Fact or fake news? Dick Turpin: Carry On film ‘Jack the lad’ or violent thug?
- Credit: Archant
Has history recast the Essex bandit as ‘the epitome of the gentlemanly robber’?
Blame the media and popular culture – author Stephen Basdeo appears to suggest – for glamorising the vile robbers and bandits who have struck terror into the hearts of decent folk down the years and left a trail of damaged and disposed victims in their wake. And it’s hard to argue against him.
For it’s difficult even now to fillet fact from fantasy. Take Robin Hood – especially after he had the Disney treatment.
Criminal historian Stephen points out that oral tales of Robin Hood were doing the rounds from at least the 14th Century, “although in none of the early ballads does Robin Hood actually steal from the rich to give to the poor”.
At the end of a poem “it is said that Robin Hood ‘dyde pore men moch god’. It would be up to sixteenth-century chroniclers to expand upon this theme and cast him as the ‘Prince of Thieves’ who redistributes his wealth to the destitute”.
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The 1500s and 1600s brought “rogue literature… and criminals ultimately become more menacing”. In the 1700s and into the early 19th Century written works “sensationalised” the lives of offenders “for an enthusiastic audience hungry to gain a glimpse into the lives of the criminal ‘other’.”
Stephen adds: “Even today, our understanding of notorious criminals and their modus operandi is to a large extent shaped by popular culture; their life stories are told in newspapers, magazines, novels, television dramas, and in movies.”
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For many of the historical outlaws featured in his new book, “much of what we know of their lives comes not from trial reports but from ballads and pamphlets printed after their deaths”.
So we come to Dick Turpin. Stephen’s book says he was born in 1705 in East Ham, then in Essex. Other accounts cite the village of Hempstead – half a dozen or so miles from Haverhill and only a little more from Saffron Walden. It doesn’t matter; we’re claiming him as local (if infamous).
The author details the story: from butcher’s apprentice in Whitechapel, London, to stealing his neighbour’s animals and selling the meat as his own. Rumbled and flees. Washes up with a notorious gang of deer thieves working the Essex forests.
Under Turpin’s influence they graduate to robbing country houses… with violence. Awful violence. Such as making an elderly lady sit on her fire so she tells them where her money is.
Then there is another raid where one of the gang rapes a maid hiding in the darkness of the buttery – an awful crime that, Stephen writes, prompts the king to advertise a 50-guinea reward, and offer a pledge of immunity, for any thug who “shops” his fellow gang members.
Turpin later narrowly escapes arrest and becomes a highwayman, joining forces by chance with fellow bandit Tom King and carrying out ambushes in the Epping Forest area.
When things get too hot, Turpin heads for Yorkshire and becomes a horse-trader. (Stephen says the earliest biographies do not mention the claim he rode from London to York in just one day on Black Bess, so it’s probably myth.)
Is Turpin a reformed character? Of course not. Eventually, his luck runs out. He’s imprisoned in the city’s castle and, on a spring Saturday in 1739, at last pays the ultimate price for his sins.
Stephen explains that changes over the following 100 years (including much better policing, and urbanisation that left would-be bandits with fewer places to hide) heralded the end of highway robbery. The result, he suggests, not only made the figure of the highwayman less frightening but an object of nostalgia.
“The fact they were no longer feared meant that Victorian authors could fictionalise their lives and transform certain highwaymen into good-looking, gentlemanly figures, capable of heroic feats.”
Hence, William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834 story Rookwood: A Romance features a character called Jack Palmer – “a pseudonym for Turpin, who is truly heroic, handsome, polite and chivalrous”.
Then, in the 20th Century, a range of magazines under the Dick Turpin Library banner was brought out for children.
“Very few novels were published during the twentieth century, but Turpin does appear in some films and television shows,” says Stephen. “Sid James portrayed Turpin, or ‘Big Dick’, in Carry on Dick (1974). In typical ‘carry on’ style, Dick is a womaniser whose robberies are punctuated by several sexual escapades. Between 1979 and 1982, a television show entitled Dick Turpin was broadcast, starring Richard O’Sullivan in the title role.
“Thus, while the historical Turpin was in reality an ugly thug, later authors and film-makers have transformed him into the epitome of the gentlemanly highwayman.”
Others were given the same historical airbrushing. But the Essex criminal is the one we remember most. “Ainsworth’s reinvention of Turpin was so influential that nowadays, when anyone thinks of eighteenth century highwaymen, they usually think of Turpin.”
How we can talk like thieves of yore
The Lives & Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues and Murderers is published by Pen & Sword Books at £12.99
Stephen Basdeo’s volume tells the stories of a number of notorious figures guilty of crimes such as highway robbery, murder and forgery.
It starts with Roman highwayman Bulla Felix and includes Robin Hood. There’s also Sawney Beane, who inspired the 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes, and 18th Century wrong un Jack Sheppard, who escaped from jail several times.
There’s also a dictionary of thieves’ language, so we can navigate our way around the 17th and 18th Century underworld – should we so desire.