Is it fate or is it Dick Turpin?

dick-turpinIt is a curious thing, fate. Most people comply with the proverb of Master Shakespeare:

“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. 

About Dick

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?


Transportation: Australia bound

convicts sent to australiaI am often drawn to matters in history when writing my books, more recently regarding the transportation of UK convicts to Australia.

Most people are aware that during the late 18th and 19th centuries UK felons were transported to Australia to what was known as Botany Bay and what became modern day Australia.

Some even believe that the term pom comes from the initials ‘POHM’ stamped on clothing and equipment used by English convicts. It meant Prisoner Of His/Her Majesty and marked out felons transported to Australia.

Searching for relatives amongst British convicts sent to Australia in your family tree has become somewhat the ‘norm’, and there is a wealth of resources to help you do this.

The history 

The thirteen colonies as they were originally known were the New England colonies along the Eastern sea board of what became the United States of America.

Emigrants to these colonies from the British Isles were not only free men and women but often indentured servants and individuals transported for criminal offences which had the useful effect not only of increasing the population of the youthful colony but also removing them from England’s shores.

Convicts were transported from as early as the 1610’s until the American Revolution in the 1770’s.  The number of convicts transported to North America is thought to be by some authorities 50,000 individuals although it has also been put as high as over 100,000 individuals.

Those transported included not only convicts but also individuals taken as prisoners in battle from Ireland and Scotland some of whom were even sold as slaves to the Southern States of America.

The American Revolutionary War brought transportation to America to an end and the British Government was forced to look elsewhere which is why from 1787 convicts were transported to Australia which continued until it was officially ended in 1868, although it had become uncommon some years before that.

Convict Transportation Registers 1788-1868 from include some notable figures:

  • 39% of male and 35% of female convicts had no prior convictions
  • 70% were English, 24% Irish, 5% Scottish and 1% from other parts of the Empire
  • The oldest convict transported was over 60 years of age and the youngest just nine years old
  • 85% were male and 15% female
  • The majority of convicts were illiterate and convicted for crimes of poverty (theft)
  • When transportation ended, 40% of Australia’s English speaking population were convicts

When the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868, more than 160,000 convicts had been transported to the continent.

‘Prince of pickpockets’

The journey to Australia by boat took eight months and the majority of the convicts were men. Although a small number had been found guilty of serious crimes such as murder and assault, most had committed minor offences.

Among the thousands of convicts detailed in the collection are a number of infamous criminals including Israel Chapman, a highwayman who later became one of New South Wales’s first police detectives.

The journey of George Barrington – the so-called ‘prince of pickpockets’ – is also there. He was a gentleman thief who received an absolute pardon in 1796 after helping to quell a mutiny during the voyage.

Do you have a distant relative descending from these times of transportation?

The closing executions

highwayman.jpg-smallA man called Robert Snooks who is reputed to be the last highwayman to be hanged for robbery died in the best highwayman tradition.  The Judge at his trial directed that he be hanged at the scene of his last crime on Boxmoor, a wild area as it once was near modern day Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.

The highwayman made his last journey to Boxmoor, apparently in good spirits and stopped at a public house which is still there known as The Swan Inn on Box Lane to have a last glass of ale.  As some spectators on the way to the execution passed by he is said to have called out:

“Don’t hurry – there’ll be no fun till I get there!”.

The final address

Before being hanged Snooks gave a final address to the assembled crowd which was recorded as follows:

“Good people, I beg your particular attention to my fate.  I hope this lesson will be of more service to you than the gratification of the curiosity which brought you here.
I beg to caution you against evil doings, and most earnestly entreat you to avoid too evils, namely Disobedience to Parents – to you youths I particularly give this caution – and, The Breaking Of The Sabbath.
These misdeeds lead to the worst of crimes: robbery, plunder, bad women and every evil cause.

It may by some be thought a happy state to be in possession of fine clothes and plenty of money but I assure you no one can be happy with ill-gotten treasure.
I have often been riding on my horse and passed a cottager’s door whom I have seen dressing his greens and perhaps had hardly a morsel to eat with them.  He has very likely envied me in my station, who although at the time in possession of abundance was miserable and unhappy.  I envied him and with most reason for his happiness and contentment.

I can assure you there is no happiness but in doing good.  I justly suffer for my offences and hope it will be a warning to others.  I die in peace with god and all the world.”

All is gone but the pudding stone

The eloquent Snooks was then hanged and buried in a grave nearby.  Two pieces of pudding stone, which is a particular type of Hertfordshire stone, mark the spot.

Most people will be familiar with the oft quoted line from Shakespeare’s King Henry Vl, namely the remark by the ploter of treachery Dick the Butcher who says:

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

Many people have enjoyed repeating this. Few people will be aware that the last Solicitor in the British Isles to be hanged was one Herbert Rowse Armstrong who was hanged in 1923 for murder.

It seems that lawyers are universally unpopular.  It is said that the last mafia boss to be electrocuted when asked if he had a final request said:

“Would you please put my lawyer in my lap”.

How unkind.

Marry in haste, repent at leisure!

running-pic-close-up weddinMarriage is an institution with a long history. Not so divorce, which is a very recent development in historical terms. Hence the expression “marry in haste, repent at leisure”.

Analysis of more than 5 million divorce cases has shown major changes to the grounds cited for divorce over the last 40 years. Citing adultery has fallen whilst unreasonable behavior has dramatically increased.

The analysis by co-operative legal services found that during the 1970s that 28% of divorces were ended on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour in comparison to 47% of recent divorce cases. Whilst 29% of cases cited adultery as a ground for divorce in 1970, this figure has fallen to only 15% now.

The grounds

Aside from the effects of Facebook aka ‘the modern basis of irretrievable breakdown’ the law still applies guidelines which serve as an indication to the court that the marriage is really over.

There are five grounds for divorce in the UK;

  • Adultery,
  • Unreasonable behaviour,
  • Desertion,
  • The parties have lived apart for two or more years and agree to the divorce,
  • The parties have lived apart for five or more years.

It is interesting to note that adultery cannot be cited as a ground for divorce if the infidelity was with a member of the same sex or if the couple has continued to live together 6 months after the other partner found out about the adultery.

Unreasonable behavior is listed as your husband or wife has behaved so badly that you can no longer bear to live with them which could include physical and verbal abuse, nonpayment of housekeeping, drug or alcohol abuse.

Now that’s unreasonable!

One example of unreasonable behaviour given as grounds for divorce was a spouse withdrawing all £40,000 of the family’s savings and burning it in the bedroom!

In another case an irate husband rolled a large oil drum into the family living room and threatened to set it alight and this not surprisingly was regarded by the Courts as unreasonable behaviour!

The grounds for divorce have legally remained the same over the years even though society’s attitude towards divorce has changed quite dramatically, with fewer stigmas attached to divorce.

There was also a belief that divorces were granted generally because of unreasonable behaviour of the husband, however this has changed with men now 5 times more likely to be granted a divorce because of unreasonable actions of their wives than in the 1970s.

The amount of divorce has also changed over the 40 years. In the 1950s there were only around 275,000 divorces in comparison to the 1990s where there were 1.5m divorces.

The current law in the United Kingdom dates from the Divorce Law Reform Act of 1969 which introduced the idea of the undefended divorce. A divorce with a speedy nature, seen today, virtually as a paper exercise with many thousands being granted a Decree of Divorce in this way.

These days of course very many people do not marry at all but if they do obtaining divorce is much more straightforward with all of the arguments these days revolving principally around property and money (and Facebook)!