Dick Turpin, Handsome Hero or Violent Criminal?

Dick Turpin, the infamous highwayman who lived between 1705 and 1739, has been presented by folklore and by many modern filmmakers and authors as a handsome hero, dashing through the night on his loyal steed.

However, the real Dick Turpin was absolutely not a handsome hero, he did not own a horse called Black Bess and was in fact a violent criminal who spent much of his time terrorising the people of 18th-century England.

The Bluebell Inn, Dick Turpin's Birthplace, Hempstead, Essex
The Bluebell Inn in Hempstead, Essex, the birthplace of Dick Turpin on 21 September 1705.

So why has he been immortalised as a hero? Who was the real Dick Turpin, why has he been romanticised and what has been left out of history?


Common myths about Dick Turpin

Many people today will tell you that Dick Turpin was a Robin Hood-like hero, who caused havoc for wealthy travelers when in fact, he was a criminal known for exploiting and harming people in the pursuit of money and riches. He did not discriminate in his choice of victims, and he certainly didn’t give any money to the poor.

Dick Turpin
21 September 1705 entry of Turpin’s name in the parish baptism register for Hempstead, Essex (fifth line down).

Many of the facts we think we know about Turpin’s life are actually false. He didn’t make his epic nighttime journey all the way from the south of England to York (about 200 miles or 322 kilometres) and his horse was not jet-black nor named Black Bess. 

Read More: Stand and Deliver: Who Were Britain’s Highwaymen?

The famous midnight journey was actually the accomplishment of another highwayman who had lived 30 years prior to Turpin, John Nevison (or ‘Swift Nick’). Nevison undertook this incredible feat in order to provide himself with an alibi after robbing a man in Kent.

Dick Turpin
During the 1730s, Dick Turpin was a regular visitor to the 13th century ‘The Cock’ Inn at Sibson which is the second oldest Inn in the country, and only seven miles north west of Hinckley.


He left Kent in the evening, rode through the night and arrived in York early the next morning. Then to solidify his alibi he attended a game of bowls with the mayor. When he was later arrested for the crime, he called the Mayor as a witness who could testify that Nevison was in York that morning and he escaped execution.

He did eventually meet justice, however, when he was hanged for murdering a constable in York, in 1684. Coincidently, he was executed at the same place that Turpin would be.

Read More: Coaching Inns & The Staging Inns, What are They?

So, who was the real Dick Turpin?

The real Dick Turpin was born in 1705 in the village of Hempstead in Essex. In the early 1730s he worked as a butcher until he realised his skills could be more lucratively used to steal cattle.

He then joined the infamous Gregory Gang, and he soon began terrorising the residents of 18th-century Essex. With the support of the Gang, Turpin began to steal cattle and horses from local farms and residences. However, this did not satisfy Turpin’s criminal cravings for long, and soon he turned to more gruesome crimes.

Epping Forest was a regular haunt of the Essex Gang.
Epping Forest was a regular haunt of the Essex Gang.

He conducted a great many burglaries and thefts with the Gang but was forced to stop working with them when many of them were arrested and executed for their crimes. Turpin managed to escape justice and turned his attention elsewhere.

Turpin noticed highwaymen were making a considerable amount by targeting wealthy and unprotected travelers on the roads. He decided to join them and took his business to a cave in Epping Forest. He enlisted the help of a man named Thomas Rowden and together the two criminals began attacking passers-by.

Read More: Medieval Mass Dials, Do You Know What They Are?

Their efforts did not make them rich, but they did make an impact on the local population. They had struck terror into them and a £100 bounty was placed on their heads.


Possibly because of the threat of the bounty, Turpin decided to move on from Epping Forest and join the escapades of the highwayman, Tom King. However, the partnership did not last long for Turpin murdered King during what is suspected to have been a robbery gone wrong in 1737. 

Living the life of a highwayman was a dangerous existence. Many suffered injury or met their deaths while engaging in their illegal activities 

It was also during this year that Turpin nearly met a premature end when he was almost ambushed by authorities who had received a tip-off that he was planning a meet-up with his wife.

Turpin caught wind of this and managed to evade capture, but he neglected to tell his wife about the trap, and she was arrested and taken to prison. It was at this point that Turpin returned to Epping Forest, where he was spotted by a servant by the name of Thomas Morris who Turpin shot and killed. It was after this crime that he famously fled North.

Read More: Do You Live Near One? Turnpike Roads & Cottages

To make some money up North, he took to stealing horses in Lincolnshire which he smuggled to Yorkshire to sell. At this time, Turpin devised a new identity for himself under the name of John Palmer.

