The most famous criminal of the 18th century was ‘king of the road’ Dick Turpin, born at the Bell Inn, Hampstead in Essex in 1705. Seen as a romantic figure who once fled from London to York in a night on 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 sheep stealing. Found out, he fled, joining a number of gangs of house-breakers, poachers and smugglers. He thought nothing of pouring boiling water over victims and once took part in a gang rape.
In 1736 he became a highwayman on the Cambridge road out of London, joining up with Robert King. Ambushed, King was shot, 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 the night he fired off pistols while drunk.
Arrested, he was found to have been sheep stealing. Worried about his real identity being known - he was wanted for the murder of an Epping forester - he wrote to his brother in Hampstead to confirm his Palmer identity. The post-master recognised Turpin’s handwriting and went to identify him, Turpin being hanged in York on 7 April 1739.
(c) Anthony North, Feb 2007