Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman 
by James Sharpe.
Profile, 258 pp., £8.99, January 2005, 1 86197 418 3
Show More
Show More

Dick Turpin was executed in York on a cold spring Saturday in 1739. In those days, before the invention of the trapdoor drop, the prisoner was expected to climb a ladder, the noose around his neck, and step off into space. Turpin, dressed in finery suitable for a wedding or a funeral, died admirably, for he ‘went off this stage with as much intrepidity and unconcern, as if he had been taking horse to go on a journey’. This contemporary description indirectly acknowledges Turpin’s status as a self-defined gentleman (his father was a butcher), for gentlemen took horse, while the poor walked. For weeks, Turpin had been ‘eating, drinking and carousing’, ‘joking, drinking and telling stories’ with an unending stream of visitors to the York jail: his jailer had made £100 selling them drink. Some of those who had laughed and joked with him were gathered that Saturday in the Blue Boar tavern, where his body was laid out after it had been cut down from the scaffold; a few of them had been appointed by Turpin to secure his corpse, which they did by burying it deep in the churchyard the next day. At 3 a.m. on the Tuesday, however, the body was found to have been dug up, presumably to be sold for dissection. A mob gathered and reclaimed it, carrying it through the streets ‘in a sort of triumph’, and reburied it in a coffin filled with lime to ensure its rapid decomposition. Within a few days, a broadside ballad was published called ‘Turpin’s Rant’, a song which survived into the last century as a folksong, ‘Turpin Hero’, the chorus of which is: ‘For I’m the hero, the Turpin hero, I am the great Dick Turpin Ho.’ ‘Turpin Hero’ is the source of Joyce’s title for the forerunner to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ‘Stephen Hero’.

Turpin is no hero to James Sharpe, who sets out to cut him down to size, just another ‘callous, brutal and violent’ criminal, an ‘unpleasant thug’, hardly distinguishable from so many others, so that when The Lives of Noted Highwaymen was published around 1750 he was not deemed worthy of inclusion. Within the limits he sets himself, Sharpe’s book is admirable: in the first two-thirds he provides an account of Turpin’s life, of 18th-century highwaymen and of the criminal justice system of the day which could scarcely be bettered. Before he became a highwayman Turpin belonged to a gang of poachers in Essex. When they robbed a 70-year-old farmer, Joseph Lawrence, in 1735, they beat him on the bare buttocks, poured boiling water over him, and sat him on the fire in order to force him to say where his money was kept. Turpin played an active part in torturing Lawrence, though not in raping his maidservant, Dorothy Street. When he was eventually arrested, four years later, he was living in Yorkshire under the pseudonym of John Palmer. He came to the attention of the authorities only because, returning one day from hunting, he had shot a tame bird; reprimanded by a bystander, he replied that if the man would only stay while he charged his piece, he would shoot him too.

Charles Harper, in his Half-Hours with the Highwaymen (1908), wrote, as Sharpe wryly records: ‘It would be a thankless task to present the highwayman as he really was: a fellow rarely heroic, generally foul-mouthed and cruel, and often cowardly … I do not think that the historian who came to the subject in this cold scientific spirit of a demonstrator in surgery would be widely read.’ Sharpe’s intention is to prove Harper wrong by at long last anatomising Turpin before the public gaze. He takes pride in bringing to his task the skills of a professional historian, determined to ‘get history right’. He sets out to expose the stories told about Turpin since his death as factually incorrect. Turpin is said, for example, to have been born and to have drunk in the Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath, where his father was the landlord – even though the Spaniards was not a pub until after Turpin’s death. So, too, he is supposed to have drunk at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, although the battle of Trafalgar took place in 1805. In the process Sharpe asks, but never answers, a central question: ‘If, as anthropologists remind us, myths have a deeper purpose or significance, what can be read into the invocation of Turpin?’

Sharpe is uncomfortable with myths. For him, Turpin’s brave death is a fact, recorded by eyewitnesses. He knows that it is also an enactment of a myth, that contemporaries called the scaffold a ‘stage’ because the condemned man was playing his part in a drama, but he does not dwell on Turpin’s self-representation. The one thing almost everyone knows about Turpin is that he rode his mare Black Bess from London to York in the course of a single night. This turns out to be a myth – there was no Black Bess, no ride from London to York – yet it has passed for fact since 1834 when Harrison Ainsworth published a novel called Rookwood, in which the story is first told. What interests Sharpe about this story (which he has read in the much abbreviated fifth edition) is that it is false: what should have interested him is that Ainsworth’s readers (and the book was an enormous bestseller) thought it was true. To understand why they thought so we need to ask just what is being represented in the story of the ride from London to York.