However, the change of identity didn’t mean he reformed his behaviour for he continued to commit crimes. It was not long before he was arrested for shooting a chicken and threatening to do the same to its owner.

A Fortune

At first, the authorities did not realise that they had caught Dick Turpin the notorious highwayman and instead believed they had caught a petty, somewhat unhinged, thief called John Palmer. They locked him up in York Castle and he was only identified by chance when his handwriting was recognised by his older teacher, John Smith, on a letter he sent to his brother-in-law.

The Victorians were great at rewriting history. William Powell Frith’s 1860 painting of Claude Duval, a French highwayman in England, depicts a romanticised image of highway robbery.

Smith was awarded a £200 reward (about £35,000 in today’s money) for handing over Turpin and the criminal was executed on the 7th of April 1739.

Turpin made sure he looked his best, however, and prior to his execution brought himself a new frock coat and shoes to wear on the day. The only people to attend his execution were between five to ten mourners (accounts vary) who Turpin had paid a shilling each to be there.

Did he really torture someone by roasting their feet over the fire?

One of the most famous and alarming myths about Dick Turpin is that he tortured someone by holding their feet over the fire. There is no evidence which suggests that Turpin actually did this, however, there are reports of equally despicable behaviour.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

For example, whilst he was committing burglaries with the Gregory Gang, he poured boiling water over an owner of a farmhouse (who was 70 years old) after hitting him with his pistol. He then raped his female servants and stole £30 (about £5,000 today).

Dick Turpin Putting a Woman on the Fire
Turpin was full of violence

There was a similar tale from the February of 1735 when the Gregory Gang, (Turpin most likely with them) raided the Loughton home of an elderly widow. Five of the gang members entered the home where they threatened the woman and then proceeded to hold her backside over the fire until she told them where she hid her money.

They stole £100 (about £17,700 today) from her, along with some wine and meat. So, whilst there is no written evidence of Turpin holding someone’s feet over the fire, it is not hard to believe that it could have happened, and it’s certainly not hard to see where the story came from if it is just a myth.

Why has Dick Turpin been glamorised so much?

Dick Turpin has only been glamorised by modern media. During his own time, he was seen as the violent criminal he was and contemporary art displays him carrying out his evil deeds with very little romanticism (one woodcut in particular shows him throwing an elderly lady into a fire).

Read More: Stand and Deliver: Who Were Britain’s Highwaymen?

One of the main culprits for the glamorisation of Dick Turpin (and other highwaymen like him) was the Frenchman, Claude Duval. Duval originally moved to England (in the 1660s) to work as a footman for the Duke of Richmond, however, he soon found the vocation boring and moved to a more lucrative one – he became a highwayman.

Whilst most highwaymen at the time relied on violence and terror to carry out their work, Duval never did, and it was for this reason that he became so famous. For example, in one case he stopped a coach and took only half of its inhabitant’s money in exchange for a dance with his wife.


Not only did he seem to have impeccable manners (for the most part) but he also became famous for the fact that he was always well dressed in the latest fashions and most expensive clothes which in turn contributed to his image as a gentleman.

Dick Turpin's grave
The gravestone that reputedly marks the location of Turpin’s grave at Fishergate in York. Image Credit: Tim Benton

Whilst it was because of Duval that highwaymen were romanticised as handsome and well-dressed gentlemen. This did not stop him from meeting the same fate as many of the other criminals who shared his profession, and he was executed for his crimes in the June of 1670 at Tyburn in London.

Another incredibly influential factor in the glamorisation of Dick Turpin comes from a book by Harrison Ainsworth, published in 1834. The novel is titled Rookwood and describes Turpin’s mythical ride north. He writes:

“His blood spins through his veins; winds round his heart; mounts to his brain. Away! Away! He is wild with joy.”

Dick Turpin's grave
Dick Turpin would be hanged by one of his own, a fellow highwayman. Image Credit: Tim Benton


The novel is a gothic romance set in a manor called Rookwood Place. To summarise the story, Turpin is introduced under his pseudonym, John Palmer. After a conflict, Turpin is described as fleeing the manor on the back of his faithful steed, Black Bess.

In this book, Turpin is depicted in the way that Duval had been – well-dressed and handsome, despite committing terrible crimes. Of course, Ainsworth took a lot of artistic license when writing his book but it soon became the common perception of Turpin, and the novel was certainly one of the most influential factors in the creation of the modern, glamorised version of Dick Turpin’s life.

To conclude, Dick Turpin was not a gentleman, a hero, nor a loveable rogue. He was without a doubt a violent criminal who brought terror to many people’s lives. Nevertheless, his life certainly makes for an interesting story full of wild tales and gripping plot points making it easy to see how myth and truth have become so entangled.