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The Life and Myth of Dick Turpin

As a boy I would frequent Epping Forest. Whether it be for school field trips, the dreaded cross-country run, messing around with friends, or simply for occasional solitude, I recall taking great solace from an inner feeling that the forest gave me.

I realise now that much of this feeling — which I still have — can be attributed to the fact that the forest is a place that has remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. It represents the certain continuity of life beyond my own. I can touch an ancient oak, knowing that it was alive long before me, and will likely be so, long after I’ve gone, providing for me yet another link to a lifelong fascination in the passage of time and the lives of people long departed, along with a yearning to know what lays ahead for my kind.

I have also maintained a fascination in legends of the forest too, particularly where tales of swashbuckling and derring-do are concerned, whether they be about heroes or villains. One such legend is that of the villainous rogue, and one-time frequent visitor to my rustic boyhood haunts: Dick Turpin.

The legend of the infamous Dick Turpin has been told many times and in many different ways. Like many, I have enjoyed the various screen incarnations of the character, from the earliest days of cinema to popular television. The many and varied renderings along the way have included a version by both the Disney and the Hammer studios, Richard Carpenter’s made-for-television interpretation of the 1970s starring Richard O'Sullivan, and the unforgettable comic portrayal of Turpin by the inimitable Sid James in ‘Carry on Dick’. 

The true story of Dick Turpin however, is far from comedic, and an accurate portrayal of his life, is to this day conspicuous by its absence from our cinema and television screens. The reason for this is almost certainly because it has, to date, better-suited writers and filmmakers to portray Turpin as a hero figure rather than a villain — in many ways like a sort of alternative Robin Hood — in order to endear the character to their audience.

There is of course much greater evidence in existence about the life of Dick Turpin than there has ever been about Robin Hood. Consequently, whereas Robin Hood is likely to remain an enigma — and indeed there can be no certainty in fact as to whether there ever was a ‘Robin of Loxley’ who stole from the rich to give to the poor; conversely, there can be absolutely no doubt that there was indeed a Dick Turpin who stole from whoever he could to give to no-one but himself.

Richard Turpin was born in the village of Hempsted, near Saffron Walden, Essex, Records confirm that he was baptised on 21st September 1705. His father was John Turpin, the innkeeper of the Bluebell Inn at Hempsted (latterly The Rose and Crown).

Dick served an apprenticeship to be a butcher in Whitechapel, and subsequently set up a business of his own. Reports of its location vary; some state Buckhurst Hill whilst others state Waltham Abbey. Around this time he was married; again, accounts vary. It is widely stated — though likely to be incorrect — that he was married at East Ham to an innkeeper’s daughter named Hester Palmer; other accounts name his wife as Elizabeth Millington.

It was as a butcher that he first took to a life of crime, through his illegal acquisition of meat, by stealing cattle. Unfortunately, the offence of stealing some oxen from Plaistow was traced to his door and he was forced to flee to Sewardstone, Essex.

It was there that along with smuggling, Turpin took up the dangerous occupation of robbing fellow smugglers too, but fearing their violent retributions he soon fled back to Epping Forest, where he took up stealing deer.

At 29 years of age, Dick Turpin was now looking for more profitable ventures, and together with his gang, his pursuits soon extended to invading isolated farmhouses, and terrorising their often female occupants, into giving up their valuables.

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