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William Powell Frith's 1860 painting of Claude Duval, a French highwayman in England, depicts a romanticised image of highway robbery.

The truth about Dick Turpin, England's most notorious higwayman

Image: William Powell Frith's 1860 painting of Claude Duval depicts a romanticised image of highway robbery | Public Domain

In 1834, William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood featured the highwayman Dick Turpin undertaking a 200 mile overnight ride from Kent to York to establish an alibi. The fact this ride had been done by someone else 30 years before Turpin was born was neither here nor there - the story struck a chord with the public.

The ‘Penny Dreadful’ book Black Bess or the Knight of the Road repeated the tale of Turpin’s ride, while also portraying him as a dashing gentleman of the road who robbed the rich and protected the weak. Artists, playwrights, and later film and TV producers added more layers to the Turpin story, embedding in the public imagination the notion that Turpin was the Robin Hood of 18th century England. As we will see, nothing could be further from the truth.

The early days of highwaymen

The first highwaymen were often former soldiers who had served in the English Civil War. Travellers out on England’s unprotected roads were easy pickings for these men, and a lack of witnesses meant highway robbery posed less of a risk of being caught and hanged than other forms of robbery.

The most famous highwayman of this period was James Hind. Hind was a soldier who fought for the Royalists in the Civil War; some say he even assisted in the escape of King Charles II after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651.

During the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, Hind turned to highway robbery, but unusually, only robbed from supporters of Cromwell’s regime. His continuing support for the Royalists made him a folk hero to supporters of the exiled Charles, starting a pattern of highwayman hero-worship, whether it was deserved or not.

Hind was caught and tried for treason instead of robbery as punishment for his Royalist sympathies. He was found guilty and suffered the agonising death of a traitor when he was hanged, drawn and quartered in Worcester in 1652.

A true gentleman of the road

It was a Frenchman called Claude Duval who we have to thank for the image of the highwayman as a dashing, well-dressed rogue with impeccable manners. Duval was everything Dick Turpin was not.

Duval’s family had sheltered Royalist exiles in France following their defeat in the Civil War. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Duval travelled to England to work as a footman for the Duke of Richmond. After that proved neither interesting nor lucrative, Duval turned his hand to a career that was infinitely more suited to his talents - highway robbery.

Duval was a cut above the usual criminals of Restoration England. At that time, crime (especially robbery) went hand-in-hand with violence. Criminals wouldn’t hesitate to brutalise their victims, as Dick Turpin and his accomplices did a century later. Duval, by contrast, never resorted to violence and had impeccable manners. One story has him holding up a stagecoach and agreeing to take just half of its owner’s money in exchange for a dance with his wife.

Unfortunately for Duval, all the manners in the world - and several appeals to the king - couldn’t save him from the gallows. He was arrested at a London inn and hanged at Tyburn on 21st January 1670.

Swift Nick, the night rider

It’s not just impeccable manners and sartorial elegance that we wrongly associate with Dick Turpin. One of his most famous exploits, the ride through the night from Kent to York, was actually carried out by a man called John ‘Swift Nick’ Nevison, some 30 years before Turpin was born.

Another former soldier, Nevison turned to highway robbery in the 1670s and, like Charles Duval before him, gained a reputation as a courteous, well-dressed gentleman of the road.

Nevison made his famous ride in 1676. He robbed a man at Gad’s Hill near Rochester in Kent. To give himself an alibi in case he was later accused, Nevison rode all night from Rochester to York, 200 miles north. Arriving early in the morning, Nevison engaged in a game of bowls with the Lord Mayor of the city. When he was later arrested for the Gad’s Hill robbery, Nevison produced the mayor as a witness and escaped the gallows.

He wasn't able to put off his appointment with the hangman for long. Despite a reputation for non-violence, Nevison was eventually arrested for the murder of a constable and hanged at Knavesmire in York in 1684. It was the same place Turpin would meet his end 55 years later.

The most famous highwayman of them all

Born in 1705, Richard ‘Dick’ Turpin apprenticed as a butcher - the same profession as his father. It was a profession that would bring him into the orbit of one of London’s most notorious criminal gangs - the Gregorys.

The Gregorys stole livestock, which meant they needed the services of a butcher to cut up the meat so it could be sold more easily. Turpin was only too happy to oblige and it wasn’t long before he was a close associate of the gang, eventually taking over a tavern that became the Gregorys’ main meeting place. Impressed with the large sums of money the gang was making, Turpin abandoned innkeeping in favour of crime.

The gang switched from stealing livestock to raiding homes. While Turpin kept away from the Gregorys’ early invasions, the temptation of easy riches proved too much and he eventually joined in. The invasions were brutal. Not only did the gang break into homes, but they also attacked the people who lived there. Any resistance was met with extreme violence. One particularly nasty incident that Turpin was directly involved in was an attack on a 70-year-old farmer who was beaten with pistols, dragged around his home by his hair and had boiling water poured on him.

The Gregory gang was eventually broken up after a crackdown by the authorities and many of its members were hanged. Turpin escaped the clutches of the law and switched to the profession that he is now most associated with.

Turpin’s career as a highwayman lasted less than two years. Between 1735 and 1737, Turpin and his fellow highwaymen committed a series of high-profile robberies that gained ‘Turpin the Butcher’ (as he was known on wanted posters) notoriety across South East England. Along with his accomplice Thomas Rowden, Turpin hit several coaches and single travellers. After a £100 bounty was placed on his head, the pair decided to split up. Turpin is rumoured to have travelled to the Netherlands to lay low; Rowland was eventually captured and transported.

He returned to highway robbery in 1737, joining up with fellow highwaymen Matthew King and Stephen Potter for a spree of robberies between March and April that abruptly ended when a horse they had stolen was tracked down to an inn in Whitechapel that the gang frequented. In the melee that followed, King was shot and killed while Turpin escaped. The bounty on his head was raised to £200. He had no choice but to flee London and go into hiding.

After changing his name to John Palmer, Turpin began a new career as a horse thief in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. In July 1737, Turpin stole three horses from Pinchbeck in Lincolnshire and left one of the horses with his father. The authorities soon put two and two together and realised the horse had been stolen by his son.

Turpin was arrested and imprisoned in the Yorkshire town of Beverley in 1738 after shooting a man’s chicken dead in the street and then threatening to shoot its owner. While he was being held, he gave away that he was not John Palmer in a letter to his brother-in-law. He was charged with the theft of three horses he had stolen the year before and found guilty.

Dick Turpin was executed on 7th April 1739 at the age of 33. In life, he had been a violent, unprincipled thug. In death, he undeservedly became a hero.

The end of the road

Highwaymen continued to terrorise the roads for another 100 years after Turpin’s death, with notable names such as Plunkett, MacLaine and the flamboyant Sixteen String Jack briefly capturing the public imagination. By the turn of the 19th century, however, their days were numbered.

Many cite the building of the railways as ushering in their demise, but in reality, the days of the highwaymen were numbered long before a single track had been laid. The invention of better rifles and pistols meant coaches could defend themselves against attack, while the introduction of professional police forces, the enclosure of land and the introduction of manned toll roads combined to make the days when a highwayman could escape into the countryside undetected a thing of the past. The last recorded highway robbery in England occurred in the country in 1831.