Highwaymen, the illusive robbers that lie in wait for passing horse drawn carriages. Those masked men, that have long been the inspiration for many an author. Who or what were highwaymen? Well we also call them outlaws, cast out from society. As the name suggests, they lived outside the law, they were criminals. No-one in their right mind would employ a man with a price on his head. So these men of mystery were forced to make a living by stealing. Highwaymen were in fact no more than glorified muggers!
Dick Turpin started off in life as a butcher. He had his own shop, he had charm, he was popular even amongst those who would normally look down their noses at a tradesmen. So what went wrong? Turpin became accustomed to the better things in life. This was a man who became used to living far beyond his means. So, to pay for this lavish lifestyle, he decided to acquire his stock in a more cost efficient way. Not by popping down to Lidl like the rest of us. No, he decided to cut out the middleman altogether. He took to liberating livestock, but did not however expect the beasts to be tracked down to his abattoir!
So there he was facing the end of his career, no one was going to buy their chops from a criminal. Now, although the threat of gallows wasn’t exactly hanging (excuse the pun) over his head, there was nothing left for him. So he climbed upon the nearest set of hooves and was to be forever known as a highwayman.
At first Turpin was supported by his wife but still keen to live the high life, Turpin joined up with a smuggling gang on the Essex coast. But he was never satisfied, no matter how much he earned. This led to him turning on those who had so kindly accepted him. He did this by disguising himself as a revenue officer, which neither the gang nor the revenue service fully appreciated. So once again he mounted the nearest set of hooves and galloped off, this time to Epping Forest.
It was then Turpin found himself a part of “Gregory’s Gang” a group of deer rustlers. Turpin became a great asset to the gang, being a butcher he knew how to chop up the catch appropriately. This helped the gang to offload the meat with far less effort. Then, along with the gang, he started to rob churches, houses and businesses. They would rape women and brutally beat occupants of the houses they robbed. This alliance came to an end when a reward was offered for their capture. Also, should any member provide the law with the gang’s whereabouts they were promised a complete pardon. Turpin escaped prosecution, but did not escape losing his friends to the gallows. Another member had survived, namely “Rowden the Pewterer”. The two men joined forces and became Highwaymen. After parting company Turpin worked alone and became known as “Turpin the Butcher”. One of his robberies was to lead to a great partnership. He had robbed a fellow highwayman, ‘Tom King’, who became his teacher. Together they foiled the authority’s attempts to capture them. They even placed horseshoes on their beasts back to front and rode for miles to keep their hideaway very much hidden. The two men parted company after an altercation, which resulted in (although no one can say for certain) King being shot by his pupil and later dying.
After this, again working alone, he gained the nickname ‘The Scarlet Pimpernail’. There were reports of him committing robberies in two separate places simultaneously. As his reputation grew and the space between him and the gallows did rather much the opposite, he disappeared. Then a long time later in Yorkshire there are records of a John Palmer, believed to be from Lincolnshire, appearing as a horse dealer. He associated with the local gentry, this did not last long. He again took to stealing livestock, and after once again becoming a wanted man, fled.
Turpin had been taught to read and write by his schoolmaster, John Smith, it was this that was to lead to his hanging. He had written to his brother/brother in law in hopes he would stand as his witness in court. He was charged with horse stealing which was then punishable by death. His brother refused the letter as he did not recognize the handwriting. The letter was returned to the post office where, just by coincidence, the letter was seen by Smith who did recognise his writing. With the appeal of reward money quite present in his mind, Smith alerted the authorities. Turpin was executed on the 7th April 1739 at the age of 33. It is said when he stood with the noose around his neck, he was happily talking to the hangman. He then quite calmly threw himself off the ladder.
There was no Black Bess, nor ride from London to York. There was robbery, rape, murder and violence. So why is it that we place this man on a pedestal, why do authors and film makers portray him as a hero? He was very much the opposite. When given the choice of meeting Turpin or a modern day mugger in a dark alley, I would opt for the mugger any day, who would you choose?