Ainsworth’s source for Black Bess was a poem of 1825 which begins: ‘Bold Turpin upon Hounslow Heath/His black mare Bess bestrode.’ But the origins of Turpin’s ride lie much further back, in Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, in which the story is told of a highwayman who had successfully established an alibi by riding in a single day, without a change of horses, from Chatham in Kent to York, where he arrived in the afternoon: the jury refused to believe such a feat was possible. Defoe’s story is ironic, because of course the jury was right: such a ride is straightforwardly impossible. Chatham to York is a journey of more than two hundred miles, as is London to York. In the longest-established endurance horse race, the one-hundred-mile Tevis Cup, the record is held by a horse called R.C. Hans, who completed the course in 10 hours and 46 minutes; only nine times since 1961, when records began, has the race been won in under 12 hours. Defoe and Ainsworth were thus describing horses going twice as far (and therefore twice as fast) as any horse could go in a 12-hour ride. Readers in the 1830s knew a good deal about horses: why were they prepared to believe this incredible story?

First, Ainsworth gave every appearance of having a scrupulous regard for the facts in the part of his story (a mere subplot within a larger historical romance) that was concerned with highwaymen. The rest of the story is about ghosts, graves, Gypsy curses and bolts of lightning, and no one for a moment can have believed it to be true. ‘I may observe,’ Ainsworth wrote in the preface to the fourth edition (the one I have used), ‘that I have not, as yet, been able to obtain satisfactory evidence that the extraordinary equestrian feat, attributed to him by oral tradition, and detailed in this work, was ever actually accomplished. History is silent on this head.’ His readers seem to have been convinced that, far from acknowledging that he had made the whole thing up, Ainsworth was insisting that his story was surely true, whatever the historians might say. And there is one feature that traps even the most wary reader into thinking of it as true. Why did Turpin ride? Not to establish an alibi; or to escape his pursuers, for he tells them he is bound for York in order to ensure they follow. He rides for immortality. ‘The eye of posterity was upon him … Multitudes, yet unborn, he knew would hear, and laud his deeds. He trembled with excitement.’ This is a moment of extraordinary audacity, for as Ainsworth writes, posterity has yet to hear of Turpin’s ride; by claiming it as already famous Ainsworth denied his own part in its invention; he transmuted it from fiction into fact.

Ainsworth’s readers believed partly because they wanted to believe, just as modern readers have wanted to believe in Philip Marlowe or James Bond, the highwayman being the 19th-century equivalent of the private eye or secret agent. Ainsworth himself identified with Turpin. (He claimed to have written his hundred-page account of the ride to York in the same time as the journey took. ‘My pen,’ he wrote, ‘literally scoured over the pages. So thoroughly did I identify with the highwayman, that, once I started, I found it impossible to halt.’) He was so eager that his readers too should identify with him that his critics complained he was writing ‘thieves’ literature’. ‘The road, we must beg to repeat, is still open – the chances are greater than they ever were … we are sadly in want of highwaymen!’ he insisted. The last highwayman had been executed in 1831, however, and none of Ainsworth’s readers took up his invitation.

Ian Fleming had been a secret agent, and was in part his own model for Bond. Ainsworth, the eldest son of a wealthy Manchester lawyer, had spent his childhood reading about highwaymen, but was no highwayman himself, though he had Turpin’s contempt for respectable society. ‘We have not had the pleasure of being acquainted with Mrs Ainsworth,’ a correspondent wrote in Fraser’s Magazine, ‘but we are sincerely sorry for her – we deeply commiserate her case.’ Ainsworth, he gives us to understand, is a ‘lady-killer’, he is ‘this Turpin of the cabriolet’. He did not expect his readers literally to become highwaymen, or even lady-killers; but he did expect them to identify with Turpin’s courage, audacity and sangfroid. In a world in which zero-tolerance policing was rapidly reducing the opportunities for criminals, and in which the strains of respectability were pressing ever more tightly around the urban middle classes, the highwayman represented someone able to perform a social role while remaining detached from the conventions he exploited, able to pass freely in society without ever belonging to it. Every highwayman claimed to be a gentleman, and those who knew Turpin as John Palmer claimed ‘he lived like a gentleman’; but he was tried and executed as a labourer. To be a highwayman was to be an artist in social legerdemain. It was this internal detachment, this freedom from the anxieties of respectability, that Ainsworth offered his readers. Twenty-five years later, himself caught up in an illicit relationship with a woman, John Stuart Mill was to write On Liberty, in which he identified a new species of liberty: freedom from the tyranny of public opinion. Ainsworth’s Turpin was attractive to his readers because he embodied precisely this freedom. In contrast, the rest of the novel, which centres on a curse that dooms the eldest Rookwood son in each generation to kill his wife (a curse which reminds one that onlookers wanted to commiserate with Mrs Ainsworth), is about inescapable fate.

Turpin’s ride to York is not just about immortality and liberty; it also, obviously, has to do with speed: ‘The torrent leaping from the crag – the bolt from the bow – the air-cleaving eagle – thoughts themselves are scarce more winged in their flight.’ Black Bess flies along at twenty miles an hour. Turpin is enraptured, maddened, furious, intoxicated by speed. ‘The vehement excitement of continued swift riding produces a paroxysm in the sensorium, amounting to delirium.’

