderly Manner…” wrote Bayes, emphasising the authenticity of his narrative by taking a role in it himself. After a horse theft near Waltham Forest in 1736, Bayes tracked the stolen animal to the Red Lion Inn in Whitechapel and was attempting to retrieve it from Turpin’s accomplice Tom King when Turpin himself appeared in Red Lion St, a thoroughfare later subsumed into Commercial St.

“Turpin, who was waiting not far off on horseback, hearing a skirmish came up, when King cried out, ‘Dick, shoot him, or we are taken by God,’ at which instant Turpin fired his pistol, and it missed Mr. Bayes, and shot King in two places, who cried out, ‘Dick, you have killed me,’ which Turpin hearing, he rode away as hard as he could. King fell at the shot, though he lived a Week after, and gave Turpin the character of a coward…”

Yet it was primarily due to Harrison Ainsworth and his illustrator George Cruikshank in the novel “Rookwood” of 1834 that the story of the butcher-turned-brutal-petty-thief from Essex was transformed into the myth of Dick Turpin – the swashbuckling highwayman who stole from the rich and gave to the poor while charming the ladies with his valour and flamboyant style.

A century after Turpin’s death, highway robbery ceased to be a threat, permitting the possibility of a romantic fiction upon the subject. In constructing the myth we recognise today, Ainsworth invented the notion of the death-defying ride to York upon Black Bess to establish an alibi. He ignored the banal fact that Turpin had been operating in Yorkshire for over a year before he was arrested under the name of John Palmer for shooting a “tame fowl,” and his true identity discovered after his arrest only when a letter he signed was recognised in the mail.

Born in Essex in 1705, Richard Turpin set up his own butchery business in Waltham and when trade was slow, he took to poaching venison in Epping Forest and became drawn into robbery as a member of the Gregory Brothers’ Essex Gang – one of many criminal gangs that existed on the margins of large cities when times were hard and law enforcement ineffectual.

Far from being the “gentleman” as Ainsworth characterised him, Turpin was capable of savage violence to achieve his desired ends, which this account from Read’s Weekly Journal of February 1735 reveals – “On Saturday night last, about seven o’clock, five rogues entered the house of the Widow Shelley at Loughton in Essex, having pistols &c. and threatened to murder the old lady, if she would 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.”

After the killing of Tom King, Turpin took refuge in Epping Forest where he shot one of the Forest-Keepers who tried to capture him, and the offer of a reward for his arrest for murder published in the Gentleman’s Magazine  in June 1737 gives the only contemporary description – “Turpin was born at Thackſted in Eſſex, is about Thirty, by Trade a Butcher, about five Feet nine 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.”

This account of the pock-marked broad-shoulder butcher does not quite match the devilishly handsome highwayman of popular lore, yet Turpin is recorded as meeting his death with remarkable courage. Sir George Cooke, Sheriff of Yorkshire, recalled that, “he behav’d himself with amazing assurance” at the execution and “bow’d to the spectators as he passed.” When it came to the moment and his head was in the noose,“he threw himself off the ladder and expired directly.” As the life of Dick Turpin ended, the legend of Dick Turpin was born.

Dick Turpin’s accomplice Tom King – shot in Commercial St.

Rescue of Lady Rookwood by Dick Turpin.

Dick Turpin & Tom King in the Arbour at Kiburn.

Dick Turpin’s flight through Edmonton.


Dick Turpin leaps the Hornsey Gate.

“I’ll let ’em see what I think of ’em!”

The death of Black Bess at the end of the ride to York.

Cover of a pamphlet published in York after Turpin’s execution.

Plates from “The Life of Richard Turpin” by Richard Bayes.

Title page of the life of Dick Turpin written by Richard Bayes, landlord of the Green Man in Leytonstone.

The opening page of Richard Bayes’account, placing Turpin as an apprentice butcher in Whitechapel.

Richard Bayes’ account of his skirmish with Dick Turpin at the Red Lion in Whitechapel.

The former Nag’s Head opposite Hackney City Farm in the Hackney Rd. Dick Turpin was reputed  to frequent an earlier coaching inn known as The Nag’s Head upon this site.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Milo permalink
    January 23, 2022

    I really didn’t need to know that the ‘legendary’ Dick Turpin was once had up for taking a pop at a ‘tame fowl.’
    I wonder wether he killed it or was reduced to chasing it around its pen with a stick?

  2. Gillian Tindall permalink
    January 23, 2022

    You are surely right in thinking that the romanticisation of this brutal petty thug was brought about by Ainsworth, when the coming of railways and the new police force were making highway robbers a thing of the past. But I suspect that the good-bad romantic poet Alfred Noyes, with his love-story-plus-ghost poem `The Highwayman’, published two generations later again, had a hand in the myth too. The highwayman in it is in love with an inn-keeper’s daughter –

    … “Look for me by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight,
    I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way”…

  3. Hermann Hasler permalink
    January 23, 2022

    And here the Ballad to the story.

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