Chris Bunting, THES, February 2004
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them, but no one in British history can have done so much to avoid greatness and yet achieved it in such large measure as an 18th-century toerag called Dick Turpin.
James Sharpe, professor of history at York University, has combed contemporary court records and accounts of Turpin's life to produce a book on the legendary highwayman that will disappoint a few pub landlords but that is, in its own way, more extraordinary than the traditional accounts of gallant crimes and extraordinary escapes.
Sharpe's interest in Turpin was excited in part because his exploits occurred at a very interesting period in the history of crime - a period when organised crime in the modern sense was beginning to appear in and around London and a period in which we start to see the government being held responsible for "solving" the problems of criminality in a way similar to today's law-and-order debates.
After more than ten years of research, dating back to a public lecture at York he gave on highwaymen, Sharpe says he has come to know the historical Turpin as "a nasty thug, not a romantic figure or a Robin Hood. He was not particularly brave or daring. He didn't make the famous one-day ride from London to York. He didn't even own a horse called Black Bess.
"He was 5ft 9in and heavily pock-marked. He began his criminal career in the early 1730s fencing stolen venison for a gang of deer poachers in Essex. Dick got heavily involved. When the authorities began to turn on the heat, he was involved with them in a switch to house robbery."
A series of at least seven burglaries began in October 1734 in Woodford, Essex, and involved break-ins at occupied houses where the owners were terrorised with firearms and knives while their houses were ransacked. The worst incident happened on February 4 1735, when five gang members, including Turpin, broke into a farmhouse owned by Joseph Lawrence in the then rural village of Edgware. "The owner was aged at least 70," Sharpe says. "They beat him with their pistols, they inflicted what was in effect torture by sitting him in a fire bare-buttocked to get him to tell them where his valuables were. They dragged him around the house by his hair. While this was going on, the leader of the gang took a servant girl upstairs and raped her."
The authorities eventually caught up with the gang after the youngest member, a teenager called John Wheeler, was caught and turned King's evidence. All except Turpin were soon in custody. He disappeared, probably to Holland, and his trail goes cold until 1737, when he recommenced his robberies. Turpin was discovered hiding in Epping Forest by Thomas Morris, a servant of one of the forest keepers. Turpin killed Morris, adding murder to his crimes. Then he headed north, changed his name to John Palmer and was accepted as a gentleman involved in horse dealing in the Yorkshire/Lincolnshire area. "What he seems to have done was steal horses and sell them," Sharpe says.
One day while hunting with local gentry, he shot a tame cockerel that wandered into his path. "One of the people in the street said he shouldn't have done it, and Turpin threatened to shoot this man as well," Sharpe says. "It gives us a glimpse of a deranged mind, and it was also Turpin's biggest mistake."
The Yorkshire justices of the peace initially intended only to bind him over for a breach of the peace, but as rumours about horse stealing began to emerge, they sent him to a holding prison in Beverley and then, on confirmation of the alleged crimes, to York Castle.
"Horse theft was a capital offence, but they still thought he was John Palmer and he had a good chance of getting off. Then, early in 1739, he wrote to his brother-in-law in Essex, probably asking for his family to fabricate character witnesses.
"At that time a letter or package would be held in a post office and the addressee would have to pay a fee before collecting it. In Essex, Turpin's brother-in-law refused to accept the letter saying he had no correspondent in York and then - in a massive stroke of bad luck - the man who had taught Turpin how to write saw the package in the post office and recognised the handwriting."
His identity revealed, Turpin was found guilty of horse theft at the York winter assizes on March 22 1739 and hanged the next month.
So would have ended Turpin's career if it hadn't been for the 19th-century romantic novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was looking for an antihero for his Gothic novel Rookwood. The epic ride to York, which had previously been attributed by Daniel Defoe to the mysterious "Swift Nicks" and his mount Black Bess, was linked to Turpin, and a legend was born.
The story was a hit, and the fictional Turpin became a staple of Victorian pulp fiction and popular drama. Dick Turpin has not let go of our imagination since. Sharpe is philosophical about his chances of putting the record straight: "I don't think we will ever be able to slay the Turpin myth. I don't think that after this book all these pubs are going to change their names to 'The Professor Sharpe', but perhaps some people will be interested in the truth."
Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman is published by Profile Books, £15.99.