Hall, cot, tree, tower, glade, mead, waste or woodland, are seen, passed, left behind, and vanish as in a dream. Motion is scarcely perceptible – it is impetus! Volition! The horse and her rider are driven forward, as it were, by self-accelerated speed. A hamlet is visible in the moonlight. It is scarcely discovered ere the flints sparkle beneath the mare’s hoofs. A moment’s clatter upon the stones, and it is left behind … He was gone, like a meteor, almost as soon as he appeared.

Peter Campbell described Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway of 1844 as an exercise in ‘the poetry of speed’ (LRB, 3 June 2004). Rookwood was written a decade earlier. The Great Western was yet to be built; work on the London and Birmingham (the first major railway line out of London) was just beginning; but the Liverpool and Manchester had been completed in 1830, and one of Stephenson’s engines had covered 15 miles in 25 minutes, an average of 36 mph; its normal speed was 20 mph. Nothing was more common than to compare locomotives to horses. Stephenson, for example, talks of holding ‘the reins of our horse’, and we still talk about ‘horsepower’. In Rookwood the metaphor is reversed. ‘Bess was a paragon,’ Ainsworth writes.

We ne’er shall look upon her like again, unless we can prevail upon some Bedouin Chief to present us with a brood mare, and then the racing world shall see what a breed we shall introduce into this country. Eclipse, Childers, or Hambletonian, shall be nothing to our colts, and even the rail-road slow travelling compared with the speed of our new nags.

Ainsworth’s achievement in Rookwood was thus to knit together past and future, to imagine, at a time when the stagecoach took four days to get from York (with a 5 a.m. start) to London, what it would be like to make the journey at railroad speeds. His readers wanted to believe in Black Bess because they wanted to halt the pace of change around them, to think of speed as animal not mechanical. Rookwood is the first, reluctant novel of the steam age.

This doesn’t occur to Sharpe. His idea of the historian as someone who gets at the facts means that he can give a fine account of the activities of Turpin and the Essex gang, but it makes him quite unfitted to be a reader of Rookwood. His argument is that the real Turpin was (despite ‘Turpin Hero’) rather insignificant; the heroic Turpin is the invention of Ainsworth. In which case a book about Turpin needs to handle fiction with the same confidence that it handles fact. Sharpe could have been provoked by his subject into reinventing the idea of what history is: instead, his conclusion, ‘Dick Turpin and the Meaning of History’, retreats to the old cliché that the business of the historian is to deal in facts. David Starkey complains that the history syllabus in schools places far too little emphasis on facts, and far too much on critical thinking. Sharpe wants the best of both worlds, facts and critical thinking hand in hand. But a history that could answer the question ‘What can be read into the invocation of Turpin?’ would have to deal in more than just facts and go beyond the kind of source criticism that is normally meant by ‘critical thinking’.

The language of fact and fiction, critical and uncritical thinking, is useful if one wants to address the question of whether Turpin was a thug. But it hardly helps one address the question of why Rookwood appealed to the imagination of its readers. To understand this one needs to place side by side Ainsworth’s account of Turpin’s ride on Black Bess and the account given by the actress Fanny Kemble of her ride beside Stephenson on the footplate of his Northumbrian (‘a snorting little animal which I felt rather inclined to pat’) in 1830. They reached a speed of 35 mph:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace … swifter than a bird flies. You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was … When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description; yet strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security and not the slightest fear.

The year before, the MP Thomas Creevey had travelled by train, not exposed on the footplate but sitting safely in a carriage, at the relatively sedate speed of 23 mph. He wrote: ‘But the quickest motion is to me frightful; it is really flying, and it is impossible to divest yourself of the notion of instant death to all upon the least accident happening. It gave me a headache which has not left me yet.’ With this new sensation of flying came a new understanding of what courage and sangfroid might be: Kemble had it and Creevey didn’t.

Ainsworth wanted to take the side of the Kembles of this world against the Creeveys, and Turpin’s ride was his way of doing so. In this respect Rookwood is the first, enthusiastic novel of the steam age. In its complex ambivalence about the steam engine – enthusiastic about speed, reluctant to acknowledge the supremacy of machinery – it encapsulated a turning point in history. It is this ambivalence that gave life to the myth of Dick Turpin almost a hundred years after he stepped so calmly off the scaffold. While I wouldn’t want to persuade Sharpe that Turpin was a better man than he imagines, I would certainly want to suggest that Rookwood is a much more interesting novel than he recognises.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 27 No. 5 · 3 March 2005

David Wootton reports that Dick Turpin’s body ‘was reburied in a coffin filled with lime to ensure its rapid decomposition’ in an attempt to save it from grave robbers (LRB, 3 February). In fact lime tends to preserve the body, not decompose it.

Martin Ward

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences