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Dick Turpin (Hardback)

Fact and Fiction

P&S History > British History P&S History > By Century > 18th Century P&S History > Social History P&S History > True Crime World History > UK & Ireland > England

By Dr Jonathan Oates
Imprint: Pen & Sword True Crime
Series: Fact and Fiction
Pages: 272
Illustrations: 20 mono
ISBN: 9781399070614
Published: 6th March 2023


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Why does the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin have such an extraordinary reputation today? How come his criminal career has inspired a profusion of often misleading literature and film? This eighteenth-century villain is often portrayed as a hero – dashing, sinister, romantic, daring, a Robin Hood of his times. The reality, as Jonathan Oates reveals in this perceptive, carefully researched study, was radically different. He was a robber, torturer and killer, a gangster whose posthumous reputation has eclipsed the truth about his life.

In the early 1700s Turpin progressed from butcher’s apprentice and poacher to become a member of the Gregory gang which terrorized householders around London by robbery and violence. Then came his two-year career as a highwayman robbing travellers, his partnership with Matthew King whom he may have killed in Whitechapel, his murder Thomas Morris in Epping Forest, and his eventual capture and execution.

Jonathan Oates recounts the episodes in Turpin’s short, brutal life in dramatic detail, basing his narrative on contemporary sources – trial records and newspapers in particular – and he traces the development of the Turpin legend over 250 years through novels, ballads, plays, television and film.

The Dick Turpin who emerges from this rigorous and scholarly biography is in many ways a more interesting man than the legend suggests.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I would thoroughly recommend this book to everyone interested in English history and it’s heroes. Many tales and adventures of this man are explored in great detail and depth .

NetGalley, Lional Jones

I have had a fascination with John Palmer aka Dick Turpin for a while, so I did find this book interesting. A recommended read.

NetGalley, Wendy M Rhodes

Article: 'Revealed: 24 facts about York's rogue highwayman Dick Turpin'

The Press (Yorkshire)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“...How well do we know…historical figures, who are often referred to in the media and popular culture, though about whom experts often differ, and how far does that little knowledge shape our sense of the past and inspire our present and future?”

This question concludes Dr. Jonathan Oates’ book, Dick Turpin: Fact and Fiction. Published March 30th, 2023 by Pen & Sword, this is the latest in a long line of books written about Dick Turpin since his death in 1739. Few figures have captured the British imagination quite like Dick Turpin. Arguably eclipsed only by Jack the Ripper and Henry VIII in terms of British celebrity, he is perhaps more aptly compared to the mostly fictional Robin Hood. The Robin Hood comparison is even more apt considering just how much pop culture has perverted the truth of this historical figure.

Oates does a wonderful job washing away the morass of fiction surrounding Dick Turpin. The first half of the book is dedicated solely to providing the most accurate biography possible for a figure far removed from the present. He breathes life into the other members of the Gregory Gang as well and establishes Turpin as a criminal of his time. Turpin, unlike the fictional depictions of him, did not steal from the rich to give to the poor. Nor was he a young farmer ousted from his home and forced into a life of crime. He was an apprentice butcher, likely in a town near where he grew up in Essex, who turned to crime after already having helped the deer-stealers active in the nearby Epping Forest. Nothing more, nothing less.

Oates is dutiful in his account, neither exaggerating as others have – we don’t know that Turpin truly tortured Mrs. Shelley or if he was actually responsible for King’s death – nor being overly sympathetic to the man. Ultimately, there is much about him that is entirely unknowable. He was not a particularly well-liked man during his lifetime, yet he commanded a good deal of media attention. Why was that? What was it about the criminal that turned him from a ruthless criminal to the beloved Highwayman the media portrays today?

Some of the appeal of Turpin’s appeal traces back to William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood and the attribution of the horse ride from London to York on Black Bess. Oates traces the legend of the ride back to a previous legend, that of Swift Nicks. Oates takes care to chart not only the film and television career of Turpin through the ages, but also the literary one. Stark throughout all of these is a reluctance to truly face the facts. Never is he depicted with a pockmarked face, and always he is the master horseman, on his beloved Bess.

Perhaps Turpin captivates us because the threat of the Highwayman belongs to the distant past. We can enjoy the aesthetic of his tricorn hat and red coat, the dashing man riding his beloved black horse and brandishing his dual pistols and sword on a more forgotten landscape. We can turn his cause into that of robbing the rich for the commoners rather than robbing anyone at all for his own good. Oates provides an excellent and thorough analysis of the intriguing life of Turpin and the media surrounding him.

NetGalley, Hilary Wilson

Article: How a novelist managed to stand and deliver outlaw from obscurity

The Sunday Post (Dundee)

This was interesting, I live near York so Dick Turpin was a huge part of my childhood. I can remember at the local riding school when riding a black horse, pretending I was Dick Turpin.

It's interesting how much of myth and legend about him has distorted the real story. And, this book does a great job of separating the two.

I will definitely buy this when it's released as a birthday gift for a childhood friend.

NetGalley, Jay F

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Long depicted as a dashing, handsome, and romantic figure, the historical Turpin was the diametric opposite: a murderer, thief, housebreaker, and thug who was eventually captured, tried, and executed in 1738-39. Dr. Oates does a good job of rendering Turpin more realistically (and MUCH less flatteringly) by liberal use of extant historical records, judicial transcripts, and well vetted source material.

The text is meticulously annotated and written in accessible and easy to understand language. The chapter notes and bibliography will provide hours of further reading for students of true-crime history. The text is enhanced with an appendix which contains historical and modern photos of the environs and some of the sites where Turpin lived and died.

Five stars. Well written and absorbing. Recommended for readers of true crime history.

NetGalley, Annie Buchanan

I enjoyed this history quite a bit. A good retelling of the fact and myth. I will definitely be ordering this for my library.

NetGalley, Barry McKnight

About Dr Jonathan Oates

Dr Jonathan Oates is the Ealing Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian, and he has written and lectured on the Jacobite rebellions and on aspects of the history of London, including its criminal past. His best-selling books on criminal history are John Christie of Rillington Place, John George Haigh, the Acid-Bath Murderer and London Serial Killers. He is also well known as an expert on family history and has written several introductory books on the subject including Tracing Your London Ancestors and Tracing Your Ancestors From 1066 to 1837.

Dick Turpin executed in England for horse stealing

7th April 1739

Dick Turpin executed in England for horse stealing

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