Dick Turpin’s romanticized image as the famed “Highwayman” of English lore was built on the big lie about his one-night ride from York to London on his faithful steed, Black Bess. Nor was he in any way a latter-day Robin Hood.
by Mark Pulham
“Stand and deliver,” Dick Turpin would shout, and with a brace of pistols levelled at the coachman, the romantic and reckless highwayman would relieve the passengers of their valuables. Dashing and daring, his tri-corn hat pulled low and a mask covering his face, he would flee on his gallant steed, Black Bess, into the night, his black cloak flowing behind him.
It’s an image that has been enhanced by numerous films going back to 1912, particularly by the Disney version and the 1970’s British television series. Who could ever forget his ride from London to York in a single night, his brave horse Bess dying from exhaustion to save his life? Who could not love the charming, handsome, courteous rogue that made robbery almost a pleasure? Certainly, this image of this latter day Robin Hood has passed down through the years with almost no change, thrilling generations of British schoolboys as the hero of numerous books. But is this an accurate portrayal of Turpin, was he really the handsome romantic hero we have seen in the movies? Hardly.
In the 18th century, highway robbery was a common event throughout Europe and Great Britain, and anyone foolish enough to venture into the woods after dark risked robbery at gunpoint and even death. For the most part, highwaymen were ordinary criminals, but in England, on occasion, they were gentlemen who were maybe down on their luck, or were in it for the adventure. Dick Turpin, however, was not a gentleman.