Stand and deliver

Dick Turpin: the myth of the English highwayman

James Sharpe <em>Profile Books, 258pp, £15.99</em>

When I was a kid I listened, enthralled, to tales of Dick Turpin, the original dandy highwayman, and took the myth as truth. The dashing robber on the stolen horse was one of my earliest heroes, and I desperately wanted to be him: galloping across Blackheath in a half-mask and tricorne hat; pistols cocked, a shout of "Stand and deliver!"; a kiss on the hand for the ladies and a merry quip for the gentlemen as he relieved them of their valuables. Dick Turpin was presented to children as a romantic hero in much the same way as Robin Hood, and maybe these tales sparked something in me, because I eventually became a robber just like them. Had I known the truth, about Turpin in particular, I may not have been so keen to take up the mask and gun. It turns out that Dick Turpin was a hero with feet of clay.

In April 1739, in the city of York, "John Palmer", exposed as Richard Turpin, the notorious highwayman of Essex, mounted the ladder of the York gallows, known as the "three-legged mare", and died at the end of a rope. He had been convicted of horse theft. The hangman was Thomas Hadfield, a former highwayman who had been pardoned after being sentenced to death for highway robbery on the proviso that he act as executioner for Turpin. Turpin had been England's most wanted criminal, with a £200 reward on his head, and, as befitted his status, he threw himself from the scaffold "with as much intrepidity and unconcern, as if he had been taking horse to go on a journey".

Determined to look his best for his execution, Turpin had purchased a new frock coat and pumps out of his own pocket, and paid three pounds and ten shillings for five mourners to follow the cart to the gallows and then take care of his body afterwards. He also made arrangements for his worldly goods to be distributed to various people, including "a gold ring and two pairs of shoes and clogs" to a married woman with whom he had consorted. Perhaps it was the way Turpin faced his end that led to him being regarded in such a romantic light, for there was little bravery and romance in his life until then.

Richard Turpin was born in Essex in 1705. His father was a butcher and inn-keeper by trade. But the young Turpin had no desire to carry on the family business, preferring the company of footpads and thieves, and the rewards and excitement of a life of crime. He joined a group of like-minded fellows, known as the Gregory Gang, and set about all manner of crimes, from poaching deer to armed burglary. The Gregory Gang, known for their viciousness and brutality, raided farmhouses in and around London and, not content with stealing cash and valuables, destroyed and burned everything not worth taking. The Gregory Gang did not reign for very long, and by 1735 most of them had danced their last at Tyburn or were in prison awaiting transportation to the colonies. Turpin and a man named Thomas Rowden were the only members left at large, and they went into the business of highway robbery.

During one of Turpin's robberies he murdered Thomas Morris, a servant to Henry Thompson, one of the keepers of Epping Forest, and from then on things were a bit warm for him in Essex. He fled to Yorkshire around June 1737, taking cover under the alias John Palmer. Earning his living from stealing sheep and horses, "Palmer" might well have gone unnoticed had he not shot a cock in the street and then, when challenged, threatened to shoot the fowl's owner as well. When arrested, Turpin came quietly and was conveyed to the House of Correction at Beverley, riding one of his stolen horses. While at Beverley, he was identified as a horse thief and removed to the more secure environs of York Castle. Eventually "John Palmer" was also found to be Richard Turpin and the die was cast.

James Sharpe separates the myth from the man clearly, and explains how a vicious criminal's life can be romanticised to turn him into a folk hero. He captures the life and times of Turpin perfectly, and finds something of interest in every character involved. There was no Black Bess, no furious ride to York. The best that can be said of Dick Turpin was said at the time of his execution - "he died game". I just wish I had known that when I was ten.

Razor Smith's memoirs, A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun, will be published by Viking this June