Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Turpin, Richard

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TURPIN, RICHARD (1706–1739), robber, born in 1706, was the son of John Turpin, a small innkeeper of Hempstead in Essex. The house of his birth is identified with ‘The Crown Inn,’ opposite which is a circle of nine trees still known as ‘Turpin's Ring;’ near by, at ‘Dawkin's Farm,’ is a gigantic oak in which tradition relates that Turpin found refuge from his pursuers (see DAY, Way about Essex, p. 88). Young Turpin was apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel, but, having been detected in stealing some cattle from a farmer named Giles of Plaistow, he joined a gang of smugglers and deer-stealers, and took the lead in some brutal robberies in his native county. Selecting lonely farmhouses for attack while the male occupants were away, Turpin and his mates tortured the inmates into yielding up their valuables. A reward of fifty guineas was offered for the apprehension of the gang, and when this was augmented to a hundred, two of the ringleaders were arrested and hanged and the rest intimidated. Shortly after this, in February 1735, Turpin encountered on the Cambridge Road the highwayman Tom King, with whom he is said to have entered into partnership. Having on one occasion lifted a fine horse from a certain Mr. Major near the Green Man in Epping Forest, Turpin retained the animal for his personal use, and was traced through its means to the Red Lion in Whitechapel. A constable was on the point of arresting King for the theft, when Turpin, riding up, fired, but missed his man and shot his ally through the breast. King died of his hurt, but not before he had given some indication of Turpin's haunts, whither huntsmen proceeded with bloodhounds. Turpin nevertheless escaped to Long Sutton, and thence made his way to Yorkshire, where under his mother's name of Palmer he procured and sold horses. He was committed to York Castle on suspicion of horse-stealing early in February 1739. Tried at York assizes on 22 March 1738–9, before Sir William Chapple (1677–1745) [q. v.], for stealing a black mare and foal at Welton, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He divided 3l. 10s. among five men to follow the cart as mourners, and died with courage at York on 7 April 1739, aged 33. Apart from the slaughter of King, for which he expressed regret, he confessed to one murder and several atrocious robberies. Most of his associates had predeceased him, a circumstance which is said to have elicited from the ordinary the apophthegm—‘There is no union so liable to dissolution as that of felons.’ His body was rescued from the clutches of a surgeon by the mob, and buried in the churchyard of St. George's church, York. His fetters, weighing twenty-eight pounds, are still shown at York Museum.

The fact of Turpin's migration to the north after shooting King may have suggested to Harrison Ainsworth the interpolation of the well-known legend of the ride to York into his romance of ‘Rookwood’ (1834), in which ‘Dick Turpin’ figured prominently. The story was formerly associated with a highwayman known by the sobriquet of ‘Nicks,’ who in 1676 haunted the Chatham road for the purpose of robbing sailors of their pay. Having robbed a traveller at Gad's Hill one morning, says the story (related in Defoe's ‘Tour through Great Britain,’ i. 138, 5th edit. 1753, and also in the ‘Memoirs of Charles Lewis, Baron de Pollnitz,’ under date 4 May 1733), ‘Nicks,’ who was mounted on a splendid bay mare, determined to prove an alibi in case of ill consequences. He rode off at 4 A.M. to Gravesend and, while detained for an hour or so for a boat, baited his horse. Crossing the water, he rode to Chelmsford, where he rested and gave his horse some balls, then through Cambridge and Huntingdon, and, after some brief rests, to York, where he put in an appearance at the Bowling Green at a quarter before eight in the evening (roughly 190 miles in fifteen hours). ‘Nicks’ or ‘Swift Nick’ has been identified with John Nevison [q. v.], who may well have had a closer connection with what is probably an ancient myth of the north road than Richard Turpin, a very commonplace ruffian, who owes all his fame to the literary skill of Ainsworth. According to the more circumstantial versions of the legend, Turpin set out upon his adventurous ride from Broadway, Westminster, on his famous mare, ‘Black Bess,’ whence, says Walcott (Westminster, p. 289), the ‘Black Horse,’ Broadway, had its name; but unfortunately the ‘Black Horse’ is mentioned in Stow (ed. 1722). The spot where this same apocryphal black mare sank exhausted to the ground is still pointed out on York racecourse. Equally baseless stories are told of Turpin's being hanged for stealing a bridle or shooting a gamecock, and diatribes against the iniquity of English laws have been based upon these fables (cf. Gent. Mag. 1819 passim). Fabulous, too, in all probability, are the Turpin traditions at Hounslow, at Finchley, and at Enfield, where one of the robber's lurking-places in Camlet-moat is still pointed out. Dick Turpin's ‘portmanteau’ forms the subject of an engraving in Pinks's ‘Clerkenwell’ (1881, p. 164; cf. Thorne, Environs of London; Robinson, History and Antiquities of Enfield, 1823, i. 58 n.) The legend was humorously amplified in the well-known ballad in the ‘Pickwick Papers.’

[The Trial of the Notorious Highwayman Richard Turpin at York Assizes on 22 March 1739, before the Hon. Sir William Chapple, knt., Judge of Assize and one of His Majesty's Justices of the Court of King's Bench. Taken down in court by Thomas Kylls, professor of shorthand. To which is prefixed an exact account of the said Turpin from his first coming into Yorkshire to the time of his being committed prisoner to York Castle … with a copy of a letter which Turpin received from his father while under sentence of death, York, 1739; 4th edition expanded, 1739. Numerous chapbook lives, réchauffés of Ainsworth, have appeared in London and the provinces between 1834 and 1896. See also Gent. Mag. 1739, p. 213; Hargrove's Hist. of York, ii. 310; Twyford and Griffiths's Records of York Castle, 1880, pp. 251–5; Depositions from York Castle, ed. Raine, 1861, p. 279; Tyburn Chronicle, iii. 99–112; Remarkable Trials, pp. 100 sq.; Walford's Old and New London; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, i. 279; Wroth's London Pleasure Gardens, p. 100; Retrospective Review, vii. 283; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 386, 433, 3rd ser. xi. 440, 505, 8th ser. viii. 4; Standard, 23 May 1867.]

T. S.