Dick Turpin

Written By PhilG

York is a great place for a day trip or short stay. With lots of museums, restaurants, and pubs to explore.  

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Highwayman.

“Dick Turpin was a robber, highwayman, murderer and horse thief. The most notorious criminal of his time.”

Dick Turpin was tried convicted hanged and buried in York, you can still see his condemned cell and grave.

So what’s his story?

It began in 1705, Dick Turpin was baptized on the 21 September, in Hempstead Essex. His father was an inn keeper at the bell inn After a short time at school Turpin became an apprentice butcher then set up
his own shop. He soon began selling poached deer stolen from a local forest.

Dick Turpin was now a criminal and things were about to get a lot worse.

Turpin’s friendship with Samuel Gregory, and his poaching gang, soon lead Dick in to more serious crimes. He became involved in more than a dozen robberies on isolated farm houses in and around London between October 1734 and February 1735.

In the first attacks the gang got their way by using threats but they soon became much more violent.

A gang of robbers praying on the vulnerable.

At times the gang had up to 15 members, to the people who were robbed; this would have seemed more like an armed mob.

The gang operated by finding a vulnerable house with rich pickings. Then they searched the out buildings and caught anyone who could warn the household of the gangs approach. Next the gang rushed in taking the occupants by surprise and overpowering them. Now the victims were gathered in to one room and tied up.

The house owner was then beaten or even tortured, by being held over the hot coal fire or scolded, to make them tell where anything of value was hidden. Even clothes were considered valuable and could be stolen.

Some of the gang get caught.

On the 11 February 1735 three of the gang members were recognized and caught, in the Punch House pub in Bloomsbury. They were Wheeler, Saunders and Fielder. Wheeler gave evidence leading to the capture of three more of the gang Rose, Walker and Brazier. Three of the six were hung, Walker died before he could be executed Mary Brazier was sentenced to 14 years penal servitude, I think Wheeler escaped the noose for giving evidence.

With so many of the Gregory gang now missing, Samuel and Jeremy Gregory decided to flee to the continent but they needed cash for the fare. To raise money they did one last robbery in Surry but were caught in Hindhead.

Jeremy Gregory died of wounds he received while he was resisting arrest.

Samuel Gregory was hanged at London Tyburn on June 4 1735.

A gang member & informant describes Dick Turpin.

Wheeler, who had informed on the gang, had also given a good description of Dick Turpin to the authorities.

Dick Turpin, 26 years old, 5ft 9in tall with a face marked by small pox.

There were now just two members of the Gregory gang still in the business, Turpin and Thomas Rawdon. And in the summer of 1735 the pair brought the scourge of highway robbery to Kent and Surry.

Turpin goes into hiding.

In late winter they split up and Turpin went in to hiding in Holland, but in February 1737 he was back in England. This time he teamed up with Mathew King and Stephen Potter working as highway men in Essex.

On 30 April 1737 the gang was ambushed in Whitechapel. Tom King was caught and called for Turpin to shoot the man who held him Turpin shot but the built hit Tom King. Turpin rode away to Epping Forest; King gave evidence against Turpin and Potter but died from Turpin’s built one week after he was shot.

Turpin was now in hiding in Epping Forest probably hiding in a cave that he had kitted out with a bed.

On 4 May Dick Turpin was recognized by Thomas Morris who was a servant to a mister Thompson, one of the keepers of Epping Forest. Morris, the servant, confronted Turpin and tried to arrest him, Turpin shot and killed him.

A bounty of £200 reward was now placed on Turpin. There was also a good description of him to help the public track him down, so Dick Turpin the highway man decided that the best plan was to live like a respectable man for a while.

From highwayman to horse thief.

He moved to Brough and then to Long Sutton and started selling horses, other peoples horses, without their permission. For about four months he lived as a law abiding citizen until on the 2 October 1738, when for no apparent reason he shot a cockerel that he saw in the street. When a man complained about this he threatened to shoot him too.

Dick Turpin gets arrested.

Turpin was arrested and couldn’t find anyone to bail him out so he stayed in jail to wait the assizes court.

When the justices looked in to Turpin’s dealings they found out about the stolen horses, this was a hanging offence, so he was moved to York Castle and held in the debtor’s prison, which was more secure. He was probably held there until his trial.

From prison Turpin wrote to his brother in law, in his home town of Hempstead, using his assumed name John Palmer. But unfortunately for Dick, his old school teacher James Smith was now working for the postal service and with £200 reward for the capture of Dick Turpin he may well have been hoping to spot any letters Dick sent home.

And that’s just what happened.

James Smith the teacher, and now postal worker, spotted Turpin’s letter to his brother in law and recognized the hand writing not as Palmer’s but his old pupil Dick Turpin.

Turpin was too big a catch to lose, and so the rest of his time in prison was spent in the condemned cell, which you can still see inside York Castle Museum. Some irons on display in one of the cells of the old prison (now inside the Castle Museum) are allegedly the ones used by Turpin.

Tried and convicted.

On March 22 1739 Turpin was found guilty of two charges of horse stealing and was sentenced to death. Murder charges waited in case he managed to avoid conviction for horse thieving. The authorities didn’t want to take any chances, they were determined to hang Turpin and this was as good an excuse as any.

Dick Turpin was held in the county goal; the building later became the debtors’ prison and is now York Castle Museum. The condemned cell from 1739 is still as it was in Turpin’s time and you can look around inside it when you visit the museum.

Publicly executed.

On April 7 Turpin was taken by cart from the county goal in to the city then across the river via Ouse Bridge and through a gate in the city wall called Micklegate Bar (the place where traitor’s heads are traditionally displayed on spikes to let would be traitors know the risks they take).

The cart then took Dick Turpin along Blossom Street to York Tyburn (now York Racecourse).

People who saw his execution say he went to the gallows showing little fear, just one leg trembling for a while. He is said to have confessed to being Dick Turpin and not Palmer, and confessed to his crimes. He then threw himself off the ladder that he had to climb to reach the noose, which was used to hang him.

It took about five minutes for him to die. He was eventually cut down and buried that evening in St George’s church graveyard, just a few hundred yards from the prison were he had been held.

Dick Turpin’s grave.

The church is demolished but the grave yard and Dick Turpin’s grave are still there. Just go through the gap in the city wall at Fishergate Postern Tower, go up Lead Mill Lane and the grave yard is on the left behind the trees. Dick Turpin’s grave is hard to find, even for a York Explorer.

Take care! People often sit in this park getting drunk.

Graveyard where Dick Turpin is buried.
Dick Turpin’s grave.

The book that made Turpin famous.

One hundred years after Dick Turpin died a book called Rook Wood, loosely based in Turpin’s life, told the story of a Highway Man and made Dick famous. But the story of his ride from London to York in a single day, on his faithful mare Black Bess, who dropped down dead from exhaustion on arrival in York. Was either made up or possibly did happen but to another criminal named “Swiftnicks” Nevison. Nevison was hanged at York Tyburn in May 1684.