The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Stand and deliver

Richard (Dick) Turpin is well known as a highwayman, a career that holds a certain air of adventure, even though it means he held people up at gunpoint and stole their property. The truth about him is, however, rather sordid.

In spite of the romantic tales that have grown up around him and his horse Black Bess (who never existed) the man was a violent thug. In his native county of Essex, Turpin belonged to a notorious group of marauders called the Gregory Gang. They would invade isolated farmhouses and terrorise any female occupants to make them give up their jewels. In one case Turpin roasted an old woman over her own hearth until she told him where her valuables were hidden.  He is also known to have murdered a few people during his raids.

Eventually his exploits led him to leave London and the south, heading for Yorkshire, where he took on the name of John Palmer. He financed his lifestyle by carrying out horse and cattle rustling forays into Lincolnshire, and it is at this stage that he took up highway robbery in earnest.

He was also a bit of an idiot. Rather than keep his head down in York he returned from a poor hunting expedition one day and shot his landlord's prize rooster to make up for his losses.  Naturally the landlord complained, but Turpin threatened to shoot him too!

So Turpin was arrested and hauled off to York Castle while the charge against him was investigated and lots of complaints about "Mr Palmer" Came to light from around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire so he stayed in the dungeons in York. However, while he was there he wrote to his brother in Essex, asking him to find some evidence in London that would provide an alibi. But his tightwad brother refused to pay the postage and so the letter was returned unread.

By a stroke of luck it fell into the hands of Turpin's old schoolmaster, who recognised the handwriting. So, in spite of the letter being signed "John Palmer", it became known that Turpin was living under an alias. His early exploits were revealed alongside his later offences, and Turpin was sentenced to death.

His father appealed to have the sentence commuted to transportation, but to no avail. On April 7, 1739, he was taken to Knavesmire, a marshy area outside the city, where York racecourse now stands, and hanged. He was just 33 years old.  He's buried in an unremarkable graveyard close to where York Station now stands, and his grave bears both the names he carried in life.


  1. And here I always thought he was a bit of a Robin Hood

  2. I remember seeing his prison cell in the Castle Museum in York. Not at all the 'romantic hero' he's often made out to be is he? Fascinatng post:)

  3. Interesting ! I had never heard of him !

  4. As a long time resident of York I should be able to answer this question, but I can't.
    When did the gravestone appear in the churchyard?
    To my eyes it is not an 18th century gravestone. It would have become much more worn in 180 years of exposure to the elements. The style of the stone is much more mid 20th century. According to Hugh Murray's "The York Graveyard Guide" the body had been resurrected on the night after first burial and had to be retrieved from the garden of one of York's surgeons. It was then treated with unslacked lime before being more deeply buried, presumably to make it unusable for dissection.


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