‘King of the Road,’ Dick Turpin, was born in the Bell Inn, Hampstead in Essex in 1705. Seen as a romantic figure who once fled from London to York in a night on his horse, Black Bess, the reality was very different, the myth born out of a 19th century novel, ‘Rookwood’ by William Harrison Ainsworth.
Turpin was apprenticed to a London butcher, eventually marrying and opening his own shop. However, he was not a good businessman and turned to horse stealing. Found out, he fled, joining a number of gangs of housebreakers and poachers. He thought nothing of brutality and murder.
In 1736 he became a highwayman on the Cambridge road out of London, joining up with Matthew King. Ambushed, King was accidentally shot by Turpin, but Turpin escaped to Cambridge, Lincoln, and eventually York where he took the identity of gentleman John Palmer, wining and dining with the gentry until magistrates became suspicious of him. Arrested, he was found to have been horse stealing.
Worried about his real identity being known – he was wanted for the murder of an Epping forester – he wrote to his brother-in-law in Hampstead to confirm his Palmer identity. The postmaster recognised Turpin’s handwriting and went to identify him, Turpin being hanged in York on 7 April 1739.
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