Monday, December 12, 2016

Dick Turpin: A Fatal Letter

by Catherine Curzon

Georgian Britain was a place of splendour and Enlightenment, a world of glittering spectacle and dazzling celebrity where even a child from the humblest of starts could rise to the top. In a land where politics, press and even prostitution could be the ticket to fame and fortune, not everybody made their name honestly. One man whose notoriety has survived through the ages and morphed from notorious criminal to folk hero to Georgian legend is, of course, Dick Turpin, the infamous highway robber of 18th century England.

Romanticised, lauded and celebrated in art and fiction, the tale of Turpin is steeped in myth. He is one of the most famous criminals ever to emerge from British history, yet when he certainly didn’t go out in a blaze of glory.

And he didn’t come in in one either!

Richard Turpin was born in 1705 as the son of a farmer in Thackstead, deep in rural Essex. To all intents and purposes, his life was set to be an unremarkable one, yet young Dick had had plans of his. Apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel, this rowdy young man had no intention of being a nobody, and toiling hard as a butcher’s apprentice didn’t give him anything like the lifestyle he craved. what it did do was give him an introduction to the criminal world and when Turpin became a butcher in his own shop, he embarked on a life of crime.

Turpin began rustling cattle with which to stock his shop. Of course, he didn’t stop there and when he was discovered helping himself to a farmer’s stock, he was forced onto the run. Undaunted, Turpin was soon branching out into highway robbery and violent home invasion, yet this legend of Georgian crime’s reign of terror was undone by an eagle-eyed chap in the post office!

Thanks to his escapades, by the 1730s, Turpin and his gang were among the most wanted men in the land. Turpin’s name was feared by all and the government issued a proclamation warning the public about the villain in their midst.

"It having been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did, on Wednesday, the 4th of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, servant to Henry Thompson, one of the keepers of Epping Forest, and commit other notorious felonies and robberies, near London, his Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices, and a reward of 200 l. to any person or persons that shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted.

Turpin was born at Thackstead, in Essex, is about thirty, by trade a butcher, about five feet nine inches high, very much marked with the small-pox, his cheek-bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom; his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders."

In fact, when Turpin was arrested, the authorities had no idea who they had captured. Snared for horse stealing, he was interred at York under the pseudonym, John Palmer. Here Turpin languished until, after four months, he wrote the following letter to his brother-in-law, Pompr Rivernall, in Essex:

"Dear Brother,
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven's sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,

In fact, Rivernall refused to pay the postage on the letter, supposedly because he has no idea who this John Palmer character might be. Of course, we might wonder whether he knew exactly who John Palmer was and, seeing the York postmark, determined to let his criminal brother-in-law stew. The letter was returned unopened in February 1739, where it happened to land in the post office in Saffron Walden.
It was here that a chap named James Smith happened to spot the letter as it waited to be returned to sender. In a twist of fate, however, Smith had been a classmate of Dick Turpin years earlier and, fatefully it was he who had taught the younger boy to read and write.

Nobody knew Dick Turpin’s handwriting like James Smith.

As he collected his own post, Smith happened to catch sight of the letter from so-called John Palmer, the man held captive at York Castle. He recognised the hand instantly as that of Dick Turpin, his former classmate. Turpin had become so notorious that Smith knew exactly what had become of him, and must have been surprised to see the letter bearing his handwriting. A man of upright standing and also a chap who wouldn’t say no to the generous bounties on Turpin’s head, Smith decided to do the right thing. He reported his concerns to local magistrate, Thomas Stubbing, and the game, as the saying goes, was up.

Smith's statement
The men travelled to York and on 23rd February 1739, James Smith identified the prisoner known as John Palmer as none other than Dick Turpin, sealing his grisly fate and setting him on the path to execution.

The eagle-eyed Smith, meanwhile, found himself a rich man as a result of his keen vision. He was awarded £200 for his efforts, a sum worth almost £30,000 today... all for the sake of an unwanted letter!

Turpin’s date with the hangman was set for 7th April 1739 and it was the hottest ticket in town. Before an enormous crowd he went to the gallows and, the authorities hoped, would soon be forgotten.

As history has told, the authorities could not have been more wrong and to this day the legend of Dick Turpin endures, but no doubt he rued the day he wrote that letter!

“The spectators of the execution were affected at his fate, as he was distinguished by the comeliness of his appearance. The corpse was brought to the Blue Boar, in Castle-Gate, York, where it remained till the next morning, when it was interred in the church- yard of St. George's parish, with an inscription on the coffin, with the initials of his name, and his age. The grave was dug remarkably deep, but notwithstanding the people who acted as mourners took such measures as they thought would secure the body: it was carried off about three o'clock on the following morning; the populace, however, got intimation whither it was conveyed, and found it in a garden belonging to one of the surgeons of the city.

Having got possession of it they laid it on a board, and carried it through the streets in a kind of triumphal manner, they then filled the coffin with unslacked lime, and buried it in the grave where it had been before deposited.”


Barlow, Derek. Dick Turpin and the Gregory Gang. Phillimore, 1973.
Bayes, Richard. The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin. J Standen, 1739.
Jackson, William. The New and Complete Newgate Calendar. Inner Temple, 1795.
Kyll, Thomas. The Trial of the Notorious Highwayman Richard Turpin. Ward and Chandler, 1739.
Sharpe, James. The Myth of the English Highwayman. Profile Books, 2005.


Catherine’s tale of highwaymen and intrigue in 18th century Edinburgh, The Crown Spire, is available now.

Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.


  1. It's so easy to romanticize outlaws. Not every peasant is Jean Valjean, and not every highwayman is Robin Hood.

  2. Excellent article with a great deal of fascinating information. Tweeted!

  3. Before I moved to Devon I lived on the outskirts of North London - on the edge of Epping Forest, which was one of Turpin's haunts. It is said that he hid some of his loot in a celler beneath one of the taverns at High Beech - now called Dick Turpin's Cave. There is also supposed to be a ghost coach which can sometimes be seen hauling to halt to 'stand and deliver'.

    1. The ghost coach sounds like one of my granddad's stories, wonderful!


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