“Some are born great; some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them”
But then occasionally you get a person who lives a squalid, mean little life, and yet who is celebrated and idolised as a hero while nothing could be further from the truth. An example of the latter person was Dick Turpin.
Dick Turpin born 1705 was an English highwayman whose crimes and exploits were romanticised after he was hanged in York for horse theft in 1739.
His early activities revolved around poaching and burglary with a gang known as the Essex gang who committed some very unpleasant crimes including breaking into people’s houses and on occasion torturing them to reveal the whereabouts of their money and valuables.
On one occasion they made a 70 year old man sit on a fire to try and get him to tell them where his money was but he steadfastly refused to do so.
There are other such instances before the gang was broken up and its members captured, after which time Turpin took to highway robbery which is what he is famous for.
Largely because after he died a Victorian novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth, writing almost 100 years after Turpin was hanged created a romanticised account of his life for public consumption including an overnight ride from London to York on his horse, the famous Black Bess.
As that part of the fictionalised and romanticised account of Turpin’s life was concerned, this is far more likely to be related to an earlier highwayman known as Swift Nick whom I will come onto later.
Turpin’s career as a highwayman was not long lived.
Rewards were offered for his capture and he moved around the Country a good deal including a spell up in York where he lived under an assumed name. One would have expected him perhaps to maintain a low profile as we say these days but he still engaged in some of his old activities, including horse theft which in the 18th century was a capital offence.
He was arrested in connection with the horse thefts and whilst he was in detention he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, the letter was kept at the local post office because the brother-in-law refused to pay the delivery charge when he saw that the letter had come from York and so it was transferred to another post office at Saffron Walden where the postmaster happened to be one James Smith who had taught Turpin how to write whilst Turpin had been at school.
James Smith recognised the handwriting and brought the matter to the attention of the authorities and so Turpin’s cover was blown.
Smith received the reward of £200 which is well over £20,000 in today’s money and Turpin was hanged at York, going to the gallows in a new coat and shoes defiant to the last bowing to spectators as he passed them.
An account in a magazine written in April 1739 recorded:
“Turpin behaved in an undaunted manner as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble he spoke a few words to the top man then threw himself off and expired in five minutes”.
In effect using the short drop method of hanging customary in those days, people who were executed were killed by slow strangulation. His body is buried in St George’s Church, Fishergate in York.
Would the real Dick Turpin please stand up
Now to ‘Swift Nick’ as he was known. Also known as one John Nevison who lived in the 17th century and was one of England’s most notorious highwaymen. He was nicknamed Swift Nick by King Charles II after a famous 200 mile gallop from Kent to York to establish an alibi for a robbery that he had committed earlier that day.
It was this feat that earned him the epithet of Swift Nick.
This occurred when in 1676 after Nevison had robbed a traveller near Rochester in Kent he took a ferry across the Thames and galloped via Chelmsford, Cambridge and Huntingdon to York some 200 miles away from where the crime had been committed. He arrived at sunset and made a point of bumping into the City’s Lord Mayor by challenging him to a wager on a bowls match.
When he was later arrested and tried for the robbery in Kent he was able to produce the Lord Mayor as a witness to support his alibi that he could not possibly have been in Kent and he was duly found not guilty.
Like most men of his kind however he continued with his offending and in due course he again found himself before the Court, this time tried for the murder of a constable who tried to arrest him. He was convicted and taken to York where he was hanged in March of that year.
Over the years these tales have been told and re-told, becoming more and more embellished in the re-telling, and slowly two charmless, cruel and murderous young men, one whom killed his own partner were turned into ‘dandy highwayman, folk hero of his day’.
But whoever said that life was fair?